Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Renaissance Dinner, and a Saint’s Day

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love. – Mother Teresa 

This Renaissance gem was amazingly delicious. I have to do this kind
of culinary archeology more often.

February 8 was going to be a doubly special day. We were going to have a friend over but a bad chest cold and brewing nor'easter snowstorm put an end to that. 

It was also the feast day of the patron saint of orphans and abandoned children – Saint Jerome Emiliani. No snowstorm could put that off for later.

St. Jerome Emiliana.
Photo: Wiki CC
Now our friend is neither an orphan nor an abandoned child, but she is special to us and I'm sorry that we couldn’t get together. She would also be special to St. Jerome, a pious and loving man, by contemporary accounts. 

I’m not Catholic. The only reason I know yesterday was St. Jerome's feast day is because I looked it up – for a lark. I thought I could use something about whatever saint day it was to trigger a recipe. You know, barbecued this, quartered or skinned that... some did die in "interesting" ways...

His story is interesting and he didn't die at the hand of heathens. I had to settle for a recipe from the time he lived, not how he died.

This sauce is simple enough for a monastery.
Jerome was born in Venice in 1481. He joined the army as a young man full of the swagger and bravado of a Venetian of the time. Venice was a world powre during the 1400s, and known as “the Queen of the Seas.” It was a proud nation. (This was the time of warring Italian city-states.)

Pope Julius II formed the League of Cambrai to try to humble Venice, but it only resulted in a few minor losses. In fact one particular naval victory increased its standing. It was during one particular altercation during these wars that Jerome was captured and locked up.

Wine, stock, lemon and bread combine into something...
A dungeon can be a lonely place, and over time Jerome reasoned it was his warlike and impious way that put him there. He began to pray to Mary. With Jerome it wasn’t just the hollow prayers of someone in a bad spot. He meant them.

His prayers to Mary for intercession were apparently answered and he was able to escape. After escaping, he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of her church at Our Lady of Treviso (tears) and deposited his chains on the altar of the church.

After a while he returned to Venice to care for the education of his nephews because of family duty. He begun to realize that small children needed one thing to thrive – love. During this time he also studied theology and did small works of charity.

1528 was a terrible year to be in Venice. Famine and plague decimated the city. Jerome did his fair share to help, especially with regard to children who were orphaned after their parents died. He rented and ran a shelter house for them. Over the subsequent years he travelled around the countryside helping towns set up orphanages.

Lemon slices are sautéed and the chicken is baked on top.
Use enough to cover the bottom of your pan.
In 1532 Jerome founded a religious society in Somasca. The principal work of the community was, once again, the care of orphans and the sick.

Working with the sick has its dangers. Jerome contracted a disease and died at Somasca in 1537. He was canonized in 1767, as the patron saint of orphans. 

In honour of St. Jerome and his unquestionable love for others, here’s a very old Venetian recipe. It’s old enough that if he was sitting at your table it might be familiar to him.

I can’t remember exactly where I found this recipe, but I do know it was just the ingredients and the directions "boil together."  I had to figure out how to best effect. The star of this meal is the sauce. It comes from a time before tomatoes were ubiquitous in Italian cuisine.

This may have simple ingredients but is not a plain dish by any stretch. How a few common ingredients can make something delicious never ceases to amaze me.

Slap some Palestrina on the Victrola and try this recipe from 500 years ago. You’ll be stunned how wonderful it is. It's easy too!

Chicken with Salsa alla cacciatora
Prep: 2 min  |  Cook: 10 min  |  Serves 4
4 boneless chicken breasts, or 8 thighs
3 lemons
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion
1 cup stale country bread, grated
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp nutmeg
salt& pepper to taste
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 lb spaghetti, cooked

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a dry ovenproof pan, fry the chicken until browned on both sides. Do not cook all the way through. Season with salt and pepper as it cooks. Remove to a plate.

Drain off all but about 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat. Slice two of the lemons and sauté the slices briefly in the fat. Arrange the chicken on top and bake in the oven for 30 minutes,

While the chicken cooks, make the pasta and sauce.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and cook on medium heat until translucent.

Then add the bread crumbs, wine, juice of the second lemon and stock. Bring to a simmer and then add the nutmeg, some salt and pepper. Let the sauce simmer until thickened. Then stir in the parsley.

Drain the cooked pasta and add 3/4 of the sauce to the pot. Toss to coat well.

To serve, place some spaghetti on a plate. Divide the chicken – one breast or two thighs per person – and the lemon slices.

Serve the remaining sauce at the table.


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