I bought some chicory at the queen Victoria Market this morning – it is a winter vegetable but obviously still around and in good condition, even in November. As you can see in the photo this particular type of chicory has scarlet stalks.
Well, I call this chicory. There is so much confusion about chicory; it gets confused with endives, escarole, radicchio (especially the green coloured radicchio, often called radicchio biondo or radicchio di Trieste) and even witlof. They all have a distinctive bitter taste, but to me chicory is this one, the one with the long serrated leaves.
I have found puntarelle salad in some Italian restaurants in Australia. These are chicory shoots of a variety of chicory called catalogna. The shoots are either picked while the plant is very young and tender but more commonly when the plant is going to seed and sends out shoots. The word puntarelle (from punta) means small shoots or points.
I cook the outer leaves as I do leafy greens – softened before I braise them in oil, garlic and a little chilli .(see CAVOLO NERO).
The tender lighter coloured green leaves from the centre (or the sprouting shoots at this time of year) I use in salads, either as part of a green leaf salad, or to contrast a sweeter tasting ingredient, for example, beetroot, borlotti beans or fennel and orange.
A favourite way to use the centre is to use it like Sicilians use cicorino (chicory, often wild and found in spring in Sicily and also called la prima – the first). Pino Correnti, a respected food authority about Sicilian food thinks that this salad is eaten in Troina, in north – central Sicily.
chicory (see below for amounts and type)
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
hard boiled eggs
Wash and cut into small pieces the chicory.
Make the vinaigrette with the oil, vinegar, lemon and seasoning.
Add a few chopped anchovies to the dressing and dress the salad.
Add hard-boiled eggs cut into quarters.
Accompany it with bread.(I like it as a first course as well. For this option I add more eggs and whole anchovies).
FEATURE PHOTO Puntarelle with soft drained ricotta. Creamed goats’ cheese would be OK as well.
Idda is Sicilian for “she” or “her”. Iddu is the masculine – “him” or “his” – and this word sounds much more uncompromising and abrupt than the Italian equivalents, lei and lui. To name a café, Bar Idda, is perhaps the Sicilian equivalent of the French chez, but it is not nearly as common. It implies homeliness and a feminine touch – welcome, warmth and simplicity – unsophisticated but authentic cooking and the use of simple ingredients which vary according to the availability of seasonal produce.
Bar Idda is a relatively new café at 132 Lygon Street, which I was introduced to by some friends who’d eaten there twice before while I was overseas. They thought I’d enjoy Bar Idda’s Sicilian menu. And I did, for all the above reasons.
Chef and owner of Bar Idda is Alfredo La Spina, who named the café in honour of his grandmother – she is the idda. Alfredo is of Sicilian heritage and his wife and her brother are also on the staff. Their father is from Sicily and their mother is from Calabria – regions of Italy that could be neighbours if it weren’t for the Straits of Messina, but which are still close enough to grow and enjoy similar produce, sharing some dishes in common with local variations. The spiced polpette (meatballs) cooked in tomato sugo are more a Calabrese specialty than Sicilian.
The menu is short and changes often. Sicilian food, like all Italian food, is regional. Although Sicily is a small island, a third the size of Tasmania, the regional specialties and local variations are numerous and sometimes subtle. You don’t have to travel far in Sicily to experience the differences and Sicilians will point out to you – probably in a much more forceful way than their northern cousins – the distinguishing features and ingredients of their specialty dishes.
Take for example the archetypical Sicilian dish, caponata.
My recipe and photo (above) of capoanata: CAPONATA SICILIANA (CATANESE, Caponata as made in Catania)
Eggplant is the principal ingredient if in Palermo, but in Catania, on the other side of the island, peppers are the featured ingredient and some Catanesi would not dream of making caponata without potatoes! Put a Palermitano and a Catanese in the same room and they will argue endlessly about which one is the true caponata. They will never agree.
I can remember having a very animated argument waiting for some photos to be printed in a camera shop in Ragusa. I was telling the owner about my aunt’s skill in making ricotta ravioli (a specialty of the area) and he asked me if she used marjoram in her recipe. He was aghast when I told him she didn’t – his mother did – and soon everyone in the shop was voicing their opinion.
