I have been away from home recently, and what I really enjoy is coming up with a dish using ingredients that I have…and need using up. This must be one of the reasons I enjoy camping and we always eat so well.
I had ‘nduja (a soft chilli-laden, soft salame from Calabria), a bunch of cime di rapa or rape (rape is plural of rapa) and some small and fabulous, pure pork sausages that I had cooked in some tomato salsa the day before. We had eaten most of these with polenta and these were left over.
What I did was simple. I braised the cime di rapa in some garlic and extra virgin olive oil as I do when I cook cime di rapa with pasta. Once cooked, I added the ‘nduja….probably too much, I love chilli but do others like it as much as I do? I could have used a half of the quantity and it still would have tasted great. The ‘nduja melts with the heat and coats the vegetables.
Next, I added the sausages and only a little of the tomato salsa. I was making a pasta sauce and not a soup a , so I needed just a little liquid.
I had rigatoni on hand, and some Sicilian pecorino pepato.
You will need to accept that it tasted vey good. So much so, Squid, that I did not have time to take a photo – it was gobbled up far too quickly by my two guests.
The Sicilian flavours are simple – grated lemon peel, lemon juice, anchovies, fresh mint and parsley.
Once you have pan fried one side of the fish, turn it over, top with the chopped herbs, anchovies cut into small pieces. Wait till the underside is cooked to your liking – do not overlook it as the fish will be flipped on the same side again for a very short time.
Turn the fish over once again and salt that side slightly and add lemon juice. Evaporate the lemon juice and it is done. The anchovies should have “melted” a bit.
An important ingredient for making Pasta con le sarde is wild fennel. The season for wild fennel has well and truly passed and all you will find at this time of year are stalky plants, yellow flowers/ seed pods and no green fronds.
What we call Florentine fennel is also going out of season and you will find for sale specimens with very small stunted bulbs. If you are lucky, your greengrocer may sell them with long stalks and fronds attached – perfect to use as a substitute for wild fennel and I certainly would not go near these stunted specimens otherwise.
Sardine fillets are easy to find. I use the paper that my fishmonger has wrapped the sardines to wipe dry the fish.
Remove the small dorsal spine from the fillets. Once again the paper comes in handy to wipe fishy fingers.
Prepare the ingredients:
Sardine fillets, chopped spring onions, the softer green fonds of the fennel, saffron soaking in a little water, currants soaking in a little water, fennel bulb cut finely, toasted pine nuts and chopped toasted almonds, salt and ground black pepper (or ground chili).
The preferred pasta shape are bucatini, but spaghetti or casarecce are good also.
You will also need some breadcrumbs (made from good quality day- old bread) toasted in a pan with a little oil. Add a bit of sugar, some cinnamon and grated lemon peel. toss it around in the pan so that the sugar melts and the flavours are mixed. This is the topping for the pasta. I have seen this referred to as pan grattato – this would not be my preferred tag – in Italian pan grattato is the term for plain breadcrumbs, but I accept that over time the terminology has evolved. The traditional Sicilian breadcrumb topping would not have had/ does not have the cinnamon or grated lemon peel.
The larger fennel fronds and stalks are used to flavour the water for the cooking of the pasta. Place them into salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for at least 10 minutes – you can leave the fennel in water as long as you like. The greenery can easily be fished out with tongs before the pasta goes into the boiling water to cook.
And then it is a very simple matter of cooking the ingredients.
Sauté the spring onion in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the fennel and chopped fronds and sauté them some more.
Depending on the quality of the fennel (degree of succulence) you may need to add a splash of water or white wine, cover it and continue to cook it for a few minutes more.
Add salt and pepper and put the sautéed vegetables aside.
Cook the pasta.
Fry the sardines in a little extra virgin olive oil – they will cook very quickly and begin to break up. Combine the sardines with the cooked fennel, add saffron and drained currants and mix to amalgamate the flavours. Add the almonds and pine nuts.
Dress the cooked pasta with the sardine sauce.
Put the dressed pasta in a serving platter and sprinkle liberally with the toasted breadcrumbs – these add flavour and crunch to the dish.
