CARCIOFI (Artichokes and how to clean them and prepare them for cooking)

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.

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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.

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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 carciofi Romana

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).

There are many recipes for artichokes on my blog:

ARTICHOKES from the growers

THE AMAZING ARTICHOKE

GLOBE ARTICHOKES AND JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

Stuffed artichokes: with meat and with olives and anchovies)

CARCIOFI FARCITI (Stuffed artichokes: with meat and with olives and anchovies)

A QUICK PASTA DISH for Spring: asparagus, artichokes, peas

CANNULICCHI A LA FAVURITA – CANNOLICCHI ALLA FAVORITA (pasta with braoadbeans, peas and artichokes alla favorita)

STUFFED ARTICHOKES WITH RICOTTA AND ALMOND MEAL

CARCIOFI ALLA ROMANA

 

PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut pesto/ sauce for pasta)

I was discussing travelling in Italy and regional food (frequent topics of conversation) with an acquaintance, who told me that she and her daughter had really enjoyed travelling in Tuscany and had eaten a wonderful pasta dish with walnuts. She had no idea what it was; she had tried to work this out from recipe books but to no avail. She said that the sauce was very fragrant.

I think it must have been pesto di noci, very common in Liguria, home of pesto alla genovese (the one with pine nuts and basil).

I first ate this in Genova. My cousin Rosadele prepared this for me when I first visited her many years ago (to meet our respective, then husbands). Being autumn, she made this sauce to accompany agnolotti (pasta shaped like half moons/ hers were stuffed with ricotta and stracchino). She is a wonderful cook. Her mother, from Piedmont was also a very skilled cook, and between the two of them, there was always alchemy in their kitchens.

Although I promised this recipe to my acquaintance, I have been a little reluctant to post it in winter – it is made with fresh marjoram, and those of you who grow it and live in the colder states, will know that marjoram is dormant at this time of year. It hates hard winters and frost. However, if you have planted marjoram somewhere sheltered from the cold, and in a sunny location or even kept it indoors in a sunny spot, you may still have this herb. Taking one’s plant indoors is quite a common practice for people in England. My plant of marjoram, which was doing quite well on my balcony till about a month ago, now looks dead. I did check at The Queen Victoria Market this week to see if there were bunches of marjoram available, and there were.
Traditionally because it is a pesto, it is made with a mortar and pestle (see my recipe for Sicilian pesto), but I admit that with these ingredients a blender has worked well for me ( unlike basil which is likely to taste grassy if blended).

INGREDIENTS
walnuts, 500g
marjoram and parsley, 4 tablespoons of each, chopped
ricotta, 250 g
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
garlic, 1-2 cloves
water, 1 tablespoon
salt, to taste
butter or thick cream, 2 tablespoons
grated nutmeg, a little
pasta, 400-500g (trofie – Ligurian, traditional shape)

PROCESSES
Blend walnuts, oil and garlic – add chopped herbs, salt and blend some more.
Add water and butter/ cream and pulse blender to the desired consistency.
Cook pasta.
Stir in the ricotta and nutmeg in the sauce.
Drain the pasta but reserve approx ½ cup of hot pasta water to stir into sauce just before serving (to warm the sauce).
Combine sauce with pasta and serve.

Grated parmigiano can be added – I prefer it without.

Do not get confused with oregano and marjoram (many do). The genus name for both is origanum. Marjoram (origanum majorana) is also called sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram. It has a softer leaf and stem, it is paler in colour, the flavour is milder, sweeter and it is very aromatic. Marjoram leaves are best when fresh.

Oregano is a very common herb in Sicily, but not marjoram – this herb is generally used only in the northern part of Italy.
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CAVOLO NERO and three ways to cook it

Cavolo nero  is also called black Tuscan cabbage. I have also seen it called Black kale. It is not black in colour, it is a very deep green, the leaves long, thin and curly. I constantly find myself in situations where I end up explaining to others how to clean and how to cook it. It gives me great satisfaction (I feel like a know-all). This morning it happened twice at the Queen Victoria Market. Once at the stall where I was buying it, and again a little later as I was walking along carrying it in my basket. And it happened last week as well.

Here are three ways you can enjoy it:

  • Ribollita (soup)
  • Crostini
  • Contorno ( vegetable side dish)

RIBOLLITA

Cavolo nero is prolific in Tuscany and is one of the main ingredients in the famous Tuscan soup called ribollitaBollita (soup is a feminine word) means boiled, so the soup is called reboiled, and it is.

 Ribollita is made with cannellini, other greens (beets, cabbage), tomatoes, red onion, garlic, celery, carrots, leeks and cavolo nero. Once the soup is made, it is then layered with good quality 1-2 day old bread and left to rest for at least 24 hours; the flavours intensify when it rests.