I appreciated the varied offerings on the Bar Idda menu. They suggest that Alfredo La Spina has read or researched Sicilian cuisine and is prepared to include dishes from all over the island (not just from his parents’ province).
The food is excellent value and the flavours are traditionally Sicilian which suggests to me that Alfredo has respect for the ingredients and will maintain the cultural integrity of the cuisine.
There are only Sicilian wines on offer and surprisingly the list includes a Pinot Grigio, which is a grape and style of wine grown and produced in the north of Italy. It goes to show, things change – even in Sicily.
The top image is of the Trinacria, the emblem in the Sicilian flag. The term trinacria means “triangle” as for the shape of Sicily. The Greeks called it Trinakrias, the Romans called it Trinacrium, meaning “star with 3 points”. There is a trinacria hanging in the restaurant.
This other image is of Padre Pio. One of the many versions of images of Padre Pio is also hanging in the restaurant (I said it is homely).
Padre Pio is not a Sicilian saint but his picture hangs in many houses (and some businesses – including the post office in Ragusa!) in Sicily.
Padre Pio was born May 25, 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy, a small country town located in the Province of Benevento, in Campania, Southern Italy. He died in his parish of San Giovanni Rotondo, an agricultural community 180 miles from Rome on the Gargano Promontory in Puglia, a region in Southern Italy.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II dedicated the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church and Shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo to the memory of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.
(Saint) Padre Pio has become one of the world’s most popular saints and there are prayer groups with three million members and devotees worldwide. A 2006 survey by the magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics pray to Padre Pio than to any other figure.
The Sicilians love him. A statue of Saint Pio in Messina, Sicily attracted attention in 2002 when it allegedly wept tears of blood. Now there seem to be statues of Padre Pio in all Sicilian towns.
Alfredo, I found this quote and photo of Father Pio’s on the web:
Humility and charity go hand in hand. One glorifies, the other sanctifies.
Fresh broad beans are only available for a short season in Spring, but walking around the Melbourne Victoria market in the last two weeks I have only seen them in a few stalls.
In spite of my love for broad beans I do not always buy them unless the pods are fresh, bright green in colour and most importantly they must be small or medium sized. Unfortunately most of the broad beans you see for sale are the puffy, larger broad beans, the most mature pods.
In Sicily these large pods are shelled and the beans are dried. Beans this size have to be soaked before cooking and each bean has to be, individually, peeled.
The size of the beans inside the pod determines how you prepare them.
Sicilians eat the tender, young broad beans (about the size of a fingernail) raw. Sadly, you are not likely to find these for sale – you will have to grow them yourself.
Broad beans are sold in their pods and they have to be shelled. And if you look at the photos you can imagine that the process takes time and you need to buy a large quantity of bean pods to get a decent feed. I paid $7 for these ($4 per kilo) so they are not exactly cheap.I ended up with less than 500 g.
When I bought my broad beans I was amused to see that the vendor had placed a packet of shelled broad beans on top of the bean pods. She said her daughter had shelled some because some people do not know what’s inside the pods and that they have to be shelled before eating.
Others may not know that the larger beans need to be skinned again (double-peeling or twice-peeled beans). They have a thick, outer skin, which can taste slightly bitter. Double peeling beans is a very time consuming process, which I try to avoid by selecting the smallest pods I can. (I like to select my own).
There are different brands of frozen broad beans and some brands are double peeled
(you can usually find them in Asian food shops). Although frozen beans are quite acceptable, the fresh ones certainly taste better. Think of the differences in taste and texture between frozen peas and fresh, young peas.
Broad beans are not difficult to cook. My favourite cooking method is to sauté them in a little oil and a little chopped onion, parsley and a little salt and pepper. To finish the cooking add a little liquid, cover and braise them until softened (cooked in umitu in Sicilian and in umido in Italian).
Broad beans with mint
If the beans are not too big (or have been double peeled), a very simple way is to cook them in boiling water till softened (I do not cook them for long), drain them and dress them with a little good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a few leaves of mint. Mint is tender and lush at this time of year. If you do not have mint, dried oregano is always a good Sicilian choice.
