Sometimes, some recipes are just so simple that I do not bother writing about them, but then I buy a new cookbook and notice that simple recipes are what we like and want…and besides, not everybody grew up in an Italian household and they may not be familiar with this style of cooking.
One simple way of cooking some vegetables, for example eggplants, zucchini or mushrooms is afunghettoinbianco ortrifolate.
A funghetto, translates asmushroom, i.e.in the style or method of how you would cook mushrooms – simply sautéed in extra virgin olive oil with garlic and parsley.
Inbianco translates as inwhite, i.e. without tomatoes. Photo above is of king mushrooms cooked afunghetto.
This style of cooking is a common way to cook either of these three vegetables throughout Italy, but it is typical of the Veneto. I grew up in Trieste, so I identify with this style of cooking very much.
Once again,I will write this recipe as an Italian – no measurements. The recipe is so simple, and the photos tell the story so who needs measurements!
eggplants/aubergines, cut into cubes
extra virgin olive oil,
cloves of garlic, chopped (to taste)
pepper and salt
extra virgin olive oil
Use gentle to medium heat throughout the cooking – the ingredients are not fried, they are sautéed till softened.
Heat a splash of oil in a frypan (I like to use a frypan with a heavy base).Add the garlic and stir it around for a very short time so that it begins to soften.
Add the eggplants and stir often until they have softened and have coloured. Add pepper and salt.
Add the chopped parsley and keep on stirring through for about 30 seconds…and I hate to say it…until it has softened.
Eat hot or cold – fabulous as a starter, side dish….as a dressing for pasta?
No exact quantities, just like an Italian. You can tell from the photos how easy it is to make Caponata Palermitana. Unlike Caponata Catanese there are no peppers (capsicums) in this caponata but the rest of the ingredients and processes for making any caponata are the same.
I used 2 egglants. Cooked each separately as I did not want the frying to be overcrowded. I use salt when I am cooking and not after the dish is cooked. I always use extra virgin olive oil.
A good heavy saucepan is good to use.
After the eggplants, sauté the onions and the celery. I used 1 large onion, 2 sticks of celery and some of the tender leavesof the celery. Add some salt.
When the onions and celery have softened to your liking, add green olives and capers.
I made a space in the centre of the saucepan, added a couple of teaspoons of sugar. Melted that and added about a quarter of a cup of red vinegar and evaporated it.
I made another space in the centre and added about 1/3 cup of passata.
Cooked it – you can see that there is very little liquid left.
Time to add the eggplants and combine all the ingredients.
This time I will decorate the caponata with fried breadcrumbs (day old bread mollica) toasted in a frypan with a little olive oil.
I could decorate the caponata with toasted pine nuts or almonds but I think the bread will add crunch but not too much taste so as not to compete with the eggplants. At this time of year, egglants are of excellent quality.
Mint rather than basil appealed to me more on this occasion.
There are numerous recipes for caponate (I can spell, it is the plural of caponata). Use the search button.
I am writing this post for a friend to demonstrate that making caponata is not difficult and I have therefore included many photos.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking I have written a whole chapter about making various caponate (plural). This one is Catanese, as made in Catania, and the main ingredients are eggplants and peppers, but there are other caponate where the main ingredients are either eggplants or pumpkin or potato or celery (called Christmas caponata). I have also made a fennel caponata.
All caponate need to be made at least one day before to let the flavours develop. Caponate are eaten at room temperature.
Caponata Catanese is made with eggplants, peppers, celery, onions, chopped green olives and capers. A little sugar, vinegar and a splash of passata are used to make the agro- dolce sauce. Toasted pine nuts (or almonds) and fresh basil make good decoration and add extra taste. Caponata Palermitana, from Palermo, does not include peppers. I used roughly 1 kilo of eggplants and 1 kilo of peppers, 3 sticks of celery (pale green from near the centre), 1 onion. I used about 125g of capers and about the same amounts of chopped green olives. A true Sicilian making caponata would never weigh ingredients and may at times use more eggplants than peppers; these are rough amounts as a guide to illustrate ratios of ingredients. Always use extra virgin olive oil and as much as needed to prevent the ingredients sticking; access oil can always be drained off but bread makes a fine accompaniment to all caponate and the oil is particularly flavourful.
Each vegetable is fried separately but I usually combine the celery and the onion at the same time. the vegetables have different rates of cooking and you want to preserve the individual flavours as much as possible.
A frypan with a heavy base is good to use. I am making large quantities this time to take to a gathering so I am using my heavy wok (Le Creuset).
