I bought a book called Le Ricette Regionali Italiane by Anna Gosetti della Salda in the 1980’s; this large and heavy book was the first of many books which I transported back from Italy over my many visits.
In the Sicilian section of this book, there is a recipe for Pollo alla Messinese, a dish which is well suited when inviting guests, particularly in the hot weather (and in Melbourne we have recently experienced some unusually hot temperatures). It can also be served as an antipasto.
Pollo alla Messinese could well be called Pollo Tonnato and is made with chicken instead of veal. The recipe suggests cooking a whole chicken in broth, but I use large chicken breasts – it is easier to cut the breasts into thin slices and then to layer them with tuna mayonnaise. I use organic chicken (estimate one chicken breast per person) and canned yellowfin tuna, dolphin-safe. I always use greater quantities of anchovies and capers in the mayonnaise than the recipe suggests (recipe below is my adaptation).
I would liked to have had presented information about the origins of Pollo alla Messinese and although there appear to be many recipes, they are usually pieces of chicken stewed or braised in tomatoes or wine and sometimes with olives .
chicken breasts, 6
bay leaves, 2
carrots, 2 halved length wise
onion, 1, cut into quarters
celery stalks, 1 halved length wise
parsley, 2 stalks and leaves
basil, 2 stalks and leaves
salt to taste
stock or water to cover
mayonnaise, made with 2 egg yolks extra virgin olive oil, juice of 1-2 lemons and salt and pepper to taste
anchovy fillets, 6
tinned tuna (300 gm)
capers, 3 tablespoons
Place the whole breasts into a large pot and intersperse with bay leaves, carrots, onion, celery, parsley, basil, salt and black peppercorns. Cover the breasts with hot stock or water.
Bring slowly to boil, turn down heat, cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes .
Leave the chicken in the stock to finish cooking.
Cool and leave the chicken in the stock till ready to use (I usually cook the chicken the day before).
When cold, drain well and slice the meat thinly. Keep the broth for another time and discard the vegetables.
Make a thick mayonnaise with the egg yolks, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. I use my blender.
Drain the tuna and separate it with a fork before adding it to the thick mayonnaise.
Add chopped anchovies and capers. Briefly pulse the mixture in the blender or use a fork to incorporate these ingredients into the mayonnaise – the mixture should be relatively smooth.
The recipe says to place the slices on a large platter and to spread a thin layer of sauce over each slice. I prefer to line a container with foil and beginning with a layer of mayonnaise, make 3-4 layers of chicken slices and mayonnaise.
Cover with more foil and store in the fridge till ready to present.
Turn out the chicken from the container, sprinkle with capers, cut into portions and serve.
The sustainable albacore tuna (better choice category in the Marine Conservation Seafood Guide).
As you might expect many Sicilian fish recipes are for the aristocrats of Sicilian fish – the blue-fin tuna and swordfish – but these species have been overfished and are no longer sustainable, not just in Sicily, but worldwide.
A century ago in Sicily, during tuna fishing season, it was easy to catch thousands of tuna, each weighing approximately 300 kilograms, but their numbers have fallen drastically.
Unfortunately, the situation with swordfish (pesce spada) is much the same as with blue-fin tuna. Once it would not have been unusual for fishers to haul into their fishing boats, swordfish measuring more than five metres long. Now, especially in the Mediterranean, stocks have rapidly reduced due to overfishing.
For all the Sicilian recipes intended for tuna and swordfish I use the sustainable albacore tuna. My vendor stocks it when he can get it, but not all fishers are interested in catching it because it does not fetch high prices – it is not in demand as an export to Japan (where tuna is preferred eaten raw and red) and therefore it is the cheaper alternative. I have sometimes seen albacore tuna for sale at only one other stall at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market – it has never looked appealing; it has been cut roughly and with high proportion of red flesh. When I am able to purchase it from my vendor (Happy Tuna Seafood), he has either cut it into quality thick steaks, or as a larger fillet left whole, or in a vertical slice from the centre of the tuna (see photo).
