I love baked ricotta, but not the bastardized versions blended with eggs and herbs I have seen for sale. I do not know where these originated – not in Italy and definitely not Sicily!
I like to make the authentic, baked ricotta – unadulterated, white and fresh tasting in the centre, with a golden-brown crust. I particularly like it as a first course accompanied by a tomato salad and presented as a light meal.
Purchase the solid ricotta, in Australia usually sold by weight from four kilo shapes . The creamy variety sold in plastic tubs is not suitable.
In Sicily the ricotta is drained (on a rack overnight in the fridge) and just rubbed with salt and baked slowly uncovered until it becomes a dark golden colour. Sometimes, olive oil is rubbed over the ricotta before the salt is added, but not always. I also like to add a few herbs for flavour at the bottom of the ricotta while it is cooking and sometimes pepper (or red chili flakes) but this is not strictly traditional.
ricotta, fresh and a solid piece
extra virgin olive oil, to coat the ricotta
herbs:¼-½ cup dried oregano, enough to sprinkle as a covering and on the bottom
fresh rosemary and/or bay leaves (optional) placed under the ricotta
black pepper, ¼-½ cup or dried red chili flakes, 1 teaspoon (optional)
salt (flakes or coarse), to sprinkle on top.
The following cooking time is for a piece of ricotta weighing about 1 kilo.
Pre heat your oven to 180 C.
Oil the bottom of a baking tray, place a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and oregano (also the bay leaves and/or rosemary if you wish to include these).
Place the lump of ricotta (or wheel) on top of the flavourings.
Oil, the ricotta lightly – use your hands to coat it.
Sprinkle with the salt (I use flakes) and oregano – use your hands to ensure that it is well seasoned.
Cover with foil and bake in a 180 C for 15 minutes .Remove the foil and bake uncovered until the it has just begun to turn golden brown – it may take about 40 minutes or more, depending on the size.
Allow to cool before eating.
Cover with foil – this dish will keep well in the fridge for 3 days. A perfect dish to prepare well ahead of time.
In a restaurant in Syracuse I was presented with warm baked ricotta sprinkled with a coating of toasted pistachio nuts.
To make this version, rub the ricotta with olive oil and a little salt. Add the nuts in the last 20 minutes of cooking.
It can also double up as a dessert if dribbled with honey.
I am really pleased that the three recipes I sent to SBS have been published on the SBS website.
One of the recipes may be selected as part of upcoming food series My Family Feast. Selected recipes will be cooked by Sean Connolly (chef) in a short website and published online during broadcast of the series.
When I invite friends for a meal I like to present something that they may not have tasted before.
A beccafico is a small bird, which feeds on ripe figs – becca (peck) and fico (fig). The sardines when stuffed resemble a beccafico and sarde a beccafico demonstrates a sign of respect for this type of bird, a gourmand who stuffs himself on fresh figs. The beccafichi (plural of beccafico) are also eaten stuffed and cooked in the same way as the sarde (sardines). That is if this bird still exists in Sicily – Italians fancy themselves as great hunters (cacciatori).
There are local variations in the ingredients used for the stuffing, the method of cooking and for the names of the dish in other parts of Sicily. These are my favourite ingredients for this recipe from a combination of local recipes.
fresh sardines, fillets, 700g,
breadcrumbs, 1 cup made with good quality1-3 day old bread
anchovy fillets, 5-8 finely, cut finely
currants, ½ cup
pine nuts, ½ cup
parsley, ¾ cup, cut finely
bay leaves, 10, fresh
garlic, 2 cloves, chopped
lemon, 1, juice and zest
sugar, 1 tablespoon
nutmeg, ½ teaspoon
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
Prepare sardines: Scale, gut, butterfly and clean sardines and leave the tail. If you buy fillets, they are sometimes sold without tails – this may not matter, but when the fillet of the sardine is closed around the stuffing, the tail is flicked upright to resemble a bird – and this may be missing. (In the photo there are no tails – photo taken in a restaurant in Monreale, Palermo, December 2007)
Wipe each sardine dry before stuffing.
Preheat oven to 190 C
Prepare the stuffing:
Toast breadcrumbs until golden in about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (I use a non stick fry pan) over a low flame.
Take off heat and cool.
Stir in pine nuts, currants, parsley, anchovies, lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, pepper and garlic.
Add a little more extra virgin olive oil if the mixture is dry.
Place a spoonful of the stuffing in each opened sardine and close it upon itself to resemble a fat bird (any leftover stuffing can be sprinkled on top to seal the fish)
Position each sardine, closely side by side in an oiled baking dish with tail sticking up and place a bay leaf between each fish.
Sprinkle the sardines with lemon juice and any left over stuffing, the sugar the left over oil.
Bake for 20-30 minutes.
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.
Sicily is an island, and a Catholic one at that, where the people were obliged to fast and abstain — refrain from eating meat — on certain days, mainly Lent and on Fridays.Catholics are no longer required not to eat meat on Fridays but Sicilians eat a lot of fish.
One very popular fish is the sardine, still relatively cheap in Sicily and easily available. The photograph was taken in the Palermo market in December 2008. At that time 4 euros were about $8.00 Australian.
For example you cannot go to Sicily and not eat Pasta con le sarde.There are many regional variations of this sauce, often called by the same name, but the most famous is from Palermo made with wild fennel, pine nuts, saffron and currants.
Sardines are perfect on a BBQ, and baked, but Sicilians also like them crude (raw) e conzate (and dressed), crude e condite in Italian. Although they are called raw, they are cooked by the lemon juice in the marinade.
Sardines are sustainable, and a good choice if you are concerned about the environment. Marinaded sardines make a great antipasto and lose that strong fishy taste that those people-who-do-not- like sardines hate.
When I first came to Australia we were unable to buy sardines, now they have become very popular (similar to squid, both were used for bait!).
The sardines must be fresh, freshly cleaned and filleted with no head, central spine or innards. Begin your preparations one day ahead.
sardines, 1-3 per person
lemons, juice of 3-4
garlic, 3 cloves, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
parsley and fresh oregano, ¾ cup, cut finely.
Arrange the fish in one layer on a plate or wide vessel and pour the juice of the lemons on top (this lemon juice will be discarded).
Seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-6 hours. They are ready when they have turned almost white.
Drain the juice well. I use a colander and then quickly dry the fish on a paper towel.
Arrange the fillets in a single layer on a large plate.
Sprinkle the fish with herbs, garlic and salt and pepper.
Dress with the extra virgin olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate again for about an hour until ready to serve.