Sicily is Italy with magic sprinkled on it. Goethe said, ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all.’ And it ain’t just Goethe and me. They came; they saw; they stayed. From the Greeks and Romans to the Bourbons, everyone has fallen for this island and its treasures…and stayed long enough to influence everything in the culture, from food to architecture.
Our journey to visit my husband’s family took us from the Catania airport south along the sun-baked coast to Ragusa Ibla, a small village that looks as though it was carved into the side of the mountain. Auntie Pina, warm as a Sicilian summer day, welcomed us into her airy apartment…and it seemed like we didn’t leave the table again while we were there. Relatives arrived and she cooked. Friends arrived to meet her American nephew and his wife…and she cooked. We went for a walk and on our return…she cooked. When we all got up from our afternoon nap…she cooked.
You get the idea. I have always loved the simplicity of Italian food, their reliance on fresh ingredients, but Sicilian cooking takes simple elegance to new heights. While they grow many of the vegetables that feed Italy in Sicily, it seems that the Sicilian cook needs nothing more that eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini…along with great local olive oil, salt, chili peppers, pine nuts, garlic, wine and bread. Oh, Sicilian bread! A dense crumb is housed in a crunchy exterior making for the perfect texture. You have to force yourself to stop eating it.
I am a big proponent of eating seasonally and locally, so I was pretty sure I had tasted the best, locally grown. But at one of the many feasts at Auntie Pina’s table, we started munching on a bowl of cherries as Uncle Nino talked about the many gifts Sicily has given the world. As the juice of the ripe fruit burst on my tongue and sweetness and ‘cherri-ness’ literally took over my senses, I realized that I had not tasted cherries like that in, well…ever. No meal in Auntie Pina’s home was complete without lots of local wine on the table. I had never tasted Nero d’Avola before traveling to Sicily, but it was love at first sip. The deep, almost-chocolate color reflected a rich flavor that is out of this world. As the lazy days wore on…and we ate and ate and ate…and shopped at the market for fresh ingredients every day, I fell in love…with Auntie Pina, Uncle Nino, the hot sunny days, the azure sea, the lazy lifestyle, the crazy driving…and the food, always the food.
As a vegan, I have no trouble managing to eat well in Italy, but in Sicily, it seemed that there were not enough meals for me to enjoy all the vegetables, beans and fruit that caught my fancy, including the velvety smooth chocolate of Modica. While we were with her, Auntie Pina made all of these dishes…and many more in the course of our visit. She was worried at first to cook for us as vegans but the Sicilian love of vegetables made it easy to create feast after feast. Even she came to see that there was more to a meal than meat.
Lentil Escarole Soup This richly flavored soup was the first dish I tasted at Auntie Pina’s table.
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- sea salt
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 2-3 small, ripe tomatoes, diced, do not seed
- 1 small dried red chili, crushed
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- 1 cup green or brown lentils, sorted, rinsed well
- 1 bay leaf
- 4-5 cups spring or filtered water
- 1-2 teaspoons sea salt
- 3-4 leaves escarole, finely shredded
- 2-3 sprigs fresh basil, finely minced, for garnish
- Place a small amount of oil in a skillet, with garlic and onions and turn heat to medium.
- When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of sea salt and saute for 2 minutes.
- Transfer to a soup pot with a little more oil.
- Add carrot and tomato, another pinch of salt and saute until shiny with oil.
- Add chili, cumin and tumeric and stir well.
- Add lentils, bay leaf and water, cover and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are quite soft, about 45 minutes.
- Season to taste with salt.
- Remove bay leaf and simmer soup, uncovered for 3-4 minutes.
- Stir escarole and basil into soup and serve immediately.
Makes 5-6 servings.
The day that I tasted these light-as-air fritters, I was in love. Chickpeas are a staple in Sicilian cooking and this recipe showcases that nutty earthy flavor.