See my other posts about broad beans: Cannulicchi a la Favurita – pasta,
This photo shows a fresh bunch of small turnips. Turnips (the bulb), even if small are not popular to eat in Italy, but the leaves are eaten.
You can see that the ones I buy are a sold with their leaves – green, fresh and tasty. They are excellent to eat either wilted in salted water and dressed with oil and lemon, or braised with garlic and chilli. Turnips are members of the brassica family and these greens are related and taste very similar to cime di rape (see ONE OF MY FAVOURITE VEGETABLES Cime di Rape ).
Tim, Kieran and Chris (at a stall in the Queen Victoria Market) know that I always like to buy my turnips, beetroot and celeriac with their green leaves attached – they should never be wasted.
Iota is a stew-like soup of borlotti beans, potatoes and smoked pork meats. It is a specialty of Trieste and environs and in Trieste is traditionally made with saurkraut, however in a couple of places close to Trieste the saurkraut, is replaced with turnips.
Kale is not an Italian vegetable, I could not even find the name of it in my very large Italian dictionary.
I can remember telling Carmel, Gus’ wife, about having to cook the kale the day that I buy it because I cannot fit the plant in my fridge. She told me about a Northern European customer who told her that in her country this winter plant is usually covered by snow and that she keeps her kale in the freezer (cut it up into separate branches). Apparently this softens the plant making it easier to cook. Fascinating!!
I clean and braise kale the same way as I cook cavolo nero – it is similar in taste and has almost the same texture but I usually cook it for longer. I also cook it the same way as I sometimes cook brussel sprouts.
In the photo below coloured kale is in the vase and black kale( also called cavolo nero and Tuscan cabbage) is in the vase.
Any left over cooked kale makes a wonderful addition to a quinoa or a lentil salad ( for example to the grain or pulse I may add: chopped tomatoes, spring onion, pepitas, sliced celery, roasted pumpkin, braised carrots or braised cooked zucchini (if I have some leftovers in the fridge). The dressing could be a simple Italian: extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and lemon juice. Or it may be a Moroccan type dressing: pomegranate molasses, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, cumin and lemon juice.
As you can see from the photo, one plant can be very large in size. There are bronze ans silver coloured kale plants as well (see photo below) but the green type is the first kale to became available. The green plant laying horizontally is a cavolo nero.
Other purchasers usually ask me this question when I am standing at a stall at the Queen Victoria Market buying a celeriac. I am usually asked the same question when I buy cavolo nero, kale, artichokes and fennel – but not as frequently for fennel these days.
Sedano rapa (celeriac) is more common in northern Italy and here are a few ways that it is eaten.
In Trieste, we used to eat it bollito e insalata – peeled, cut into quarters, boiled in salted water and then dressed with a simple drizzle of oil and lemon (or vinegar) and extra seasoning.
In Verona celeriac is made into a soup with borlotti beans, onion, carrot, beef or veal stock and fresh pork sausages.
In Piedmont (close to France) it is made into a much lighter soup, once again using broth, but it is served over slices of good quality bread topped with grated cheese.
In Australia, I do make a celeriac soup and I also like to eat it cooked with a dressing, but I particularly like it raw in salads.
Peel it first, to remove the knobs – it becomes quite attractive peeled, it is dense and fragrant.
Because celeriac discolours easily when cut, I leave handling the celeriac till the last minute and eat the salad soon after. I cut the celeriac ‘julienne ‘ and dress the salad quickly. (Dressing made with extra virgin olive oil salt, pepper and lemon juice). I usually like to add apple. Watercress is also a favourite.
I also like to present celeriac raw as one of the vegetables for bagna cauda –a dip of anchovies, butter, garlic, and olive oil. It is served warm as an appetizer with fresh vegetables . This is a recipe originating from Piedmont also.
See TASMANIA, FOOD, ART, HOBART and Bagna Cauda
I always buy my celeriac with leaves – an indication of how fresh the bulb is. And besides, I use the leaves in soups and the small, tender, centre leaves in salads. “Us Italians’ (or at least this Italian), does not throw much away.
