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Venetian Spring Dinner

Since 1995, chef Fabrizio Aielli has been wowing Washington, D.C., diners with his modern interpretation of Venetian cuisine. We asked Aielli to take our Chef on a Shoestring challenge and create a three-course meal for four on our $30 budget.

Aielli is the executive chef and owner of two restaurants in the Nation's Capital: Teatro Goldoni and Osteria Goldoni. In 1995, Aielli and fellow chef Dario Leo opened Goldoni. Its name changed to Osteria Goldoni when it relocated in 1998; his second restaurant, Teatro Goldoni, opened the next year.

Aielli's cooking reflects the flavors of Venice, where he learned to cook in his mother's kitchen. Washingtonian magazine called Aielli a "Venetian master," lauding one of his desserts as "edible modern Venetian art." Aielli calls his brand of cooking, "Venetian World Cuisine."

Aielli has cooked several times at the James Beard House. He has also appeared on the Food Network. He has received dozens of accolades. The Washington Post has called Aielli's culinary artistry a "triumph." Washingtonian magazine continually awards him its Blue Ribbon Award. Esquire magazine named Teatro Goldoni as one of the "Best New Restaurants in America 2000." Food and Wine magazine awarded Teatro Goldoni its acclaimed "Best New Wine List" designation. And Gourmet magazine named Goldoni one of the "Top 20 restaurants in D.C."

Chef Aielli is also featured in the cookbook "Signature Pasta," which was published in 2000. The book features America's top Italian chefs and their favorite Italian dishes.

Aielli's menu as our Chef on a Shoestring: an appetizer of Salmon Tartar With Roasted Beet Salad; an entrée of Lobster Risotto; and for dessert, Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Sugar.

Beets: Aielli used beets in for his first course. Beets are notable for their sweetness. They have the highest sugar content of any vegetable, but they are very low in calories. Their sweet flavor comes through whether the beets are fresh or canned (which is the way most beets are sold in the United States). Unlike many other processed vegetables, canned beets are perfectly acceptable in both taste and texture; if not pickled, their sweet flavor is largely unaffected by the canning process. Fresh beets, however, have twice the folate (folic acid) and potassium, and have a distinctive flavor and a crisp texture not found in canned beets. Fresh beets also supply a nutritional bonus -- their green tops are an excellent source of beta-carotene, calcium and iron.

Tartar: The expression "a la tartar" is now applied to various highly seasoned cold or hot dishes such as beef tartar or salmon tartar. Originally, the term "a la tartar" described dishes covered with breadcrumbs, grilled (broiled), and served with a highly seasoned sauce. Now, it is usually used for a sauce or a raw meat dish.

Roasting: Roasting intensifies flavors. It's an easy way to bring out the natural sweetness and get the most flavor from fresh vegetables. Roasting also helps limit added fat. All that's needed is a drizzle of olive oil to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan. Properly roasted vegetables may not always look the greatest, but they'll taste wonderful. Preparing items until they're "crisp-tender" just won't do here. Roasted vegetables should be cooked until they're browned and carmelized, often slightly charred and fork tender.

Risotto: Risotto is the traditional rice dish of northern Italy. In the north of Italy, rice rules the day. According to "The New Food Lover's Companion," risotto is an Italian rice specialty made by stirring hot stock into a mixture of rice (and often chopped onions) that has been sautéed in butter. The stock is added 1/2 cup at a time and the mixture is stirred continually until all the liquid is absorbed before more stock is added. This labor-intensive technique results in rice that is delectably creamy while the grains remain separate and firm. Risottos can be flavored with a variety of ingredients such as chicken, shellfish, sausage, vegetables, cheese, white wine and herbs. The famous risotto Milanese is scented with saffron. The use of Italian arborio rice is traditional in the preparation of risotto.

Balsamic Vinegar: Derived from the French vin aigre, "sour wine," vinegar is made by bacterial activity that converts fermented liquids such as wine, beer or cider, into a weak solution of acetic acid (the constituent that makes it sour). According to "The New Food Lover's Companion," vinegar has been used for centuries for everything from beverages (like shrubs), to an odor-diminisher for strong foods such as cabbage and onions, to a hair rinse and softener. There are a multitude of vinegar varieties available today. The exquisite Italian balsamic vinegar, made from white Trebbiano grape juice, gets its dark color and pungent sweetness from aging in barrels -- of various woods and in graduating sizes -- over a period of years. It should be noted that many balsamic vinegars contain sulfites, which are primarily added to inhibit the growth of unfavorable, flavor-detracting bacteria.