Fry the eggplants in some extra olive oil and add a little salt. Drain the eggplant in a colander with a container underneath to collect any oil. In the same pan add some new oil and the oil that you have drained from the eggplants. Fy the peppers and add a little salt. Drain them as you did the eggplants, collect the oil and add this to some new oil in the same pan.
Fry the celery and the onion.
When they have softened but the celery still has some crunch add the green olives and capers. Salt may not be necessary for this component of the dish.
Make a small depression in the centre of the vegetables and add about a flat tablespoon of sugar – this varies, some add more, some add less. Melt the sugar (caramelise it) and then add about 3 tablespoons of wine vinegar. Evaporate on high heat.
Add a splash of passata. Mix through the ingredients in the pan and cook it for a few minutes.
Incorporate all of the ingredients .
The caponata is now cooked. It needs to be placed in the fridge in a sealed container till you are ready to eat it and it will not suffer if it is made 3-4 days beforehand.
Decorate it with toasted pine nuts and fresh basil leaves when you are ready to present it.
There are other recipes on my blog for caponate made with different vegetables.
A zucca in Italian can be an overgrown zucchino (singular) or a marrow, therefore to differentiate a pumpkin from a marrow a pumpkin is called a zucca gialla (yellow).
Not all Sicilian caponate are made with eggplants. For example there are celery, fennel, potato caponate and pumpkin can also be used as the main ingredient (Caponata di zucca gialla).
The principle for making any caponata is the same: onion, celery, X ingredient (eggplant or eggplant and peppers, fennel, potato etc.), capers, green olives, sometimes a splash of tomato puree, toasted pine nuts, or almonds and agrodolce – caramelised sugar and vinegar.
The ingredients a fried separately. Pumpkin first – sauté and then set aside.
Sauté onion and celery. Add olives and capers.
Add sugar, thenvinegar and salt to taste. Add the fried pumpkin and toasted almonds (or pine nuts).Let rest overnight or for at least half a day.
The other popular Sicilian way to cook pumpkin is also in an agrodolce sauce.
For this recipe, slices of pumpkin are also fried. I bake mine and it is not the traditional way of cooking it. The recipe book you can see in the background of the photo below is Sicilian Seafood Cooking – now out of print.
The recipe is called Fegato con sette cannoli. To see the recipe and find out why this recipe is called Liver with seven reeds:
Citrus fruit is grown extensively in Sicily and citrus groves are found throughout the island region. Apart from different types of oranges (including the blood oranges) there are mandarins, tangerines, lemons, cedri (citrons) and limette (Sicilian limes).
Sicily is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of citrus especially of lemons; the climate fosters a long, growing season and the harvesting of different varieties of lemons over three distinct periods in the year.
Lemons are extensively used in Sicilian cuisine – fresh lemon juice and the rind (or grated zest) are added to savoury or sweet dishes to balance and enhance flavours and even the leaves are often used in between pieces of meat or fish to add flavour.
Lemon juice is often used in marinates and to avoid discolouration of fresh fruit and vegetables (for example in fruit salads or when cleaning artichokes).
Lemons are used profusely for making drinks, liqueurs, essences, jams and marmalades. Candied or preserved peel is used significantly in Sicilian pastries and confectionary (for example in cassata and cannoli).
Used also and mostly in Sicilian pastries is cedro (citron). This citrus fruit grows in Sicily (and Calabria); the fruit is large and spherical with a thick wrinkled skin that turns from green to yellow during ripening. It has a strong fragrance and flavour, even stronger than lemons. The thick peel is candied and the fruit and peel is used to make a sweet paste also used in Sicilian patisserie.
Sicily benefits greatly from the production of lemons. Lemons have anti-bactericidal and antiseptic qualities; they are known for their therapeutic properties and are therefore beneficial in aromatherapy, pharmacology and medical and scientific applications. The essential oils are prominent in perfumes and the cosmetic industry. They are also widely used in cleaning products and citric acid (derived from lemons) is used extensively as a preservative.
The flowers and leaves are used for ornamental purposes. The white and pale violet blossoms have a strong and appealing scent and are often used in bride’s bouquets and inserted in button holes in men’s jackets at weddings.
When Sicilians (and other southern Italians) came to Australia, one of the first thing they planted was a lemon tree. Many are grafted to produce different types of lemons or different citrus.
You may be familiar with making Sicilian orange salads (especially with blood oranges), but you may not have considered enjoying a Sicilian lemon salad. I particularly like serving a lemon salad as an accompaniment to grilled fish, especially sardines. Last time I made one I presented it to accompany a meat terrine made with pork.
