Category Archives: Entrée /Antipasto/Starter

STUFFED BAKED FENNEL WITH PANGRATTATO – FINOCCHI RIPIENI

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.

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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.

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Cut the stems off the fennel and remove the toughest and usually damaged outer leaves Cut the fennel into quarters.

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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.

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Prise open the leaves of the fennel and stuff with the pangrattato stuffing.

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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

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SPAGHETTI with PRAWNS and ZUCCHINI

SPAGHETTI with ‘NDUJA, SQUID, VONGOLE AND PAN GRATTATO

PASTA CON LE SARDE – an iconic Sicilian recipe from Palermo. Cooked at Slow Food Festival Melbourne

PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

SARDE A BECCAFICO (Sardines stuffed with currants, pine nuts, sugar and nutmeg)

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MARINADED FISH and a recipe for PESCE IN SAOR

Sousing fish was a way of preserving it before refrigeration by saturating the fish with acid – vinegar in this case which, like salt,  prevents the growth of microbes. Sugar is also added and to create an agro dolce dish (sweet and sour). The fish is first fried in olive oil and then marinaded in the vinegar base. Slowly sautéed onions are a common ingredient in soused fish and different flavourings are added to the pickling mix. My Sicilian grandmother would put mint, bay leaves and slivers of garlic in her vinegar marinade (pisci ammarinatu in Sicilian), but the pesse in saor made in Venice and in Trieste where I lived as a child, has raisins and pine nuts in it. Pesse is Triestiane for pesce – fish in Italian.

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Soused fish is found all over Italy, for example pesce alla scapace is cooked in central and southern Italy and the Molise version is flavoured with saffron, minced garlic and sage. Pesce in carpione from Lombardy has celery and carrot for flavourings, the Ligurian scabeccio has garlic, whole pepper and rosemary, and the Sardinian marinade has chilli, garlic, and tomato sauce.

Soused fish is also common in other cultures – Nordic countries thrive on soused fish and different versions of escabeche are found in Spanish, Portuguese, French and in North African cuisines. I have a German friend who also cooks soused fish – he adds coriander seeds to his.

My maternal grandmother always had soused fish (in pottery terrines and covered with plates as lids) in her kitchen in Sicily.

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When she visited us in Trieste she did the same and our kitchen then also smelt of fish and vinegar. She particularly liked to souse eel – eel was good in Trieste. We would walk to the Pescheria together, she would choose the eel she wanted from a big tank and the fishmonger would kill it and chop it into pieces.

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I did not much like this part, but I liked going to the Pescheria on the waterfront in the bay of Trieste. The imposing building is now home to Eataly.

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Triestine pesse is mostly made with sardines and is often eaten with white polenta (yellow polenta is usually an accompaniment to meat).

Traditionally, the fish is lightly dusted with flour and salt before it is fried in very hot, extra virgin, olive oil. Although the flour helps to hold the fish together, the oil used to fry the fish will need to be discarded (the sediment will taint the taste of the oil) and the flour coating will often come away from the fish in the marinade.

On my way to Adelaide from Melbourne I drove through Meningie (at the northern end of the Coorong on the shores of Lake Albert) and I bought freshly-caught Coorong mullet. On this occasion I used them instead of sardines to make pesse in saor.

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2-3 fish per person /12-16 fresh sardines or small fish (sand whiting, mullet, garfish, flathead, leather jackets), cleaned and filleted with heads and backbone removed.

plain flour and salt for dusting
olive oil for frying
2-3 large white onions, sliced finely
1 cup of raisins
1 cup of pine nuts, toasted
sufficient white wine to soak the raisins
250 ml of white wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper

Dust the fish fillets in a little flour and salt, shake off as much flour as possible and fry them in plenty of oil until golden and crisp. Place them on kitchen paper to remove excess oil and set aside.
Soak the raisins in the white wine for about 30minutes.
Sauté the onions gently in some olive oil until they are soft. Add the vinegar and pepper and cook the mixture for a few minutes. Set aside.

Select a terrine deep enough to hold the fish, ingredients and vinegar marinade – a narrow, deep terrine is best. Place a layer of fish, add some onions (dig them out of the vinegar mixture), raisins (drained) and pine nuts. Continue layering the ingredients, finishing with a layer of onions, raisins and pine nuts on top. Pour the vinegar over the layers. Cover it, place it in the fridge and allow to marinate at least 24 hours before serving.  Serve at room temperature.