This cut is called a rota (in Sicilian). In Italian the word is ruota – a round or a wheel. I have stuffed the slices of tuna with garlic and rosemary. The rota is cooked in one piece and is separated into portions when it is ready to serve. I have found the slices of tuna I purchase in Australia to be smaller than those I remember in my childhood and will only feed 2–4 people. I remember my grandmother Maria in Catania cooking a very large rota of tuna during one of our visits to Sicily. It must have weighed about 2 kilos and it fitted very tightly in a shallow fry pan (an indication of how large the fish once were).
The pale flesh and versatility of Australian albacore tuna is very under rated. It is known as the chicken of the sea – the flesh turns white when cooked.
Cooking albacore tuna and RECIPE
I generally braise albacore tuna, usually with tomatoes, capers and herbs. I always insert flavours into the flesh (slivers of garlic, herbs or cloves). Sometimes I use white wine, but on this occasion I softened some onion in some extra virgin olive oil, sealed the slices of tuna and then added some dry marsala , orange slices and bay leaves. When I am braising food, I always cover the pan with a lid and cook it slowly.
Yellow-fin tuna and Big-eye
Both of these species of tuna are wild-caught, but catch rates are declining so they are in the think twice category (Marine Conservation Seafood Guide).
Big-eye is the second most popular tuna for sashimi and unfortunately numbers are declining very fast.
Southern Blue-fin tuna
Southern blue-fin tuna always seems to be available for purchase. This is because much of it is farmed, but some is wild-caught.
We need to say no (Marine Conservation Seafood Guide) to the most popular species of tuna because it has been severely over-fished in and outside the Australian fishing zone. Most are caught wild and then fattened in sea-cage aquaculture farms, especially around Port Lincoln in South Australia.
For a long time I had thought that fish produced by, such as tuna, ocean trout and salmon was sustainable and was surprised to find that the Marine Conservation Seafood Guide totally apposes sea-cage aquaculture – penned, dense schools of fish in large floating cages moored in bays and estuaries.
Although sea-cage aquaculture may sound preferable to the wild-caught fish, there are problems associated with sea-cage aquaculture. Views expressed by a variety of environmentalists are:
• Tuna farming is a large and profitable industry and it involves herding juvenile tuna from the wild into pens to fatten in cages – it is called fish ranching.
• Fish farms are established in bays and estuaries to avoid damage from storms and currents and they need clean and frequent water exchange. Unfortunately other wild fish and marine life also favour these and their habitat is affected.
• Significant amounts of waste can be discharged from fish farms back into the ocean – the nutrients in unused fish feed, fish faeces and the chemicals and pharmaceuticals used to keep the fish healthy and the pens clean. These can be toxic to many aquatic species and impact on the surrounding environment.
• There is also the potential for some farmed fish to escape. These could spread diseases and can threaten local, wild species by competing for food and habitat and interfering with their breeding.
• Farmed tuna are fed large quantities of wild, whole fish (pilchards, sardines, herrings and anchovies, chosen for their high oil content and mostly imported). Penned tuna are fed three times a day, whereas in the wild, they may eat once a week.
In the hands of an able cook, fish can become an inexhaustible source of perpetual delight.
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)
One of my regular readers (from Philadelphia) is passionate about Sicily. She has sent me some wonderful photographs from her trip (mainly from Palermo) and she has very kindly given me permission to use them on my blog.
I asked her about this particular photograph because I could not identify what was being served. The photo was taken in front of Antica Focacceria San Francesco during Sunday brunch (al fresco). The piazzetta in front of the Antica Focacceria is across from the wonderful church of Saint Francis of Assisi which has the sculpture of Serpotta.
She has identified it as a sfincione di Palermo. It is a type of focaccia /pizza sold in the streets of Palermo but also known in some other parts of the north- western part of the coast. There are many bread dough /focaccia like pastries made all over Sicily with different fillings and called by different names.( See ‘MPANATA (A lamb pie, Easter treat)
Sfincione is definitely a recipe from Palermo. It has a bit of a unique appearance and is baked for a short time with about 1/2 of the sauce, then taken out of the oven and recovered with the remaining sauce, “dredged with fried bread crumbs” and baked again.
It is the bread crumbs in the end that give it the look.