Use large, mature lemons – the larger, the more pith, the better. Many of the large lemons are more round in shape.
You will be amazed by the sweetness of the lemon in the salad. The use of salt will make the lemons taste sweeter (just like balsamic vinegar brings out the sweetness of strawberries).
Peel the skin off the lemons with a potato peeler, leaving as much pith as possible.
Cut the lemons in half and squeeze out some of the juice (otherwise the salad will be too acidic).
Cut the lemons into quarters and then into slices or manageable chunks (slices cut into four). Remove any pips.
Add finely chopped parsley or mint.
Dress with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper and salt.
I love globe artichokes and I usually stuff, braise them and eat them hot or cold. If peas or broad beans are in season, they too are added to the braise. A mixture of fresh breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese is probably my most frequent stuffing, but at other times I have used minced meat, or added black olives and anchovies, or for a delicate stuffing I have used ricotta and almond meal. Each globe artichoke is likely to hold about ½ cup of stuffing and some of the larger artichokes hold more.
Once stuffed, the globe artichokes are placed upright and packed tightly into a pan and braised in white wine and/or stock. Extra virgin olive oil is an essential ingredient and it is used liberally.
Small artichokes are ideal to cook alla romana – as the Romans do.
The artichokes (carciofi) that are available and that are still in season in Melbourne are these little, purple, spiny ones. The globe artichokes that were in season prior to these have nearly finished, but there are still some of the baby ones around – those that will never develop into full size (like tomatoes at the end of the season that never ripen). These baby artichokes (carciofini) are usually preserved under oil.
For carciofi alla romana, use the smallest artichokes you can find, but the small, purple, spiny ones would be my preference. In this recipe, the artichokes are also stuffed, but lightly …about a teaspoon of stuffing for each.
For the stuffing for the number of artichokes I had (9) I used 1 large clove of garlic, ½ cup fresh parsley finely chopped, ½ cup fresh mint finely chopped, salt and pepper and all mixed with a little extra, virgin olive oil.
Carciofi alla romana are also braised, but they are placed upside down and I use greater amounts of oil in the braising liquid – a mixture of water and a little white wine, but the aim is to have very little, concentrated and flavourful liquid at the end of cooking, and this will be mostly oil.
Clean and prepare the artichokes as you would the globe artichokes. Use acidulated water (1 lemon). Peel off the tough outer leaves until you get to the softer paler leaves. The stems of my artichokes were not worth peeling, but it they are peel the outer layer of the stem and as is usually the way with this recipe, keep the stems attached to the base if you can. Cut approximately 1/3 of the top of the artichoke to remove the spiny leaves. Using your fingers ease the leaves apart in the centre of each artichoke to form a space for the stuffing.
Mix the garlic, parsley, seasoning and mint together with 1 tablespoon of oil. Stuff the artichokes with this mixture.
Place about 1 cm of olive oil in the bottom of a narrow pot and arrange the artichokes close together and side by side…. but upside down. Add a little white wine and enough water to reach about 1/3 from the top of the height of the artichoke. Add salt and pepper, cover and simmer over low heat until the artichokes are soft and can be easily pierced with a fork.
Check them occasionally and if they are too dry add a little water if necessary in small amounts.
When the artichokes are cooked, remove the lid, turn up the heat and evaporate the liquid until you have mainly oil. Remove the artichokes from the pot, drizzle the liquid over them and serve them at room temperature.
There are a number of recipes on my blog about artichokes and accompanying photos. Artichokes are not difficult to prepare and cook, and they are delicious. To find other recipes, use the search button on my blog and key in Artichokes.
Breadcrumbs are called Pangrattato (grated bread) in Italian.
Mollica is the soft part of the bread with crusts removed but in the culinary world both pangrattato and mollica have acquired new significances and have been enhanced. Both refer to breadcrumbs lightly toasted in in olive oil, herbs and seasonings and variations include anything from garlic, red pepper flakes, pine nuts, anchovies, lemon zest , cinnamon or nutmeg, salt and a little sugar.
Mollica or pangrattato adds texture, fragrance and complex flavours and is usually used as a stuffing or topping, especially for pasta in Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. For example, Pasta con le Sarde and Sarde a Beccafico are two Sicilian recipes that use enhanced breadcrumbs:
When I make pangrattato I store left overs in a jar in my fridge and use it to enhance other dishes: this time I used it to stuff fennel. For moisture and extra flavour I added a little ricotta and a little grated cheese – pecorino or parmigiano.