My father who spent his youth in Ragusa (Sicily) before moving to Trieste, said that his mother boiled celeriac and then dressed it with a drizzle of olive oil. Apparently my grandparents grew it in their mulino (a water mill) close to Ragusa Ibla. There are quite a few mulini in the region of Ragusa which were used to mill wheat. The family kept their dogs there and grew a few vegetables. As a child I visited Sicily every summer and we used to go there often; it was a place to go especially in summer when their apartment in the city was too hot. A couple of these mills have been turned into restaurants. In fact, in one of the Moltalbano episodes he goes to one of these restaurant and I thought I recognised it as the one my grandparents used to own. My relatives in Ragusa disappointed me when they told me that that it was not the one – I have since visited this restaurant.
During my last trip to Sicily I visited an old water mill that has been revived to grind organic wheat into high quality flour.
Last time I was in Sicily in winter I we saw masses of artichokes everywhere – in markets, growing in fields, sold by the roadside from the back of utes, in restaurants, and in the homes of relatives.
When my family first came to Australia, we used to notice that some Italians collected wild artichokes to eat (in Australia they are known as thistles). There were no artichokes for sale for at least a decade so they collected the buds and stripped off all leaves. Only the bases were stuffed or preserved in oil.
Artichokes are now more readily available in Australia and the quality seems to be getting better. I am now more able to find artichokes that feel crisp and dense, with a tightly clenched shape and petals that will snap off crisply when bent back. I have generally found that the purplish coloured ones to be more fibrous and I prefer the green coloured ones that look like roses.
Artichokes have been around for a long time. The Romans called the artichoke cynara, the Arabs al kharsciuf, (this sounds more like the Italian carciofo).
Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin and it is said that it stimulates the production of bile. This is why artichokes are often used as the basis of digestivi (drinks that aid the digestion – a vital issue among Italians. There are those that prepare the stomach before food (aperitivi) and those drunk after a meal (amari, literally translated as ‘bitters’).
Many will be familiar with Cynar, the Italian artichoke-based alcoholic aperitivo manufactured by Campari in Milan. The are many amari manufactured all over Italy, but Averna, the amaro siciliano is a specialty from Caltanissetta (which is close to the centre of Sicily) and is a real indulgence.
Preparing artichokes for cooking
Artichokes in Sicily are sold with long stalks often up to 1 metre in length – do not ever discard the stalks. The stalks are particularly wonderful in risotti (plural of risotto) and braises made with artichoke. Trim the stalk with a small sharp knife to pull away the tough, stringy outer skin (just like the strings of celery) and leave the stem attached to the artichoke. This will expose the light-coloured, centre portion, which is very flavourful and tender and much appreciated by Italians.
When trimming, to prevent discolouration, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a big bowl of water and keep cleaned artichokes submerged in the mixture. This is referred to as acidulated water. Drain the artichokes by inverting them upside down for about 5 minutes when ready to stuff or cook. Alternatively rub the surfaces with a lemon.
Preparing artichokes for stuffing
Remove the stalk so that the artichoke will sit on its base in the saucepan. Clean the stalk and pull the tough outside leaves off the base one by one until you have reached the paler less fibrous centre. Then trim about 1cm across the top. Keep them in acidulated water as you work.
Turn the artichoke upside down and bang it on a hard surface and then gently ease the leaves apart to expose the heart. If you place the artichokes in warm water you will be able to ease apart the leaves more easily. I start by easing the outer leaves and working my way to the centre.
There may or may not have a fuzzy choke (it depends on the maturity of the plant). If there is, remove the choke with a teaspoon, inserting it into the centre and carefully turning it without snapping the sides of the choke.
Preparing the base of the artichoke
Those of you who have travelled to Italy would be familiar with the spectacle of men and women preparing artichokes at vegetable markets. They sit with their mound of artichokes, skilfully paring off all the leaves with very sharp kitchen knives.
(Photos of cleaned artichokes taken in the Campo dei Fiori market in December 2009, when I was last in Rome).