Salmon Tartar with Red Beet Salad

Ingredients for Salmon Tartar

1/2 pound smoked salmon, finely chopped
1 teaspoon capers
1 tablespoon red onion, diced small
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon mascarpone cheese or softened cream cheese
1 teaspoon Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dill, finely chopped

In a bowl, combine the salmon, capers, the red onion, lemon juice, mascarpone cheese, parsley and dill.

Use four cappucino cups or small ramekins (the diameter of each should not be greater than 3-inches and the height should not be more than 1-inch) and fill the cups or ramekins with the salmon tartar. You will "unmold" the tartar right before serving.

Red Beet Salad

1 pound roasted red beets (see method below)
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon of honey
1 tablespoon of orange juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup scallions or spring onions, chopped
salt and black pepper to taste

Roasting the Beets:

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Wash the beets and place in a roasting pan with just enough water to cover the beets half way. Add the half-cup of honey to the beets. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake for one to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the beets. Beets are done when you can easily pierce them with the tip of a sharp knife.

Remove the beets from the oven. Let them cool for about five minutes before handling them. Then using a paper towel, peel or "rub" off the skin. The peel will easily come off. Wear gloves or a paper towel to avoid staining your hands. Make sure you peel the beets while they are still warm.

Chef's Note: Do not peel the beets before placing them in the liquid. You should never cut or peel beets when cooking them in liquid, otherwise, they will "bleed" their rich red juices while cooking and turn an unappetizing dull brown. Scrub the beets very gently and rinse well, but be careful not to break the skin, which is quite thin. Once you have cooked the beets, you may peel the beets.

Red Beet Salad:

Slice the red beets into "sticks" about 1/2-inch thick.

In a bowl, combine the red beets, orange juice, olive oil, 1 teaspoon of honey, chopped spring onion and season with salt and pepper. Toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

For plating: Divide the red beet salad evenly among four salad plates. Place the red beet salad in the center of each plate. Then flip each salmon tartar over and unmold over the red beet salad.

Lobster Risotto


3/4 pound pre-cooked lobster meat (found in fish markets and gourmet stores)
1 tablespoon garlic olive oil (see method below)
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth (or lobster stock)
2 roasted plum tomatoes (see method below)
1/2 cup marinara sauce
10 pieces basil leaves, finely cut
1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped, and extra for garnish
2 tablespoons white truffle oil (optional)
salt and black pepper to taste
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Garlic Infused Olive Oil

Ingredients for the garlic-infused olive oil:
3 garlic cloves, halved lengthways
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper

Place the garlic and olive oil in a small saucepan over the gentlest heat possible. Leave for 1 hour for the garlic to become very soft and infuse the oil.

Roasted Tomatoes

2 medium-sized plum tomatoes, cut in half, lengthwise
pinch of salt
pinch of dried oregano
olive oil

Place the tomato halves in a colander. Season with a pinch of salt and dried oregano. Let the tomatoes sit for two hours. This will help remove the moisture from the tomatoes and bring out the natural taste of the tomatoes.

Pre-heat oven to 125 degrees F.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the tomatoes with the cut side down on the baking sheet. Drizzle some olive oil over the tomatoes. Let them roast for about 3 to 4 hours or until tomatoes are slightly shrunken and appear cooked and concentrated but not yet dry.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about five minutes before handling.

Risotto Preparation

Cut the lobster meat into 1/2-inch cubes.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, warm the garlic olive oil. Then add the onion. Saute the onions on medium-high heat. Take care not to brown. Remember to continually stir throughout the whole process.

Add the rice. Cook the rice, stirring, for about two minutes. Add the white wine and stir constantly until the wine is absorbed.

Add the vegetable broth (or lobster stock) about a half-cup at a time, stirring constantly. Continue adding a half-cup of broth at a time, once the broth in the pot has been absorbed.

Then begin to add the roasted tomatoes, the marinara sauce, basil leaves and the lobster meat. Remember to stir!

Let the mixture cook for another four minutes. Then add the butter, Italian parsley, the optional truffle oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to make sure everything is well combined. Serve warm. Garnish with parsley and grated Parmesan cheese if you wish.

Chef's note: Add another cup of vegetable broth if the risotto is too dry.

Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar

1 1/2 pints of strawberries, washed, hulled, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons white sugar

In a bowl, combine the strawberries, the balsamic vinegar, and sugar. Toss well to make sure everything is well combined. Allow the strawberries to marinate for five minutes. Divide the strawberries among four dessert plates or serve them in martini glasses.

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