Cut the stems off the fennel and remove the toughest and usually damaged outer leaves Cut the fennel into quarters.
Cook the fennel in salted water, bay leaves salt and lemon juice for about 10 minutes until it is slightly softened. Remove it from the liquid and cool.
Make the filling: Work the ricotta in a bowl with a fork, mix in the pangrattato and grated cheese.
Prise open the leaves of the fennel and stuff with the pangrattato stuffing.
Place the quarters into a baking bowl that allows them to stay compact and upright (like when you are cooking stuffed artichokes).
Drizzle olive oil on top (or a little butter) and bake at 180 – 190°C for about 15 minutes
Peperonata is usually made with the red and yellow peppers, onions and tomatoes and in some parts of Sicily potatoes are added. Sometimes, mainly for colour, 1-2 green peppers are added.
Peperoni (peppers) are vibrantly coloured – green, red and yellow and I have also seen new varieties of dark green (almost black) and cream ones as well.
Towards the end of summer and to mid-autumn there are greater numbers of yellow and red peppers – these are much sweeter in taste.
The vegetables are braised slowly and the results are fabulous – the onions and tomatoes almost melt and coat the peppers.
As a contorno, it is an excellent accompaniment for simply cooked fish or meat ( BBQ or fried). It makes a great filling for panini and transports well for picnics…. An Easter picnic perhaps?
Traditionally there are two ways of making peperonata. The first method is to add all the ingredients in a wide pan with some olive oil and to cook it slowly on low heat. Add a little water and stir it periodically so that they do not stick. In Sicily sausages are also commonly cooked in this way – once the water evaporates, the fat/oil is left in the pan to fry and brown the ingredients.
The second method is to soften the onion before adding the peppers (and later the tomatoes). This is my preferred method.
Like Caponata, Peperonata is eaten cold (room temperature). The flavours mature and it keeps well in the fridge for days.
Vary amounts accordingly and as you can see in the photos I just wanted it for two people.
red (and yellow) peppers, 1 k
tomatoes, 2 ripe, peeled and diced
onion, 1-2 sliced
extra virgin olive oil, ¼ cup
fresh basil leaves or sprigs, a few and to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a little sugar and red wine vinegar
Clean and cut the peppers into thin strips.
Sauté the onions in the oil.
When the onions are soft, raise the heat and add the peppers. Add seasoning, toss on high heat until they are well coated and beginning to fry.
Add the tomatoes and some basil, cover and cook until the peppers are soft (about 20-30 minutes).
Remove the lid, raise heat and cook until any excess liquid has evaporated.
**Like my cousin Lidia from Augusta (south of Catania) I always add a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of vinegar during the final minutes of cooking. This provides that classical Sicilian sweet and sour flavour.
In other parts of Sicily, it is common to add 2-3 potatoes: either part cook chip-size potatoes and add them half way through cooking or fry uncooked potatoes at the same time as the onions.
Simple tomato salads feature very frequently in my kitchen – not surprising as local tomatoes and basil in summer are at their best.
When I say simple, I mean made with basic ingredients – in season tasty tomatoes, fresh basil, spring onion, the inside part of the celery, salt and extra virgin olive oil. In fact, so simple that I have not written the recipe for a tomato salad in my blog.
Just writing about tomato salad makes me want to have some – I can taste the fresh bread that I particularly like to use to mop up the juices. Good, extra virgin olive oil is as important as the quality of the tomatoes.
I have inherited my like of tomato salads from my father; it is one of the things my father made well and my parents, especially when they were elderly would eat a tomato salad almost every day for lunch (accompanied with some sort of cheese, smallgoods, frittata, or left over meat or fish from the night before). This sort of tomato salad was not considered special enough to present to guests – it was family, simple, every-day food and to a certain extent it has remained so in my present home.
Apart from the simple tomato salad made with spring onion, my father excelled in the salad his mother used to make (she lived in Ragusa, Sicily) with squeezed onions or as he used to call cipolla dolce (sweet onion) – the onion is made sweet by having the bitter juices squeezed out of it before it is used.
This makes the taste of the salad unique and my children and nephews still mention this legendary version of a nonno-tomato salad. When they were in season the large, fresh, salad onions were his favourites (sold in bunches with the bulbs and part of the green stalk still attached) but the ordinary white or the red onions sufficed at other times.
Cipudda is the Sicilian word for onion and cipolla the Italian.
Probably because it is used extensively in Calabria, red onion is called cipolla calabrese or cipolla di Tropea in Italian, Tropea is a very picturesque, old fortified town built on a cliff overlooking a spectacular beach in Calabria.