These are called fondi di carciofi – they are the bases of mature artichokes. The fondi can be stuffed, braised, sautéed, added to frittata – their intense flavour and meaty texture are a definite taste sensation.
At the end of the season, when the artichokes are large and past their prime, they are trimmed even further. In Australia, we have to do this ourselves. Pare off the leaves of a mature artichoke and just leave the base (no leaves) – it will look like a very shallow cup. The texture of the base will be covered with a pattern of small dots much like the eyes of flies (like a fine etching, delicate and quite beautiful).
It may be apparent that I am very passionate about authentic recipes, especially the ones which claim to be Italian or Sicilian.
One of the recipes is parmigiana. I have read about it in a number of sources, I have tasted it in a number of places in restaurants in Australia and have also seen it cooked on television. I have been determined to get the real story across, so much so, that I have sent this information and the recipe to two sources and I hope that they publish it. SBS have now published it on their website.
I have written this not necessarily because I am a purist, but because I always like to be aware of the origins of traditional recipes and their names. I believe that like language, recipes evolve and if someone adds a personal touch, well and good, but I do like to acknowledge the origins of the authentic recipe – once one knows the basics, there is always room for creativity.
This is how my family has always cooked parmigiana. It is how it was cooked by my mother, her mother and (more than likely) her mother before her. It represents generations of preparing and eating parmigiana in Sicilian kitchens. And those of you who are Italian, this is how the ‘existing firsts’ made it.
A parmigiana made with eggplants or with zucchini is a very common contorno (vegetable accompaniment) all over Sicily. (See variation below if using zucchini). It was once a seasonal dish of summer and autumn, but now in Sicily eggplants are grown successfully in the numerous serre (greenhouse farms) which have sprouted in most parts of the island and allow the production of summer vegetables well before and after their normal season.
Contrary to expectations it does not contain parmigiano (Parmesan cheese) nor does it originate in Parma, the home of parmigiano and the prosciutto di Parma. Pamigiana isan old Sicilian dish, most likely an adaptation and development from the fried eggplant dishes introduced by the settlers from the Middle East (the Persians). One common dish still prepared today in Iran is Kashk-e Baadenjaan. It consists of layers of fried eggplants (baadenjaan in Iranian), covered with a thick whey (kashk – a Iranian product similar to yogurt) and then sprinkled it with mint.
The layers of eggplants resemble the horizontal slats of outside, louvered shutters for blocking sunlight while allowing ventilation. These are called parmiciane (in old Sicilianand persiane in Italian). In English they are commonly called Persian blinds or persiennes (from the French. Consequently the name milinciani a parmiciana, later distorted in translation from the Sicilian into Italian to parmigiana. The Italian word for eggplant is melanzana (Solanum melongena) and once called mad apple or apple of madness by some Europeans, either because it was heard as mala insana or because the eggplant belongs to the nightshade family and therefore associated with toxins, madness and death.
To make parmigiana, the eggplants or zucchini are fried before they are placed in layers (2-3 in a baking dish) each covered with a little tomato salsa, a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese and basil and then baked.
In some parts of Sicily, instead of grated pecorino, fresh tuma or primo sale can be used. Both are very fresh pecorino cheeses in different stages of production. The primo sale is the second stage of maturation when the first sprinkling of salt is added to the outside of the cheese. These are available from Italian fresh cheese manufactures, but pecorino fresco (fresh pecorino) can be a good substitute.
I ate a version of parmigiana in Agrigento and it had hard- boiled eggs in it. There are regional variations for making parmigiana in Sicily.
Traditionally the eggplants are fried in plenty of oil, but a non-stick fry pan using a little oil can also achieve the wanted results.
Salting slices of eggplants to remove bitter juices was once thought necessary for all eggplants, but a fresh, in season eggplant is very unlikely to be bitter when cooked.
Soaking slices of eggplants in salted water while you work, however, will prevent the eggplant from discolouring and minimize the absorption of oil.
