Above the night music, the Venetian skies boom and burst into explosive color, sending showers of rainbow meteors skittering across the heavens, their shimmering reflections dancing in the inky canals.
It is the Festa del Redentore, Feast of the Redeemer, celebrated every July 19 since 1576 to commemorate the end of a plague that devastated the city. Among the traditional ritual foods eaten before the blaze of spectacular fireworks is an ancient Venetian-Jewish dish, sole in a sweet-and-sour sauce of onions, raisins, and pine nuts, served cold.
Unlike some Italian-Jewish foods whose names betray their provenance—artichokes alla giudea and several others with a “Sara” or “Rebecca” appended to the title come readily to mind—the Jewish origins of pesce in saor are not always acknowledged. But culinary historians, both those with an Italian focus and those with a Jewish one, trace the dish to the traditional methods Jews devised to preserve fish for the Sabbath. In Italy, Jewish cooks doused fried fish with hot vinegar, then to counteract the acidic taste, added sweet fried onions, raisins, and sugar. (This pattern—using vinegar or lemon as a preservative, then sweetening to eradicate the resulting sour taste—may explain why so many vastly different Jewish communities throughout the world developed their own sweet-and-sour fish dishes.) A fondness for raisins and pine nuts was acquired in Sicily, where Jews had dwelled from ancient times until they were expelled at the end of the fifteenth century.
The result is a well-flavored, make-ahead fish excellent for holidays and company buffets. I round out the flavors by caramelizing the onions and bedding the fried fish on fresh sliced oranges—their sweetness, and the concentrated sugars in the soaked raisins, obviate the need for any added sugar. This dish is especially good accompanied by a salad of marinated roasted red peppers.
© 2000 Jayne Cohen. All rights reserved.