I now have the old colander my father used to use to strain the onion – this was one of the very few, kitchen implements that came with us from Trieste where we lived before coming to Australia.
Amusing: in Italian a colander or strainer is called a scolapasta – scola means strain…and where would Italians be without an implement to drain their pasta!
To sweeten onion:
Expect to shed tears during this process.
Place 2 large, thinly sliced onions in a colander, sprinkle with about 2 heaped tablespoons of salt and leave it for about 30 minutes. Do not be concerned about the quantity of salt, it will draw out the onions’ strong juices. If fresh onions are in season, leave the sliced onions with the salt for about 15 minutes.
Use your fingers and palms to squeeze the onions inside the colander – the juices and the salt will just dribble through the perforations.
My parents have always made tomato salad with firm, slightly golden, unripe tomatoes. Interestingly in Italy, tomatoes (pomodoro) were first called pomo d’oro, apples of gold and these early specimens were not necessarily red in colour.
My father was making salad well before the heirloom varieties of tomatoes were available – he would have enjoyed using these tomatoes that come in a multitude of colours and variety of shapes. Interestingly, not all are coloured red.
In most parts of Sicily, the most common tomato salad is as follows:
extra virgin olive oil at least ½ cup
fresh basil (or dried oregano)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 stalk of celery from the inside part of the celery and include some of the pale green leaves – all sliced thinly
1 spring onion sliced thinly or replace the spring onion with the sweetened onions
Cut the tomatoes into bite size pieces and add everything else and serve.
From Comiso and Vittoria (towns south of Ragusa) and popular inland (in Enna and Caltanissetta) it is common to cut large tomatoes called (cuore di bue — ox heart), horizontally into halves, remove the seeds and stuff each crevice with chopped garlic, salt and extra virgin olive oil. On visits to the South of France I found that these tomatoes are popular and eaten in the same way. Surprise, surprise!
In my last post I made reference to Sicilian tomato salad. See post:
One of the things I like about eating out is that I come home full of ideas for reproducing my version of something I have eaten at a restaurant. Looking at the way that food is presented also gives me ideas.
This was a very simple thing. I was in Brisbane recently and went to Gauge restaurant and one of the dishes my friends and I shared was the Cow’s ricotta, sancho pepper, heirloom tomatoes, olive.
In the restaurant the chefs used an Asian herb but really, there are many herbs that would compliment this dish and each would impart a different taste – I could see myself using common herbs like thyme, oregano or sweet marjoram, tarragon, dill or any of the different types of basil that are now easily available.
Summer to me means eating tomatoes almost every day. Ricotta is also a favourite.
I arrived home from Brisbane and the next evening I had friends here for dinner and ricotta, tomatoes and the prolific amounts of basil that I am growing on my balcony seemed just right. It was the presentation of this dish that was as important as the taste. My photos do not do it justice, but it was such a a simple dish, full of natural flavours and it looked stunning at the same time. As a summer starter with good bread or crakers it was perfect.
This was the motivation: Cow’s ricotta, sancho pepper, heirloom tomatoes, olive.
Ricotta, heirloom tomatoes – easy stuff and easy to get.
Sansho Pepper is also known as Japanese Pepper and it is unripe Sichuan pepper. It adds a lemon myrtle-like freshness to dishes. This too is easily available from Asian shops, however maybe not in your pantry, but there are alternatives. I have a variety of pepper corns and just recently I bought a range of dried Mexican chillies that I grind up and use like pepper – some are particularly spicy, slightly tart with an earthy flavour, others are smoky and aromatic and some are very hot. On this occasion I chose pink pepper corns – it looks good and tastes different.
There were no real olives in this presentation in the restaurant and the black olive favour was achieved with black olive salt. I was at another restaurant today where they used dehydrated olives – fantastic intense flavour and texture. In my version I could have used whole olives especially the shrivelled black, dried olives but I thought that they would look too big so I used tiny capers and some of my Greek basil with the tiny leaves.
A little spring onion sliced finely also added flavour. Next time I may add a stalk of finely sliced celery – one of those pale green stalks from the inside of the celery. After all, the tomato salads that I learned to make in my family home always had both onion and celery…. this is how Sicilians make tomato salads.
I used cow’s ricotta that I whipped up to a cream with a little salt and pink pepper corns.
I made a basil oil by blending good- quality, extra virgin olive oil with and a little salt and basil picked from my balcony.
I bought good tomatoes from a reliable stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (as I always buy quality produce).
As a summer starter with good bread or crackers it was perfect. Good wine helps too.