For a more conventional Sicilian Pasta con le Sarde:
I hesitate to write recipes that are just so simple, but recently I was reminded how a simple herb butter can enhance simply grilled or steamed fish, meat or vegetables, bread etc. Grilled vegetables seem to be the pick of the month – enhance them with a flavoured butter.
While in South Australia I ate and drank very well in a number of restaurants, most had unusual combinations of excellent South Australian produce, others like Skillogalee Winery Restaurant in the Clare Valley had simple fare, more conventional and perfectly geared to the wide range of people who visit wineries and can enjoy a relaxing afternoon.
Our group of four sat in the garden and one of the dishes we chose to share was Port Lincoln whole sardines served with lime and parsley butter with bread. We ordered 2 serves of these sardines.
So modest, but so delicious. Sometimes we forget how something so quickly and simply made can really enhance a dish.
Some of you may remember the craze for the Beurre Maître d’Hôtel, also referred to as Maître d’Hôtel butter or Compound butter – It is simply butter combined with herbs, pepper and lemon juice and typically formed into a cylinder and sliced. A circular disc of Maître d’Hôtel butter was centrally plonked on top of a grilled steak – a technique used by many high-end steak houses in the eighties and early nineties…. people in Adelaide may remember The Arkaba Steak Cellar.
With a little imagination, different herbs instead of parsley will impart different flavours and grated lemon or lime peel will boost the citrus taste.
To make lime and parsley butter sufficient for 4-6 sardines and bread begin with 1 cup unsalted good quality butter at room temperature, 1-2 teaspoons of lime zest, 2 teaspoons of fresh lime juice, 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley chopped very finely and a little salt and pepper to taste.
Use a fork to beat the butter in a bowl until smooth and creamy. Mix zest, juice and gradually add parsley salt, and black pepper into the butter until thoroughly combined.
Taste it and if it is necessary to alter it add more of any of the ingredients to make it to your taste. Rest in the fridge to return consistency and enhance the flavour.
If you wish to store it and give it that 1980’s shape, wrap it in foil or in baking paper keep it in the fridge until ready to use.
All grilled fish and not just sardines can be used, as all meat and vegetables.
Instead of parsley, add different herbs – rosemary, thyme, sage, dill, basil, fennel fronds, tarragon, chives, oregano, marjoram, coriander are simple examples.
Garlic, ginger, horseradish, paprika, pink pepper, spices….need I go on?
Only to say that I rather like finely chopped anchovy fillets combined in butter – begin with 1 tablespoon of chopped anchovies to 1 cup pf butter and add more if it is not to your taste.
For miso butter – begin with 1 tablespoon of white miso and proceed as above. Red or brown miso can also be used.
Recently I also tried mixing some chopped lavender leaves into butter to present with scones. Not too much lavender or it could taste medicinal.
As you can see this fish steak is cut vertically from a largish sized fish and it is the perfect size to stud the four different sections with different flavours. On this occasion I used fennel, cloves, garlic and mint. I vary the flavours and I may use rosemary, a bit of cinnamon stick or lemon peel.
I was pleased and surprised to find that the Trevally had been cut into steaks because it is usually only available whole or as fillets. It is pleasing to see that there is a growing awareness that fish, like meat, can be partitioned into different cuts that lend themselves to different styles of cooking. Silver Trevally is also called White Trevally and has a firm, dense texture when cooked. It benefits from a little liquid to deglaze it after it has been seared and can taste dry if it is overcooked.
I used a combination of white wine and Sicilian Marsala Fine – semisecco (semi dry). At other times I have used just white wine or fresh orange juice (with a little grated peel) or dry vermouth. I like to use dry vermouth particularly when I use tarragon – this is not a Southern Italian or Sicilian herb but it is used in the North and known as dragoncello -little dragon. Sage (salvia) is also good to use, but once again it is not widely used in Sicilian cooking.
Silver Trevally is fished in estuaries and coastal waters of southern Australian states and most of the Australian commercial catch is taken in NSW and eastern Victoria.
Other fish I have studded with flavours has been wild caught Barramundi shoulders
and Albacore tuna.
Not much detail is needed in this recipe – the photos tell the story.
Use a thin, sharp knife with a long blade and make slits into four sections of the slice of fish.