A typical recipe for Sfincione is:
500 gr. bread dough, 500 gr. fresh tomatoes, 100 gr. fresh caciocavallo or provola cheese (cubed), 50 gr. pecorino (grated) 50 gr. bread crumbs, 4 anchovy fillets, 1 large onion, a bunch of parsley 125 ml olive oil.
Prepare a basic pizza dough using fresh or active dry yeast, warm water, a little salt and approx. 3 cups of good quality unbleached flour. Leave it to prove in a bowl covered it with a folded tea towel/ tablecloth for about an hour.
Work about 1 glass of olive oil and the grated cheese (the pecorino) into the leavened dough. Leave it to prove again till doubled in size.
The tomatoes are made into a salsa: soften the sliced onion until golden, then add the parsley and the peeled, chopped tomatoes. Simmer till thickened
(about 20 minutes). Allow to cool slightly.
Add the anchovies and the caciocavallo.
Oil a deep sided baking pan and spread out the dough to about 3cm thick. Using your fingers make a few depressions into the dough.
Pour half of the sauce over the dough and bake it in a hot oven. After about 15 minutes, pour on the remaining sauce and dredge with fried breadcrumbs.
Drizzle with a little more oil and bake it for about 30 minutes.
I have just purchased this beautiful print of a Murray cod. It is a dry-point etching, by Clare Whitney, a Melbourne based printmaker and painter.
Murray cod is raised in fish farms and is rare in the wild, but this was not always so.
John Oxley, an explorer of the Murray-Darling basin in inland New South Wales wrote in his journal in 1817:
If however the country itself is poor, the river is rich in the most excellent fish, procurable in the utmost abundance.
Murray cod is Australia’s iconic, freshwater fish, once found naturally thorough-out most of the Murray-Darling River System. It is a native fish, which features strongly both in Aboriginal mythology and Australian folklore, though it is called by different names. It provided food to Aboriginal Australians and early settlers, but later suffered a significant decline due to overfishing and environmental degradation. In the 1950s, annual catches were still above 150,000 tonnes and Australians were proud of this fish – in 1954, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were presented with Murray cod at a State Banquet at Parliament House on their first visit to Australia.
There are many tales told by anglers, who are reputed to have caught enormous fish. Unfortunately, these stories may be true. Murray cod can live for up to a century, grow more than a metre long and weigh more than 100kg (the biggest on record was 1.8m long, weighed 114kg and was over 100 years old).
The major problem the cod face today is the inconsistent supply of water in the Murray-Darling River system, partly due to the prolonged drought and exacerbated by the amount of water taken from the river (regulated by locks, removed for irrigation), which has altered the river flow and the shape of the river. This has resulted in changes of habitat and adverse conditions for breeding.
The introduction of redfin perch in the 1950’s (carnivorous predators and competitors), followed by the European carp, and the use of toxic chemicals from farming practices have all compounded the impact on the stocks of Murray cod.
Although different states operated on different premises and priorities some positive strategies were initiated and have been supported by the Australian Government since the early 1980’s to help the cod recover. These include: improved fisheries and environmental management and protection of stocks through fishing regulations; imposed closed seasons for fishing; breeding and release of hatchery-reared fingerlings.
While these approaches have contributed to some increases in numbers in certain parts of the river system, the drought (some are calling it the worst in 1,000 years) is now adding further stresses.
Murray cod is being successfully grown in pond culture and tank-based re-circulating systems and is regaining the status it deserves as a superb tasting fish. It is difficult to purchase, although it seems to be available in certain restaurants (in Melbourne).
Murray cod is particularly appetizing– baked, pan fried, poached or steamed.
Murray Cod Dreaming
The Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray have a Dreamtime legend about Ponde, the great Murray cod that helped form the Murray River and the waterways all the way down to Lake Alexandrina (in the south East of Adelaide in South Australia). Ponde was chased by one of the men from the Ngarrindjeri tribe, but Ponde was so big and fast that when he swam, he carved out the existing little river into a very large waterway known as the River Murray, complete with cliffs and bends. The persuer’s brother- in-law also joined in the chase and when he caught him in Lake Alexandrina he cut Ponde into little pieces.