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See: PISCI ALL’ AGGHIATA – PESCE ALL’AGLIATA (Soused fish with vinegar, garlic and bay)

 

‘NDUJA with SQUID, very simple

‘Nduja– a spicy, spreadable, pork salame originating from Calabria is sold in places that sell Italian smallgoods.

I have mainly presented ‘Nduja with some fresh bread (like Pâté) or I have used ‘Nduja as an ingredient in sauces for pasta –an excellent ragù (a meat-based tomato sauce), sautéed with cime di rape and Italian pork sausages and I often add it to squid either for a sauce for pasta/polenta/rice or on their own.

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As you can see by the photos, this is a very simple recipe and it is cooked very quickly – onions, ‘Nduja, squid and olive oil. Most of the time I also add finely chopped parsley at the same time as the squid.

Use small to medium sized squid.

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1,5 kg of Squid, 150g ‘Nduja, ½ onion, extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice at the end.

Sauté onion in olive oil on medium low heat. Add ‘Nduja, it will dissolve, release some fat and fragrance.

Add squid, a little chopped parsley and stir fry it until it colours (about 10 minutes).

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Sprinkle with lemon juice, more chopped parsley or mint and present it.

Other posts about ‘NDUJA:

SPAGHETTI with ‘NDUJA, SQUID, VONGOLE AND PAN GRATTATO

‘NDUJA, a spreadable and spicy pork salame from Calabria

 

PEPERONATA – PIPIRONATA (Sicilian) Braised peppers

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.

Add more fresh basil at the time of serving.

 

10 MUST-TRY DISHES WHEN YOU ARE IN SICILY

Time and time again I get asked about what I recommend as must-try dishes when in in Sicily.

You may be familiar with the websites for Great British Chefs (leading source of professional chef recipes in the UK) and their second sister website – Great Italian Chefs – dedicated to celebrating the wonderful food culture, traditions and innovations of Italy’s greatest chefs.

As their website informs us:

The Italians themselves are fiercely passionate about their culinary heritage, and with good reason – a large number of the world’s best dishes come from the cities, fields and shores of this deeply cultural, historic country.

AND

Today, Sicily is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s the food that keeps people coming back year after year.

From Great Italian Chefs comes 10 must-try dishes when you’re in Sicily (29 September 2017).

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There are really 11 dishes listed altogether as it is assumed that you already know about Arancini.

The Sicilian specialties are:

  1. Fritella
  2. Caponata
  3. Raw red prawns
  4. Busiate al pesto trapanese
  5. Pasta con le sarde
  6. Pasta alla norma
  7. Cous cous di pesce
  8. Fritto misto
  9. Involtini di pesce spada
  10. Cannoli

AND

  1. Arancini

You will find almost all of the recipes for these dishes in my blog and I have added links and some photos to the recipes in this post below. Some of the photos are from my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. I cooked the food, the food stylist was Fiona Rigg, Graeme Gillies was the food photographer.

Although I have no recipes on my blog for Fritto misto, Raw red prawns and Involtini di pesce spada, I have explained each of these these Sicilian specialties and where appropriate I  have links to similar recipes on my blog.

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Fritto misto

Many of you may be familiar with Fritto misto (a mixed dish of mixed fried things: fritto = fried, misto = mixed) and know that it can apply to vegetables, fish or meat. These are cut into manageable size, are dusted in flour, deep fried and served plainly with just cut lemon.

The Fritto misto I knew as a child was what we ordered in restaurants and was the one that originated from Turin (Piedmont) and Milan (Lombardy). It was a mixture of meats and offal and I particularly liked the brains. Fritto misto was originally peasant food, the family slaughtered an animal for eating (usually veal) and the organs such as sweetbreads, kidneys, brains and bits of meat became the Fritto misto –  it was a way to eat the whole animal and it was eaten as close to the slaughter and fresh as possible. Rather than having been dipped in flour the various morsels were crumbed. Seasonal crumbed vegetables were also often included –  mostly eggplant and zucchini in the warm months, cauliflower and artichokes in the cooler season.

If we wanted to eat a fish variety of Fritto misto we would order a Fritto Misto di Mare/or Di Pesce (from the sea or of fish).

Sicily is an island and Sicilians eat a lot of fish and the Fritto misto you eat in Sicily is the fish variety – fresh fish is fundamental. In the Sicilian Fritto misto you will also find Nunnata (neonata (Italian) – neonate),

Sicilians are very fond of Nunnata – the Sicilian term used to call the minute newborn fish of different species including fish, octopi and crabs; each is almost transparent and so soft that they are eaten whole.