An Italian signora (one of the many women stallholders I have befriended in the Queen Victoria Market) told me how to tell if the eggplants are going to be good ones. She said that as well as looking at the colour (shiny and deep purple) I needed to look at the eggplant’s bellybutton (the mark at the base and where the blossom once was). If the eggplant is fresh, the bellybutton should be either a narrow line or a line stretched into an oval shape but never round (evidence of seeds). I must look odd when I shop for eggplants, turning them upside down to check their belly buttons! I have now shared this tip with all my friends (many who live in Adelaide) and wonder how long it will be before stallholders are wondering what this new craze is all about!
It is the wilted, softer eggplants, or the ones that are not quite dark purple and are tinged with green (a result of not enough sun or being grown out of season) that are likely to be bitter. When cut, it is probable that these eggplants are likely to have many dark bitter seeds.
Eggplants discolour quickly so they need to be cooked soon after being cut and this is why soaking them in salt water may not be a bad idea when you are cooking large amounts.
Eggplants are cooked in many ways by Sicilians and similar to meat (they are fried, baked, grilled, stuffed, boiled, sautéed and roasted). Their versatility is a demonstration of the cucina povera (the cuisine of the poor, making the most of simple common ingredients), central to Sicilian life.
eggplants, 2 large peeled and sliced thinly, lengthways
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup or more (see above)
tomatoes, 1k, ripe, peeled, seeded and diced (or use canned)
onion, 2 sliced
garlic 1 clove
basil leaves, fresh about 1 cup, small, tender and whole
salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated pecorino cheese, ¾ cup
Slice the eggplants (soak in slated water, optional).
Pat dry gently and fry the slices of eggplants in several batches until golden brown.
Place fried eggplants on paper towels to drain the oil.
Make the salsa: heat a little of the olive oil over a medium flame and sauté the garlic. When it is golden brown remove it and discard. Add the chopped tomato, salt and pepper and some basil leaves and cook till thick.
Heat the oven to 200C
Oil an ovenproof dish and cover the bottom with a thin layer of tomato sauce, sprinkle with the cheese and a few basil leaves. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up and you have 2-3 layers, leaving a little cheese for the topping.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Present at room temperature garnished with basil leaves.
There are local variations. Many add slices of hard-boiled eggs between the layers.
Parmigiana di Zucchine
Sprinkle thin slices of zucchini with a little salt. Leave them for about 20-30mins – this will help to draw out some of the liquid.
Fry the zucchini in batches and proceed as above.
My relatives in Sicily prefer to use the violet coloured eggplants they call violette in preference to the dark skinned variety they call Tunisian (they believe that they are originally from Tunisia). The violette are seedless and sweet. There is a heirloom variety (seed) available in Australia called listada di gadia – it is purple striped and almost seedless.
Those zucchini grow rapidly and before you know it, they become zucche (plural of zucca,) The marrows I am talking about are no longer than 22 cms, still tender and have flavour – any larger than this they become tasteless and dry and are good for the compost. Usually, zucche are stuffed, but these can also be used successfully to make a salad.
I use a mandoline (kitchen utensil used for slicing and cutting) to cut the marrows into matchsticks and then use a method similar to the one for making Italian vegetable preserves.
Sicilians (and southern Italians) are fond of preserves – the most common are made with eggplants or green tomatoes, sliced, salted, squeezed dry (the next day), then placed in vinegar for a day, squeezed dry and finally placed in oil and oregano.
I treat marrows in a similar way, but because I want to eat them fresh it is unnecessary to go through the lengthy process I have described above – the salting process takes about 30 minutes and the rest is completed in no time at all. If I am using zucchini, I slice them long-wise and very thinly (a potato peeler can be good).
The following amounts are for processing 1 marrow…..and not too large or seedy.
salt, 1 teaspoon
white, wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon
extra virgin olive oil, 1/3cup
oregano, ½teaspoon dried is more pungent,
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cut marrow into half, remove seeds. Cut into match sticks or use a mandoline or a turning slicer which cuts into spirals.
Place in a colander with salt. Leave to drain for at least 30mins. Squeeze dry.
Dress with the oil and vinegar and crushed oregano.
Leave for about 10 minutes for the flavours to infuse.