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.