For Sicilians Nunnata is a delicacy but these very small fish are an important link in the marine biological food chain, and that wild and indiscriminate fishing endangers the survival of some fish species.

Many Sicilian fishers and vendors justify selling juvenile fish on the grounds that they are ‘bycatch’ (taken while fishing for other species). They argue that the fish are already dead or injured, so there is no point in throwing them back. It seems that for Sicilians, ‘sustainability’ means that all fish are fair game as long as they can catch their quota. However, it is important to acknowledge that the traditional fishing for juveniles is an important activity for small-scale fishers. It only takes place for 60 consecutive days during the winter and therefore has a high socio-economic impact at local level. When in Sicily I refuse to eat this and I only encountered one restaurant in Sciacca that refused to present it to patrons who specifically asked for it.

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Fritto misto di mare or Fritto misto di pesce

For the recipe of mixed fried fish, select a variety of fish: squid and prawns, sardines/anchovies, some fleshy white fish, whitebait too. Carefully clean the prawns leaving the head attached and removing the internal alimentary canal; clean the squid and cut into rings or strips and gut the sardines /anchovies and leave the head attached if you can.

Wipe the fish dry and dip the fish a little at a time into the flour and salt, sieve or shake to remove the excess flour and fry in very hot oil until golden and crispy. I use extra virgin oil for everything. Place on paper to drain and serve hot with lemon wedges and perhaps some more salt.

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Raw red prawns 

Gambero Rosso, (Aristaeomorpha foliacea) is a Sicilian red prawn. These prawns are blood-red  and are generally wild caught in the Mediterranean.

All very fresh seafood can be eaten raw and is loved by Sicilians, usually served with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Most times the seafood is marinaded in these even if it is for a short time – the lemon juice “cooks” the fish.

See posts:

SARDINE, CRUDE E CONDITE (Sardines – raw and marinaded)

PESCE CRUDO, raw fish dishes in Sicily

GREAT BRITISH CHEFS, GREAT ITALIAN CHEFS, Feature articles by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins

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Involtini di pesce spada

I like to eat sustainable fish and although pesce spada (swordfish) is very popular in Sicily it is overfished.

Swordfish display in LxRm5

There are local variations for the stuffing for Involtini di pesce spada but the most common is made from a combination of dry breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, grated pecorino and sometimes capers.

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I have these recipes that are involtini (rolled fillets and stuffed).

SARDE A BECCAFICO (Sardines stuffed with currants, pine nuts, sugar and nutmeg)

MY FAMILY FEAST SBS ONE, my recipes have been selected

INVOLTINI DI PESCE (Rolled fish: Fish fillets rolled around a herb stuffing)

BRACIOLINI or INVOLTINI DI PESCE – Small fish braciole stuffed with herbs, cooking demonstration at the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market

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RECIPES ON MY BLOG FOR THE FOLLOWING:

  • Fritella ( Frittedda/ Fritedda in Sicilian)

Frittedda

Jewels of Sicily

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  • Caponata

SICILIAN CAPONATA DI MELANZANE as made in Palermo (Eggplant caponata and Eggplant caponata with chocolate)

CAPONATA SICILIANA (CATANESE – Caponata as made in Catania

CAPONATA of Potatoes (General information and recipe for Caponata di patate)

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  • Busiate al pesto trapanese

Pesto trapanese (from Tapani in Western Sicily) is also called Matarocco. Busiate is the type of pasta traditionally made by coiling a strip of pasta cut diagonally around a thin rod (like a knitting needle).

MATARROCCU, a Sicilian pesto

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  • Pasta con le sarde

PASTA CON LE SARDE (Pasta with sardines, from Palermo, made with fennel, pine nuts and currants)

PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

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  • Pasta alla norma

PASTA ALLA NORMA (Pasta with tomatoes, and eggplants)

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  • Arancini

ARANCINI, Rice Balls at Caffé di Lido

ARANCINI (where else… but in Hong Kong!)

GREAT BRITISH CHEFS, GREAT ITALIAN CHEFS, Feature articles by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins

Arancini by Emanuel[3]

  • Cous cous di pesce
  • Cannoli

I am saddened and distressed to say that recipes for Cous Cous di pesce and Cannoli have disappeared from my blog and I can only assume that because I have transferred my blog several times to new sites these posts have been lost in the process. I will add these recipes at a later date.

In the meantime here are some photos:

Cannoli close up

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Great Italian Chefs link to 10 must-try dishes when you’re in Sicily (29 September 2017).