- 2 ½ cups chickpea flour
- 3 cups spring or filtered water
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped flatleaf parsley
- 3 tablespoons capers, drained
- 4-5 tablespoons coarsely chopped, cooked chickpeas (ceci beans)
- Sea salt
- Cracked black pepper
- Avocado or olive oil for frying
- Place flour in a sauce pan and whisk in water to break up any lumps.
- Whisk in parsley, salt and pepper to taste and place over medium heat.
- Whisk constantly, cooking until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 15 minutes.
- Fold in capers and chopped chickpeas.
- Turn the mixture out onto an oiled surface, like a cookie sheet or marble slab.
- Using a spatula, spread it evenly and thinly.
- Allow to cool and set.
- Cut into 2 x 3-inch rectangles.
- Place about 2 inches of oil in a deep skillet over medium heat.
- When the oil is hot (about 375o), fry each panella until golden brown, turning once to ensure even cooking.
- Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
- The most common serving method is to serve is smothered with a spicy tomato sauce.
Makes about 30 panelle.
Ciambotta con Carcioffi
When Robert and I were in Sicily for Christmas, the markets were overflowing with artichokes. This dish was made by Auntie Pina for my birthday celebration dinner.
- 1/2 lb. eggplant, unpeeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 5 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
- a large handful of fresh basil, stems removed, chopped
- 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 3/4 lb. new potatoes, or any waxy potato, scrubbed and cut into 1×2-inch pieces
- 1/2 lb artichoke hearts (fresh are best, but you may use those canned in water.)
- 1 large or 2 small sweet red or yellow peppers, seeded and cut into 1×2-inch strips
- Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Toss the eggplant cubes in a colander with 2 teaspoons salt.
- Let it sit in the sink until it starts to sweat out the bitter juices, about an hour.
- Rinse, drain and pat dry, squeezing a little.
- In a skillet, heat about a tablespoon of oil.
- Add the onion, garlic, a pinch of salt and sauté over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, adding a little water as necessary to prevent sticking and burning.
- In a large pot, add a small amount of oil and sauté celery for 2 minutes.
- Add the basil and saute for 2 minutes; then add the tomatoes and sautéed onions and garlic.
- When it comes to a simmer, add the eggplant, artichoke hearts, potatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Stir, bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
- Add the zucchini and peppers and simmer 15 minutes more or until all of the vegetables are tender.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper, transfer to a warm serving bowl, and allow to stand 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 4-5 servings.
My husband’s favorite.
- 3/4 cup almond meal (ground, blanched almonds)
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- ½ cup semolina flour
- pinch sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Scant pinch ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup light olive or avocado oil
- ½ cup brown rice syrup
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Unsweetened almond milk
- 1-2 cups pine nuts
- Preheat oven to 350o and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Place almond meal and flours in a mixing bowl.
- Stir in salt and baking powder.
- Mix in oil, brown rice syrup and vanilla to form a sticky dough.
- Slowly add almond milk, if needed to make the dough cohesive, but you still want it to be soft, not sticky.
- Spread pine nuts on a dry, floured surface.
- Using floured hands, roll dough into 1-inch spheres.
- Roll cookies in pine nuts.
- Place cookies on baking sheet, spacing them about an inch apart. B
- Bake until cookies are golden and slightly puffed, 12-15 minutes.
- Remove them from the oven while still soft, as they will harden as they cool.
- Transfer to a rack and cool. Makes 18-20 cookies.
Note: In Sicily, these cookies are often drizzled with a chocolate glaze after cooling. To make your own, simply boil 1/4 cup almond milk with 3 tablespoons brown rice syrup. Pour boiling liquid over 1 cup coarsely chopped baking chocolate and whisk until smooth and satin-like. Using a fork, drizzle each cookie with chocolate and place carefully on parchment until glaze sets. And if you want to experience your own piece of La Dolce Vita, join me as I host a Tuscan Feast tour in September, 2011. Go to ChristinaCooks.com for details.
Image Source: gnuckx