These became the different fish – mulloway, mullet, bream and others, once plentiful in the Coorong (The Coorong is a unique, long shallow pool of salty water, stretching for over 100 kilometres from the Murray mouth up to Lakes Albert and Alexandrina. – unique for its beauty, its isolation and once, for its abundance of fish and bird life).
RECIPE: PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish)
Food cooked in padella, (‘n or `na padedda in Sicilian) is cooked in a fry pan. This is generally the culinary term used for sautéed, shallow frying or pan-frying.
The method is relatively fast and the medium to high heat required is easily controlled. It suits almost any whole fish (river or sea), fillets or cutlets. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish and whether you prefer the fish to be cooked through. I often find that when I use my heavy based frypan instead of my non- stick pan, the cooking is faster, the fish is crisper and the juices left in the pan are more caramelized and tasty.
The original recipe is for river trout (Trout is caught in the Manghisi River near Noto, which is not far from Ragusa). It is cooked with wild fennel, green and black olives and very thin slices of lemon. Fresh thyme is also a strong flavouring and can be (probably needs to be) substituted for the fennel. I have also used fresh dill (more Greek than Italian).
Do buy good quality olives to get the real intended flavour!! Need I also say that there is ‘good salt’ and that ‘freshly ground pepper’ is best.
This method of cooking fish can be used to cook either whole small fish or any fillets or cutlets.
Murray cod is difficult to get – ask your fish vendor.
Suitable fish: red mullet, mullet, sand whiting, flathead and garfish, trevally, kingfish and albacore tuna.
Murray cod (farmed) and barramundi (grown in a fully closed system of aquaculture or accredited, line wild-caught, snapper if line caught (better choice).
Snapper, blue-eye travalla and mackerel are from the (think twice) category.
See previous post: Where I buy my sustainable fish. Categories from Australia’s Sustainable Seafood guide- www.amcs.org.au .
fish, 1 serve per person (350g each)
green olives, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
black olives or caper berries, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 large tablespoon per fish
salt, pepper or chilli flakes to taste
lemon, 1 slice per fish, sliced thinly, and then quartered
saffron, a pinch – soak in about a tablespoon of water at least 10mins before cooking
herbs: thyme, dill or fennel, to taste
Wild fennel is used in Sicily. Alternatively use:
• The green feathery part found at the top of the cultivated bulb fennel.
• Bulb fennel cut vertically and very thinly sliced.
• Some crushed fennel seeds (½ teaspoon)
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and pan fry the fish, add a little salt. and pepper.
Remove the fish.
Use the same fry pan. If using fresh fennel sauté it till caramelized and then add
olives, saffron, herbs and lemon slices and heat through.
Return the fish to the pan and toss it around in the hot ingredients for 1 minute and serve.
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).
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.
My zia Niluzza who lives in Ragusa is an excellent cook and when I visit her she fusses over me and cooks constantly.
Ricotta is one of the most common ingredients in her kitchen and she must eat it fresh – made on the day and preferably eaten warm. Any ricotta which is one day old (it is never older) is cooked.
One day, I had been speaking to her about frittate (plural) and how I had read in a book about Sicilian cuisine that frittate were not common in Sicily.
The next day I found her preparing this a simple frittata (see photo) made with crumbled fresh pork sausage, freshly laid free range eggs and ricotta. Sicilians do make frittata but in Sicilian, it is sometimes referred to as milassata and frocia. I have already written about this on Janet Clarkson’s blog: The Old Foodie, An authentic frittata).
eggs 7, lightly beaten (free range)
pork, Italian sausages 2 ( made from good pork mince with sometimes fennel or orange peel or white wine)
salt and pepper
Heat some olive oil into a large heavy-based fry pan.
Crumble the sausage and sauté into the frypan till cooked.
Add the ricotta slices and lightly fry it.
Pour the eggs, mixed with the seasoning into hot oil.
Process for cooking all frittate:
Fry the frittata on the one side. Turn the heat down to low and, occasionally, with the spatula press the frittata gently on the top. Lift the edges, tilting the pan. This will allow some of the runny egg to escape to the sides and cook. Repeat this process until there is no more egg escaping.
Invert the frittata onto a plate, carefully slide the frittata into the pan and cook the other side.
A frittata is never baked; fritta means fried in Italian.