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Venice leeks and what's for dinner tonight?

"Perhaps no one ever gets to know Venice as much as they remember her, recall her from an episode in some other dream." Marlena de Blasi

This wasn't really going to be about Venice, and it won't be - it's a first recipe post centred on leeks, although silver beet has also crept in. But Venice is the connecting glue as it were, so I trawled my photos of my one trip to Venice and came up with this one, which is so dreamlike. So many angels with golden wings. Indeed a lot of gold. And not a canal in sight. But it is St. Mark's. Super Venice if you will.

Venice sort of changed my life - just a little. It is the reason that I can now manage a halting conversation in Italian. Moreover whenever one learns another language I think one changes a little - takes on a tiny bit of the personality of the people who speak that language every day. And that trip and the language led to two, or is it three more visits to that country which we grew to love so much more than we expected.

But let me return to the book that inspired this post - A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi. I think it was actually given to me by somebody, because it's not really the kind of book I would choose myself - or maybe it was a book group book. It is not, in fact, a cookbook, but one of those memoirs in which an American lady goes to Venice, falls in love - with the man who is now her husband, and of course with the city. It's a romance in many more ways than one, but reasonably well written. The kind of book one could really enjoy when on holiday somewhere in the sun, or else in the middle of winter at home, on a cold, wet and miserable day. I think I'll put it in the street library so that somebody else can enjoy the dream.

Food comes in because the lady has been a chef, and a food writer and food therefore plays a big role in the book, so much so that there are recipes in the back of the book. Which is where the leeks come in because the first recipe is porri gratinati - a gratin of leeks, and coincidentally I have a leek that needs to be used. Hence dinner.

When I found this photograph of the lady - well there are several similar ones, it confirmed my faint feeling of - what exactly? Somebody so out of my world I suppose - completely over the top really. Now in her 70s but sort of glamorous. Well I'm sure she thinks of herself that way. Suffice to say that her Italian husband and she now lead food tours in Tuscany and Umbria - I think they live in Tuscany. Also somewhat predictably connected to a certain type of food tourism, foodyism if you like. And she has written several more books - more memoirs, food books and a novel too. Maybe I'm just jealous.

Before I turn to the food a couple more words about Venice. Lots of people have bucket lists. Things to do and places to see before they die. I don't really. The only place that could be said to be a bucket list kind of thing was Venice, and so I persuaded David to go there back in 2007. Which led to me beginning to learn Italian. I wanted to at least know a few of the basics because it seems to me that if you know a bit of the language of where you are going then you get so much more out of the experience, and the natives are definitely friendlier. Our Italian adventure was so much more than we expected that I continued to learn - and still do, and so each trip to Italy has been just that much more enjoyable because of it.

We planned to rent a house in the Veneto, and then, having saved money this way, we would then go to Venice and stay there overnight, during our week. Not long I know but it was all that we could spare. Of course we were in the company of friends as well - two from long ago university - and the rest from Melbourne. Two of them did not come to Venice with us as they were planning a longer stay the next week.

I was nervous because of the fear of disappointment not just for me, but also because David was really only going because of me. But I needn't have worried of course:

"If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you've imagined. Venice is - Venice is better." Fran Lebowitz

So right - move away from the main sites and there is nobody around - or very few - and it is still beautiful.

Back to my first recipe - Porri gratinati. In her introduction to the dish the author says:

"Truth is, the dish is so simple, I'm hard put to write a recipe for it."

Which is pretty much true. Fundamentally you just mix your cut leeks with mascarpone, salt and pepper, nutmeg and grappa or vodka, top with Parmesan and butter and bake. I found her recipe on a foodie website - her book was a bestseller after all - and lots of other people have tried it too. So I tried to find out more, and found that it is indeed a Venetian dish and that there are lots of variations out there - mostly to do with how you cut up your leeks - see a few variations below - plus one one from Jamie Oliver too (the last one) which he calls Cheesy leeks à la Oliver - more French than Italian in style, but much the same.

Leeks do indeed seem to be a Venetian thing because I also found a couple more dishes on Trip Advisor which seemed to imply the they like to serve them with fish - Cod with leeks from the Osteria Bancogiro and Monkfish ginger, lemon and fried leeks from Osteria Olive Nera.

Enough of Venice. What about dinner in Eltham tonight? I can dream of Venice, but let's face it, I shall never see it again. Dinner is a daily decision. My other problem with respect to dinner is silver beet. My Friday lunch green thumbs friend gave me an enormous bunch of silver beet. So I started to wonder what I could do with it. In fact she recommended an Ottolenghi recipe - Quick chickpeas with swiss chard - which is a kind of warm salad, and looks really tempting. Maybe as a side for my family barbecue next weekend, but it doesn't have the leeks and besides we had a gorgeous vegetarian Ottolenghi dish for dinner last night - his Curried cauliflower cheese filo pie - that I'm pretty sure I have written about before.

A must eat dish if ever there was one.

But no. So I began looking for silverbeet and leeks ideas. Well I had thought of a quiche. You can, after all put almost anything in a quiche, and I could add some meat to make it non-vegetarian maybe. But then I would be left with leftovers, and I already have two lots of leftovers that will need to be just reheated rather than repurposed, and I don't really want to eat leftovers all week.

So I began a Google trawl. One of the first things I found, which was not really what I wanted was this - Nigel Slater's Leek, spinach and skin-on mash. It definitely won't do because it's just a tarted up mashed potatoes really, so not a whole dinner, and besides David hates mashed potatoes. However at the bottom of his recipe he says:

"This recipe is a base to which you can add other good things: crispy fried nuggets of pancetta or roughly torn rashers of grilled bacon; pieces of smoked mackerel or hot-smoked salmon."

Well I moved on and didn't really pay much attention, because of those mashed potatoes, but obviously the smoked fish bit stuck in my head - I have half a smoked trout leftover from our Friday lunch which I had sort of forgotten about. Nevertheless I cruised on - tarts and pies, galore - an idea already discarded. A 'slice' from Stephanie Alexander, which is really a frittata - more leftovers. Creamy chicken sautés - a definite possibility, which reminded me that I had pondered on sausages as a matching ingredient - but how? Soup with cannellini beans as well - yes that was a definite possibility and would enable me to tick the legumes target for the week. But - more leftovers. I never seem to be able to cook just enough soup for two, and there's no more room in the freezer. Pasta - one of those leftovers waiting to be eaten is pasta. So no - tempting though that is. Risotto - now there's the answer I think. Well truth to tell I did not find a risotto that used all of those things - just two of them at a time. So maybe I'm going to do something truly original. But yes that's the plan. No legumes, but I can tick the fish box. And there won't be leftovers.

And I see that yet again I have not even thought about the stir fry option. Stir fries are just not my thing. And curries are not really a leek thing.

In the meantime I have to collect the last of my neighbour's Seville oranges - more marmalade making. Tomorrow perhaps.


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