A Venice Kitchen with Zaira Zarotti
Zaira Zarotti's country house residence is situated close to the banks of the River Brenta, a few kilometres from the Italian city of Venice. This is a region, Zaira says, where it is "still possible to lead a simple way of life, farming the land and having a garden" all within easy reach of a bustling metropolis.
Living slowly and creatively is Zaira's aim in life. Her home provides a creative space in which she can take photos, write, craft ceramics and cook. With vegetables harvested from her garden, Zaira likes to prepare both original and traditional Venetian recipes in her small but perfectly organised kitchen.
The kitchen that Zaira and her partner Francesco built from scratch inspires creativity. From the birch wooden countertop to their handmade ceramics to a jumbled collection of spice jars. A beautiful window over the kitchen sink enjoys views of Zaira's pottery studio and the bamboo grove where their Japanese hens wander free.
For Zaira, "born into a non-conventional family of artists who brought me up encouraging me to explore creativity, in whatever field I was interested in", cooking is a creative endeavour. As the intensity of her photographs suggest, being in the kitchen is a kind of meditation. Zaira describes the experience as "solitary and intimate". Looking at her photographs you can almost smell the heady aromas, taste the rich flavours and feel the deep concentration involved in Zaira's cooking style.
Venetian recipes feature heavily in Zaira's repertoire. The local cuisine is diverse; as a port city, ingredients and culinary influences have been imported throughout the centuries. But, Zaira tells us, "The Venetian culinary tradition is as poor as it's rich." Many dishes are of a lowly origin. They were created for seafarers departing from Venice and were designed to last the length of a voyage. Preservation was a priority and you'll find many local specialities marinated in oil or treated with salt to extend their natural life. Necessity later became delicacy as these foods, which include sarde in saor sardines and baicoli biscuits, found a well-loved place within the city's gastronomy.
Perhaps inspired by her city's history of culinary diversity, Zaira loves to discover new flavours and play around with traditional recipes. Describing her cooking style as "free and creative", she prefers to follow her instincts rather than a recipe book. She regularly incorporates seasonal ingredients from the garden into her dishes. Pomegranates and lemons from the orchard, aubergines and kale from the vegetable patch. Zaira's garden provides a ready made larder all year round.
The autumn, she tells us, is all about pumpkins. Her father grows every shape and variety of pumpkin in their vegetable garden. "Sometimes they look a bit like items from outer space" Zaira says. It's an incredibly adaptable ingredient which, she admits, she could eat for every meal of the day “roasted pumpkin and chestnut flour pancakes for breakfast, a bowl of velvety pumpkin cream soup for lunch and a delicious pumpkin gnocchi and Parmesan dish for dinner."
Here Zaira shares one of her favourite autumn recipes:
Gnocchi Al CucchiaioÂ (Pumpkin Gnocchi with Herbs)
(serves 5 to 6 people)
For the gnocchi:
Â· 500 g pumpkin (Delica variety or something with solid flesh that's not too watery), skin and seeds removed
Â· 500 g floury potatoes
Â· 200 g all-purpose flour
Â· 1 egg
Â· A few pinches of salt
Â· One pinch of nutmeg
For the sauce:
Â· 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Â· 1 small bunch of fresh sage
Â· 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
Â· a…” sprig of fresh thyme
Â· 1 onion (optional)
Â· Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Peel the pumpkin and potatoes and wash under running water. Cut the pumpkin and potatoes into medium sized cubes.
2. Steam the pumpkin and potato cubes for about 20 minutes until just soft. Remove from the steamer and leave to cool.
3. Mash the pumpkin and potatoes with a potato masher. Add some salt and nutmeg.
4. Add the egg and sieve the flour a little at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. The consistency of the dough should be dense (but not too dense) and the amount of flour you use will depend upon how watery the pumpkin and the potatoes are.
5. Fill a high-sided pan with water, add a little salt and bring to the boil.
6. Using a spoon, take a small amount of the dough. Use your finger to give it a round shape and then push it gently into the boiling water. Repeat to make as many gnocchi as you like.
7. Wait until the gnocchi rise to the surface, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain them well.
8. Chop the herbs, previously washed and dried. Together with the onion (optional) put them into a non-stick saucepan with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Saute on a high heat and add the gnocchi.
9. Stir gently and then leave the gnocchi to form a fine golden crust. Serve with grated Parmesan.