When the soup is ready to eat, a little extra virgin olive oil is added and then it is reboiled. It is one of those soups that never die – leave it all week.

Have you ever eaten Tuscan bread? Wonderful stuff. Thickening and eating soup with the bread is what contadini, (peasants, on the land) have always done. This custom is very much like the French who ladle soupe over a slice of bread – pain de campagne. The quality and character of the bread is important, it adds flavour. Good bread lasts one week and many say that it improves with age.

 

On CROSTINI

One other way to eat cavolo nero is on crostini.

Use slices of good quality bread, grill them, and while they’re still hot rub them with a cut clove of garlic and drizzle with good quality extra virgin olive oil.

Strip the leaves off the tough stalks (I usually only remove the toughest bits of the stalks at the end of the leaf), wilt till soft, drain well and cool.

Add salt freshly ground black pepper, and a little extra virgin olive oil.

Mix well and place a little of the cooked vegetable on the hot crostini. Drizzle with more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Place on slices of bread fried in extra virgin olive oil until crisp (crostini).

 

As a CONTORNO (a vegetable accompaniment)

I cook cavolo nero the same way as Italians cook most greens: it is first wilted then tossed around in oil and garlic and salt. Unlike most Italians who like their vegetables soft, I skip the wilting process and sauté them in oil and garlic, add salt and pepper, a splash of liquid (stock, white wine or water) and cook till softened (It is tougher than silverbeet and will take longer to cook).

In photo below, braised greens as an accompaniment to sauteed  chicken livers.

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BRODO DI GALLINA (Chicken Broth)

 

If you aren’t feeling well, especially if you have an upset stomach Italians say that you are debole di stomaco; this seems to be a common malady with Italians. The home cure is to eat in bianco – white food (bianco is Italian for white). In bianco is the culinary term used to refer to a dish, which is served plain and with little seasoning.

Broth, boiled rice, boiled chicken/veal, certain boiled vegetables, steamed white fish, bistecca di vitello a bagnio maria (veal steak cooked in a baine marie), latte di mandorla (almond milk) and bianco mangiare (dessert= thickened almond milk) are some of the foods which are considered mangiare (food) in bianco.

The perfect in bianco food and the cure for any ailment of course, is brodo (broth).

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I usually use a whole, organic chicken and eat the flesh after I have made the broth. If I use a veal shin I also eat the flesh (try it with a salsa verde). If I am eating the meat, I remove the chicken or veal from the broth after about  60-80 minutes of gentle cooking and then evaporate the broth on high heat.

Obviously the more solids, the more taste. To concentrate the flavours, cook the broth for longer and towards the end of cooking, leave it uncovered to evaporate.

If you do not wish to eat the meat, fleshy bones from organic chickens are a suitable substitute. Because stock is the foundation for cooking, the quality of the bones is important, cheap bones from battery hens will not produce flavourful stock and it is likely to be full of concentrated chemicals.

 

Gallina vecchia fa` buon brodo (Ancient Italian proverb).

An old chicken makes good broth.

 

Ingredients: 1 large onion, chicken (or carcasses, necks and wings and/or veal bones) salt, peppercorns(optional), celery stick, carrot, 1-2 red tomatoes) and water to cover ingredients.
Processes: Peel and halve the onion, remove obvious fat from meat, clean the celery and carrot (no need to peel as it will be discarded). Add all of these ingredients and the seasoning to a saucepan or stockpot and cover the contents with cold water. Cover with a lid and slowly bring the broth to a boil. Simmer for 2 hours (or up to 3 hours if using large bones), skimming frequently. Strain the broth, discarding solids (unless you are eating the meat).

See  Gnocchetti di semolino

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WILD FENNEL and photos

Wild fennel is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes. It can be cooked (see recipes for Pasta con le sarde and Ministra di finocchio e patate ) or added raw like any chopped herb, for example as in an olive or an octopus salad. The seeds are also used, for example scattered on bread before baking or to flavour marinades and preserves. 

These photos of wild fennel were kindly sent to me by one of my readers who lives in Philadelphia. 

She has travelled to Sicily several times and has also attended cooking classes there. She is aware about the differences in flavour between wild fennel and the bulb fennel. Since coming back from Sicily she has found a good source for wild fennel seeds and they are sprouting well in her North American garden in an apartment complex. 

She writes:
The gentleman in the blue work suit is holding wild fennel. We picked lots of it. My understanding is that you never eat it raw and that the “frilly” part at the top has tons of flavor unlike the typical fennel I find here with the large bulb where the frilly part has almost no flavor at all. 

