My husband often regales me with tales of his youth, especially college; suffice it to say that his experiences were more adventuresome than mine. His first two years at university, for instance, were spent in Switzerland, and many weekends he and his international band of classmates descended their particular alpine slope and hopped the next train to Venice, stopping in Geneva and Milan before disembarking outside that romantic city of canals and hidden gardens and walking from the Santa Lucia train station across the Ponte degli Scalzi and into La Serenissima. As photographs attest, Venice was where my spouse ruined his first white linen suit by falling into a canal (I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies, namely to Katharine Hepburn), and where he developed a taste for the city’s famously rich cuisine.
Bearing that in mind we recently acquired a copy of Venetian Cooking: 200 Authentic Recipes Adapted for American Cooks (New York: Macmillan, 1973), which critic Mimi Sheraton praised in New York magazine as “esoteric” but “interesting” soon after it was published. The authors, H. R. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo, plainly adore Venetian food but they are strangely brutal about its qualities, cautioning readers with such curious caveats as “a plate so heavy it is not suitable for delicate stomachs” (braised eel) and “after eating, however, it is advisable to take a long walk” (Venetian-style goulash). If one only read the introductions to the two hundred recipes one would imagine Venice populated only by brave souls with a lifetime supply of Pept0-Bismol. Warnings aside we were anxious to try some of the recipes so last night decided to concoct Verze Sofegae, or Braised Savoy Cabbage, which Messrs Bruning and Bullo describe as “a filling dish … [perfect] for cool weather when we have more desire to eat.”
First of all let me assure you that the Verze Sofegae I made is more that just cabbage. It is finely sliced cabbage leaves cooked for about an hour with minced bacon and meaty spareribs; this main-course version bears the lengthy name of Verze Sofegae co le Costesine de Porseo. Last night’s preparation was also the first time I handed our nine-year-old daughter a sharp knife and sent up a silent prayer. She insisted on helping so I handed over the onions for chopping and then the cabbage leaves, one by one, carefully slicing them into strips measuring about one-quarter-inch wide.
“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat, Papa,” she said after I advised her, once again, to be careful not to cut her fingers. She was indeed observant and very meticulous, though she stated that she had no plans to make a career as a chef. As for the succulent dish we made together, she pronounced it good — truly it was enormously tasty — though the spareribs weren’t cooked to her liking. She prefers them quite brown, even a bit caramelized, so perhaps we’ll adjust Bruning and Bullo’s recipe to reflect that preference in future.
VERZE SOFEGAE CO LE COSTESINE DE PORSEO
(Braised Savoy Cabbage with Spareribs)
2.5 pounds Savoy cabbage
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces bacon, finely minced or ground
2 pounds spareribs
1/2 medium onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup water (optional)
1. Remove and discard the first few outer cabbage leaves. Continue removing the leaves and place them in a sink full of cold water. [NOTE: I MERELY RINSED THEM IN A COLANDER.] Wash well and shake off as much water as possible and then cut the cabbage into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Cut ACROSS the stem, not parallel to it.
2. Use a very large frying pan or casserole, or if need be a pot. It must have a cover. Place the olive oil, bacon, and spareribs in the cooking vessel and put it over medium heat. When the bacon is sizzling nicely and looks as if it may start to brown, add the onion and a little salt and lots of pepper. When the onion becomes translucent, add the cabbage and mix well. Cover, but uncover and stir after a couple of minutes. If the cabbage does not start to give up some liquids at this point, add about 1/4 cup of water to create a little steam in order to get the cabbage started. For the first hour keep covered except when stirring. You should stir every 10 minutes or so after the cabbage has wilted completely, but more often before that time. If after an hour there seems to be a lot of liquid, cook with the pan partially uncovered. If after 1.5 hours you still have puddles of water, cook completely uncovered until the cabbage turns a pale shade of brown. [NOTE: I TOOK THE POT OFF THE HEAT WHEN THE CABBAGE WAS UTTERLY LIMP AND BEGINNING TO DARKEN.]
3. Serve immediately or place in a casserole or other ovenware and reheat later in a 300-degree Fahrenheit oven. Polenta is popular [as a side] with this dish.