It may come as a surprise to some, but Italy has a Jewish tradition going back not just centuries, but millennia. A Jewish community existed in Rome dating from during the Roman Republic, even before the Empire, in the first centuries BCE. That presence grew during the late Middle Ages, when Italy presented a relatively tolerant environment (with emphasis on the ‘relatively’) as compared with other European countries. A great number of Jews settled in Italy after the mass exiles from Spanish in the wake of the Reconquista in the late 15th Century. The complicated ups and down of Jewish life in Italy over the years are ably outlined in this article, but, to make a long story short, by the 20th Century the principal Jewish communities in Italy were to be found in Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Then came the Holocaust, which resulted in the extermination of about 15% of Italy’s Jewish population and the end of many Jewish communities like the one that had been found in the village of Pitigliano, known as “the Little Jerusalem”. About 45,000 Jews live in Italy today.
The Jews of Italy developed their own, very distinct but yet very Italian cuisine. The best book I know on the subject is The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin. Today I would like to present two lovely recipes from that book, for dishes traditionally served at Hannukah: riso coll’uvetta, rice with raisins, an unusual but delicious risotto dish from Venice which I will describe in this post, and pollo fritto per Chanukà, fried chicken for Hannukah which will be featured in the next one.
- 400g (14 oz) rice for risotto (see Notes)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 200g (7 oz) raisins, soaked in water until soft
- Olive oil
- Meat broth, preferably homemade
Begin with a soffritto of garlic and parsley sautéed in abundant olive oil.
As soon as the garlic begins to brown, add your rice and toast that until it turns an opaque white, then add a handful per serving of raisins which you will have softened in warm water for a few minutes, mixing well.
Then adding broth, a ladleful at a time, in the usual manner for making risotto, until the rice is tender but still al dente.
There is no mantecatura for this dish, but I mixed in a bit more chopped parsley for color at the end, and seasoned with salt and pepper as needed, to taste. That’s all there is too it. Machlin says Rice with Raisins can be served warm or at room temperature.
For recommendations for the best rice for making risotto, see Risotto: The Basic Recipe.
The combination of sweet and savory in this risotto is quite unusual in modern Italian cookery—a sign, perhaps, of the recipe’s ancient origin—but I really liked it. The addition of raisins in Italian cooking, however, is not all that uncommon, particularly in Venetian and Sicilian cuisines, usually being a sign of Moorish or Middle Eastern influence.
There are a few variations to the dish. Some recipes will have you add a bit of white wine as for a typical risotto, some recipes call for water rather than broth, some call for the addition of some apple juice at the end (something it seems to me that would unbalance the flavors too far in favor of the sweet side). Not all recipes call for softening the raisins (although I recommend it heartily) and some recipes call for adding the raisins at the very end of the cooking time. If you want to make this a dairy dish, then you can omit the broth and use butter instead of oil. In the dairy version, you can also add parmesan at the end as with a regular risotto.
Some readers may know that our word ‘ghetto’ comes from Venice—the gh and double t give the word away as Italian—and more specifically it refers to that part of the city where Jews were obliged to live during the Middle Ages all the way up to the end of the Venetian Republic. It was Napoleon who, in 1797, decreed the end of Jewish segregation. Nevertheless, the Venetian ghetto is still the center of Jewish life in Venice, home to about 1000 Jews and several synagogues, a yeshiva and other centers of Jewish life including a kosher restaurant where, however, I was disappointed to find, Rice with Raisins is not on the menu…