I don’t think wild fennel has any bulb at all. It appears if anything, more like celery in that it is a simple stalk except with the frilly parts at the top.

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MINISTRA DI FINOCCHIO E PATATE (Soup – fennel and potatoes)

Several of my friends are beginning to discover and appreciate the taste of fennel. It is prolific at present in Melbourne and most refreshing eaten raw. It can be cooked – braised, baked, made into a tortino (see recipe in blog tortino di finocchio) and as in this recipe, made into a soup (not a very common way to cook fennel).

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Traditionally this recipe should be made with wild fennel and this is how I first tasted this soup.Obviously if this ingredient is not close by, the bulb can be used. If you can collect some wild fennel (make sure it looks healthy, see recipe in blog pasta con le sarde), experiment with this recipe and use both the wild and the cultivated bulb with some of its tender fronds and stalks (choose round, shiny bulbs, as in photo taken in the market of Syracuse).

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It is one of the simplest soups to make and when it was first made for me (using wild fennel) all of the vegetables went into a pot with the water and once softened, broken spaghetti were added – soup without pasta is rarely presented. The broken spaghetti were once the way to use them up, by all means use some short, small sout pasta shape. 

I am always amazed how Sicilian soups cooked so simply can be so appetising. My relative presented the minestra with a drizzle of the very flavourful oil given to her by a relative in Noto. Maybe the oil is the secret ingredient! Boiled vegetables cooked this way and presented with the water is considered rinfrescante, calming and soothing for the digestive system and very common as the evening meal (Sicilians still eat their main meal at lunch time).

I have intensified the flavours by varying the method of cooking and I sauté the vegetables before adding the liquid, this being a common way to make soup in the north of Italy. I also like to add stock instead of water, but when I cook this version it is no longer traditionally Sicilian.

I also found a version of a recipe for maccu (a very Sicilian soup) made in the Madonie which is very similar but uses wild fennel , dried broadbeans (soaked overnight and peeled) and no potato. The dried broadbeans add a very different taste and as they are floury, also thicken the soup as does the potato.
Photo below in restaurant in Modica.
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INGREDIENTS 

potatoes 250g, cut into small cubes 

onion 1 large 

parsley,1cup of chopped 

salt and pepper 

bulb fennel 1-2 (about 600g), with green top leaves chopped and sliced very finely 

tomatoes 3 large peeled, chopped 

spaghetti 300 g of broken roughly into little pieces 

extra virgin olive oil ½ cup and some quality extra virgin to dribble on top 

bay leaves, 2 preferably fresh (optional) 

water,1 ½ litres (I use stock)

 

PROCESSES 

Traditional: 

Add all all the vegetables to the water and proceed as described above. 

Not traditional: 

Saute the onion in the oil until softened. 

Add the fennel and potatoes and stir till coated, add about 2 cups of liquid and the bay leaves . 

Cover and allow to braise very gently and without drying out for about 10 minutes. 

Add the tomatoes , parsley, seasoning and the rest of the liquid. 

Bring to the boil, add the pasta, stir , cover and allow to cook . 

Drizzle with the quality olive oil and sprinkle with fresh black pepper and serve. 

 

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IOTA (Recipe, a very thick soup from Trieste) Post 1

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Time to write about Trieste again. Now and again I feel nostalgic for this city where I spent my childhood before coming to Australia.

Today is my son’s birthday and lately he has been cooking iota (he does not live in Melbourne), but he tells me that it is not as good as mine.

Iota is a very old traditional dish from Trieste. It is very strongly flavoured, thick soup and the main ingredients are borlotti beans, sauerkraut and smoked meats. It is not a light dish by any means, but very simple to make and most suited to cold weather. It is usually made at least 1 day before you plan to eat it – the flavours mature and improve with age.

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This is not a dish that many would associate with Italy but if you look at the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia it is easier to understand why this recipe is very characteristic of the area around Trieste.

I was last in Trieste in December 2007 and visited an osteria in the old part of Trieste (la citta` vecchia – the port / waterfront, see photo) to specifically eat cucina triestina. When I told the signora that I was reliving the food of my childhood she could not do enough for me – I had iota, sepe in umido (braised cuttle fish) matavilz (lamb’s lettuce salad) and strucolo de pomi( apple strudel). White wine of course (characteristic of the area) and we finished off the meal with a good grappa. Nothing like Sicilian food, but enjoyable for different reasons – nostalgia has a lot to do with it.

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I have seen iota written by a variety of spellings: iotta, jota, yota are all pronounced the same way. Some also refer to it as fasoi (beans) and capuzi garbi (sauerkraut).

In some nearby places close to Trieste turnips are sometimes used instead of saurkraut.

