Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Minestra di zucca a Veneto

     Venice Italy has a very long history of fine cuisine.  Venice Italy was once a major port of trade and commerce a few hundred years ago.  Most food historians agree that modern european fine cuisine has its origins in Venetian cuisine.  Many food historians say that modern fine French cooking also has roots in Venetian fine cuisine.
     Banquets and formal dinners were a big events in Venice about 300 to 400 years ago.  Formal banquets for royal guests of nobility often went on for more than a week's time.  Imagine the finest chefs of Venice, cooking one entree after another for days on end and never serving the same recipe twice!  That was how elaborate banquets were during the grand classic age of Venetian cuisine.
     Occasionally, an archaeologist on a dig unearths a historic book or document of culinary value.  This happened once in the 1980's.  The document turned out to be one of the first minestra recipes ever written.  The minestra recipe dated back to nearly the year 900 A.D.  Later, a few historians said the minestra recipe could have been handed down for many years before it was hand written.  The recipe was written by a Catholic monk in the Venice Italy region.
     About 30 years ago, a very trendy top California chef named Jeremiah Tower was doing historic recipe research.  Jeremiah Tower is a great chef and food historian.  He published the literal translation of the 1000 year old Italian minestra di zucca recipe.  I saw this recipe in a cooking magazine that published about 30 years ago.  I immediately noticed that this recipe was distinctly Venetian in style and the ingredients were correct for that period of time.  This minestra is like a very early minestrone soup.  The main difference was that the recipe specified that the vegetables were to be sliced in a thin wide julienne style.
     The word zucca was a stumbling block though.  Zucca meant squash of any kind about 1000 years ago and the word zucca most often referred to squash that is normally baked, like acorn squash.  Now in modern times, zucca usually refers to almost most any squash other than zucchini.  Marrow squash from Persia was another possibility.  There was a description of the squash as being green.  Most gourd type squashes like pumpkin, acorn or butternut squash can not be julienne sliced.  There is a Spanish green round squash that is often baked, but many believe that squash was brought by the Moors.  The squash choice was narrowed down to zucchini or marrow squash.
     The broth is part chicken broth and part vegetable broth.  The seed core center of the zucchini is chopped and browned in the soup pot with butter and olive oil before the broth is added.  This technique is also used for some French Nicoise sauces.  The browned core of the zucchini adds a nice flavor to the broth and the broth becomes a darker color.  Lemon is one of the key flavors of old Venetian cuisine.  Lemon flavors the broth in this minestra.
     For this minestra recipe to be historically correct, no vegetables from the nightshade family of plants can be used to make this soup.  Eggplant, tomatoes and peppers are in the nightshade family of vegetables.  Belladonna is the most famous plant member of the nightshade family.  A thousand years ago, those who took part in eating any "fruits" of the nightshade family of plants were subject to being accused of witchcraft.  After a speedy trial, anyone accused of witchcraft was tortured, beheaded or burned at the stake.  It was not until the years of the age of Columbus that the witchcraft designation was removed from the nightshade family of vegetables.
     Needless to say, do not add any nightshade family vegetables if you want this recipe to be correct!  Someday, this information may come in handy, when time travel technology becomes a standard!
     Minestra di zucca Recipe:
     This recipe makes 1 large serving!
     Only half of a medium size zucchini is needed per serving.  Recipe measurements were descriptive during the age that this recipe was written.  The fortified broth is not strained.  This is the modern translation of the original 1000 year old recipe!
     Split 1 medium size zucchini in half lengthwise and save i/2 of the zucchini for another recipe.
     Cut the zucchini half lengthwise into quarters.
     Cut the seed center core off of the two long quarter slices.
     Finely chop the zucchini core.
     Cut the seedless zucchini flesh into long thin slices and set them aside.
     Heat a sauce pot over medium low heat.
     Add 1 pat of unsalted butter.
     Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil.
     Add the chopped zucchini core.
     Saute the squash core, till it caramelizes to a light brown color.
     Add 2 minced garlic cloves.
     Saute till the garlic becomes aromatic.
     Add 1 1/2 cups of light chicken broth.
     Add 1 1/2 cups of vegetable broth.
     Raise the temperature to medium high heat.
     Bring the broth to a boil.
     Reduce the temperature to medium low/low heat.
     Note:  For the next step, the vegetables should be about 3" to 3 1/2" in length and they should be cut into thin strips.
     Add a little bit each of sliced thin strips of
     - onion
     - carrot
     - celery.
     Add sea salt and coarse ground black pepper.
     Add 1 small bay leaf.
     Add 2 pinches of oregano.
     Simmer the soup till the hard vegetables become cooked tender.  Do not stir the soup or the vegetables may break apart!
     After the vegetables become tender, add the reserved half of a zucchini that is cored and thin julienne sliced.
     Add 1 thin sliced small portabella field mushroom.
     Add 6 whole Italian parsley leaves.
     Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice.
     Simmer the soup till the zucchini becomes cooked tender.
     Remove the bay leaf.
     Ladle the soup into a shallow soup bowl.
     Float 1 thin slice of lemon on top of the soup.
     Place a large sprig of Italian flat parsley next to the lemon slice.
     Viola!  A minestra recipe that is nearly 1000 years old!  The lemon in the broth gives this soup an unforgettable Venetian flavor.  Only the zucchini is the featured ingredient.  Yet this soup looks quite well rounded because all of the vegetables are julienne sliced.  I have served this minestra di zucca recipe in some very fine French restaurants and it was always well received by customers.  Chefs that I worked with liked this recipe too.
     I actually did cook lunch one time for Jeremiah Tower at a very nice Florida French Provencal restaurant.  I did not make this minestra soup that day, but I did make a very nice raspberry thyme glazed quail with raspberry beurre blanc recipe, be request of the sous chef.  That raspberry quail recipe was also a Jeremiah Tower published recipe.  The sous chef insisted that I cook Jeremiah's raspberry quail recipe for Jeremiah Tower.
     I really thought that the sous chef's request was rather tacky.  The sous chef said that she saw Jeremiah's name on the reservation list and she wanted to play a joke on him.  I was familiar with the recipe and I cooked the raspberry thyme quail by memory for Jeremiah Tower's lunch.
     Later I saw the humor, after the chef went out to the dining room to chat with the customer.  As it turned out, Jeremiah Tower completely forgot that he wrote the raspberry thyme quail recipe!  He did pay compliments for how the quail entree was cooked that day.  That was kind of a funny moment for us chefs at that fine French restaurant.  Ciao Baby!  ...  Shawna                    

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