“The artist must yield himself to his own inspiration… I should compose with utter confidence a subject that set my musical blood going, even though it were condemned by all other artists as anti-musical.”
– Giuseppe Verdi
There is little question that the operas of Giuseppe Verdi have had a lasting influence on the cultural world, and among his most famous works, Rigoletto, first performed in Venice 160 years ago this past weekend. As with many operas, it is a story of love, betrayal, loss… all the good stuff of which
country music songs operas are made of. Based on Victor Hugo’s work The King’s Fool it was one of his most controversial, as it took to task the monarchy and politics in a way that seemed to many to clearly make reference to real life, then current day persons in power. With various rewrites it was eventually performed without being banned, one has to wonder how different the story he originally intended to tell was. Verdi was born in what today is Emilia-Romagna, and so that cuisine became the inspiration for this weekend’s dinners – what’s not to like with prosciutto, mortadella and parmigiano?
About as far as I got in my Italian inspirations with the first course was prosciutto and peas. From there I ended up taking inspiration from dishes of two favorite Australian chefs, George Calombaris and Justin North – at the front of the plate, quickly sauteed calamaretti in olive oil, butter, salt and pepper. Beneath them, George’s onion confit from his calamaretti bakhlava, and on the side, Justin’s pea mousseline, a gelee made from marsala rather than his oloroso sherry, and crumbled over the top, a prosciutto and panko crumb mixture. I loved this combination, and given how clean most of the plates came back, so did most of the guests (and those who didn’t finish their plates ate everything but the calamaretti – some people just aren’t squidly-lovers).
Here, a reinterpretation of a zuppa dei monaci, basically monk’s soup, which in Italy pretty much means anything they want to throw in the pot and call that. Vaguely inspired by Nick Stellino’s version as I was searching for various ideas for a mortadella based soup. The broth, first sauteed finely chopped onions, garlic and dried pepperoncino in olive oil until the former were soft, then added in finely diced mortadella and salami and cooked until they rendered up their fat. To that, a good amount of chopped parsely, stems and all, and a can of peeled and diced plum tomatoes. Let that cook for a little while then added brown vegetable stock, brought it to a simmer and let it go for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, I’d boiled up some potatoes and made a dough – 500gm potatoes (pre-boiled weight), 200gm whole wheat flour, 150gm potato starch, teaspoon of salt and one extra large egg – formed that into balls about an inch in diameter and cooked them in boiling salted water. When they floated, I added them to the simmering soup. Delicious!
I’ve written about risotto alla salernitana before, supposedly Verdi’s favorite, or even his own recipe, depending on which source you look at. As I’ve done before, prepared the risotto in advance, mixed it with beaten egg and then flattened it in a sheet pan and chilled. Then cut out in rounds and fried up in olive oil and butter. Served up with black pepper mussels, still one of the simplest and most tasty preparations for these molluscs I’ve found. Some garlic chives to put a little color and more punch into the dish.
There is a French dish called Supreme Volaille de Verdi, for which I’ve never found a recipe and have no idea if it at all relates to Giuseppe. But it got me thinking about chicken breasts, and I decided to butterfly them out and roll them around a duxelles of baby portobellos, pepperoncino, garlic chips and shallots, and grilled red bell peppers. Then sauteed them and finished them in the oven. Served up with little savory tarte tatins of zucchini – originally I was going to make a traditional Emilia-Romagnan zucchini torte, which is basically sauteed zucchini packed into a gratin dish and covered with a parmesan bechamel – but the dinner was already looking pretty heavy to this point, so went a bit lighter. The zucchini are sauteed in butter, honey, anchovies, black pepper and red pepper flakes until lightly golden. Then into the baking dishes, topped with a round of puff pastry and baked, then flipped out onto the plate. Yum!
Supposedly Verdi’s favorite dessert to serve when entertaining was a mixed chocolate and vanilla cake topped with stewed cherries. The last are not currently in season, so went out the window in exchange for a slow cooked berry marmalade – a mix of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and currants, sugar, and a little chopped lemon and tangerine, peel and all. The cake I went for a ricotta cheesecake flavored with vanilla, atop a chocolate cookie type base and beneath a dark chocolate ganache. Nobody seemed to mind that it wasn’t a cake… you know?