There are variations in the making of iota: some add smoked sausages (as I always do) some parsley, and some a little barley – the texture of barley is good.

I always buy my sausages from a Polish or German butcher. When I lived in Adelaide I used to go to the Polish stall at The Adelaide Market and now, at the Polish stall in the Queen Victoria Market. I also buy good quality saurkraut there.

Most Triestini add flour to thicken this one course meal, but I generally do not do this.

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INGREDIENTS

borlotti beans, 250g soaked overnight
potatoes, 250g, peeled and cubed
sauerkraut, 250g
olive oil, ½ cup
bay leaves,3
ham hock or smoked ribs, shanks, 300-400g
pork, smoked sausages made from coarsely ground meat
garlic, 2 chopped
pepper and salt to taste
plain flour, 2 tablespoons

PROCESSES

Place beans, salt pork, potatoes and bay leaves in large pot of cold water. Cover ingredients fully.
Simmer slowly (about 1 ½ hours). Add sausages about half way through the cooking.
Remove about half of the beans and potatoes and mash them. Add salt and pepper to taste and return them to the pan.

Add the saurkraut and cook for about 30 minutes longer (some Triestini cook them separately, but I see no point in doing this).

To thicken the soup, add the flour and garlic to the hot olive oil – use a separate small pan, stir vigorously and try not to have lumps. This is like making a French roux but using oil instead of butter. Some of the older Triestini use lard.

Happy birthday……. and I am sorry that I am not there to cook it for you.

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RISI E BISI (Risotto with peas)


Today in Venice, Venetians are celebrating the feast day of their patron saint (25 April, the date of the death of San Marco).

Risi e bisi the classic Venetian dish was traditionally offered to the Doge (do not know which one) on April 25, the feast of Saint Mark. This is not surprising, it is spring in the northern hemisphere and peas are one of the symbols of the season.

It is a public holiday in Venice and all sorts of events take place.

Although Venetians celebrate his feast day they also celebrate Liberation Day (liberation from the Nazis at the end of 2nd World War) and Festa del Bòcolo (is a rose bud) and it is customary for all women, not just lovers, to be presented with a bud. The very old legend concerns the daughter of Doge Orso Partecipazio, who was besotted with a handsome man, but the Doge did not approve and arranged for the object of her desire to fight the Turks on distant shores. The loved one was mortally wounded in battle near a rose bush. There he plucked a rose, tinged with his heroic blood and asked for it to be given to his beloved in Venice.

I grew up in Trieste (not far from Venice and in the same region of Italy) and risi e bisi is a staple, traditional dish.

The traditional way of cooking it does not include prosciutto but prosciutto cotto, what we call ham in Australia. Poor tasting ingredients will give a poor result; use a good quality smoked ham. As an alternative some cooks in Trieste use speck, a common ingredient in the region (it tastes more like pancetta). Some of the older Triestini use lard and only a little oil.

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My mother also added a little white wine to the soffritto of onion and the ham, but this also would have been a modern addition. The butter is added last of all for taste. Use parmigiano parmigiano is the cheese used in the north of Italy, pecorino in the south.

The secret is in using good produce, preferably organic, young and freshly picked peas (for their delicate taste) and a good stock.

My mother made chicken stock. If she had no stock, she used good quality broth cubes- very common in Northern Italian cooking. Use as much as needed.

INGREDIENTS

peas (young, fresh), 1 kilo unshelled
rice, 300g vialone nano preferably,
ham, cubed 50-70g,
onion,1 finely cut (I like to use spring onions as well)
parmigiano (Reggiano), grated
50g
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
dry white wine, ½ glass (optional),
parsley, finely cut, ½ cup
butter, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 
PROCESSES
Shell the peas.
Heat the olive oil, add ham and onion and over medium-low heat soften the ingredients. Do not brown.
Add the shelled peas, parsley and when they are covered in oil, add very little stock (to soften the peas), cover and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add the rice, and stir, add the wine (optional) and evaporate.
Keep on adding the hot stock, stirring the rice and adding more stock as it is absorbed. End up with a wet dish (almost soupy and all’onda as Italians say) and with the rice al dente. In fact, the dish should rest for about 5 minutes before it is served so take this into consideration (the rice will keep on cooking and absorb the stock).
Add parmesan and butter, stir and serve.
 
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EGGPLANT or ZUCCHINI PARMIGIANA (Milinciani or cucuzzeddi a parmiciana – parmigiana di melenzane or di zucchine)

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.

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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.

PARMIGIANA….the background.

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 is an 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 Sicilian and 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.

INGREDIENTS
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
PROCESSES
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. Add a layer of eggplants. 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.
VARIATIONS
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.

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