PUMARORU CA CIPUDDA (Tomatoes with onions). INSALATA DI POMODORO (Tomato salad)

Simple tomato salads feature very frequently in my kitchen – not surprising as local tomatoes and basil in summer are at their best.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

6-8 tomatoes
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.

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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!

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In my last post I made reference to Sicilian tomato salad. See post:

RICOTTA, TOMATOES and Basil. A perfect summer dish.

These little beauties below were left by a neighbour at my door.

I feel a tomato salad coming on.

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RICOTTA, TOMATOES and Basil. A perfect summer dish.

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. 

IMG_0134In 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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New Year’s ….Baccalà

This is baccalà that has been soaking for two days. I kept it in the fridge in a sealed container and changed the water four times per day.

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This is baccalà that I am poaching in some water (to cover) and some bay leaves. I usually poach it in milk but the friend I was preparing this for is allergic to dairy.

I  let it cool and removed the bones, skin and cartilage.

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I then drained the solids because I wanted to use some of the liquid in the mixture that I blended in my food processor  – the baccalà, with oil and garlic until it looked like mayonnaise.

So what is this?

Baccalà Mantecato and  I present it spread on crostini.

I have the recipe in my second cookbook Small Fishy Bites and is popular in Trieste and Venice and neighbouring localities .

For background and full recipe see early post: Baccalà Mantecato

STOCKFISH and SALT COD -The differences between stoccafisso and baccalà and recipes.

 

 

CAPONATA DI NATALE (Christmas, winter caponata made with celery, almonds and sultanas)

Not all caponate include eggplants.

This  Sicilian caponata is certainly different to the Christmas fare we are used to in Australia, but it makes a perfect antipasto or salad as an accompaniment to meat or fish .

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Eggplants and peppers are summer vegetables and not in season in winter for Christmas, so this caponata is made with celery hearts, traditionally boiled first before being sautéed. In some parts of Sicily green, leafy winter vegetables (for example chicory, spinach, endives) are also used with the celery.

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I do not pre-cook the celery; I prefer to slice it very finely and just sauté it till it is slightly softened.

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It is a very unusual caponata with a combination of textures and flavourssweet, salty, sour… soft and crunchy. This recipe is one of the many caponate in my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.

Sultanas or currants are both good to use. Muscatels and raisins are OK as well, but their size may not be as visually pleasing.

Sometimes I toast the almonds, sometimes I do not. I made this caponata in a friend’s kitchen and on this occasion I used whole almonds rather than chopped ( the was no food processor/ kitchen wizz). On other occasions I have used pine nuts.

I have paired this with meat and fish but I really like to eat it on by it self… especially at the start of a meal.

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INGREDIENTS

almonds, 1 cup, blanched, toasted and chopped
celery, 1 large, but remove the outer leaves and only use the centre, pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves
onion 1, large, chopped
sultanas or currants, ¾ cup, sun-ripened
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ½ glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper

Optional
These can be sprinkled on top when the caponata is ready to serve:
Coarse Toasted Breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons, made from good quality 1-2 day old bread and then toasted in a frypan with hot oil.

PROCESSES

Slice the celery finely and chop the leaves.
Sauté the celery with the onion in a deep frypan until it has softened, add salt and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the olives, sultanas and capers and cook for another 2 minutes.
Empty the cooked ingredients into a bowl.
Agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce): To the frypan already coated with caramelised flavours, add the sugar and heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and some of the almonds, reserving some for decoration if you are not going to use the toasted breadcrumbs.

Leave the caponata in the fridge, at least overnight. Serve at Room temperature. Top with the rest of the almonds or breadcrumbs when ready to serve.

SICILIAN CAPONATA DI MELANZANE as made in Palermo (Eggplant caponata and Eggplant caponata with chocolate)

Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).

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Photograph by Graeme Gillies and food styling by Fiona Rigg. Cooking and recipe by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins (from Sicilian Seafood Cooking)

In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.

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If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.

I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.

In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.

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For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.

I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.

The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….

As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.

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There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.

Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).

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You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).

Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.

extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.

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For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):

Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.

When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.

CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)

In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.

Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.

Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.

Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.

Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.

In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.

In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :

A MOUNTAIN OF CAPONATA – two days before Christmas 

CAPONATA SICILIANA (CATANESE – Caponata as made in Catania) 

FENNEL CAPONATA (Sicilian sweet and sour method for preparing certain vegetables)

CAPONATA (General information and recipe for Caponata di patate – potatoes)

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Caponata Catanese