Insert into each split half a clove of garlic and three other different flavours. Select from: fennel, cloves, mint, sage, rosemary, a bit of cinnamon stick or lemon peel. .
Heat some extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan that can accommodate the fish in one layer.
Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper. Sauté the fish, turn once (until it colours).
Add Marsala and white wine (about 1/2 cup) and evaporate the liquid leaving the fish in the pan.
Above – One Fish, One Chef, presentation by Josh Niland, and part of Melbourne Good Food Month. Josh butchered a large fish, head to tail – that is correct, almost every part of the fish, innards as well are edible. (Mr Niland, Fish Butchery)
A bit of fish butchery at a fish market in Sicily where butchery has been going on for centuries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Culturally In Australia Easter is no big deal, however in Italy it is tied to religious observances and fish is traditionally eaten on Good Friday by Italian Catholics even if they are not practising Catholics.
I plan to cook something simple – a pasta dish with Mussels. Cozze in Italian, cuzzili in Sicilian.
This is not a complicated dish. It is made with fresh mussels and a little fresh tomato, but not so much to mask the taste of the other ingredients.
Local mussels are prolific in Victoria and I regularly buy them at the Queen Victoria Market; these are generally farmed in Port Phillip Bay and recently from Mount Martha; when I get the chance, I like to go to Portarlington, where they are sold straight off the boats. Mussels are sustainable.
Red, ripe tomatoes are fabulous at this time of year, but tinned tomatoes are OK too. I even used some ripe, yellow, heirloom tomatoes in this sauce!
Spaghettini (thin spaghetti) are used for this dish – the thin strands result in a greater surface area and allow greater absorption of the sauce.
The sauce is prepared quickly while the pasta is cooking. The same ingredients and method of cooking this dish can also be used with other fish – try squid.
Do not be horrified and think me a phony for using grated cheese with fish! The rest of Italy may not, but Sicilians do it. Using cheese is not necessary, especially if you like to savor the fresh taste of the tomatoes.
mussels, 2 kg fresh, live mussels
red tomatoes, fresh, 500 g, chopped and peeled
garlic, 3 chopped…to taste
parsley, 1 cup finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil, ½ – ¾ cup
salt and pepper
basil, fresh, some stalks and leaves in the sauce and some leaves to decorate and provide a last-minute aroma
grated pecorino, (optional), to taste
Clean the mussels by rubbing them against each other in cold water (or use a plastic scourer). Pull the beards sharply towards the pointy end of the shell.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep pan.
Add the mussels.
Cover and cook over a brisk flame, shaking the pan every now and then, until the mussels have opened. Turn off the flame and let them cool slightly, then remove and discard the shells of about ¾ of them. Use the whole mussels for decoration.
If you have given the mussels sufficient time to open and some have remained closed, there is no need to discard them. They are very much alive, place them back on heat and they will eventually open.
Save the juice from the mussels in a separate vessel.
Add the onion to a new pan, sauté till golden.
Add the chopped tomatoes and some basil stalks with leaves attached (these can be removed at time of serving).
Simmer the sauce for about 8-10 minutes, just to blend the flavours and to evaporate some of the tomato juice. Place the tomato sauce aside.
Cook the spaghettini.
Add some extra virgin olive oil and garlic to a new pan (or wipe down the same pan that you have used to cook the sauce). Soften the garlic and add the parsley.
Add the mussel meat to the pan and toss the ingredients around for a few minutes before adding the tomato sauce and as much of the mussel juice as you think you will need for the sauce. Remove the cooked basil (it has done its job).
Add the mussels in their shells (gently) to warm through.
Drain the pasta. Add it to the pan with the rest of the ingredients toss them around till they are well coated. Be gentle with the cooked mussels in their shells as you want to keep the mussel meat in the shell.
Add fresh basil leaves.
Present with grated cheese for those who wish.
Pasta with cozze is eaten all over Italy but in Northern Italy parsley and garlic are the preferred flavourings and no tomatoes.
Albacore tuna is sustainable, cheap in price and much under rated in Australia. It is not sashimi grade so the Asian export market does not want it and therefore in Australia we also tend to undervalue it. It is denser in texture but still excellent for cooking (lightly or cooked for longer). As in Australia, Blue fin tuna is the preferred tuna in Sicily; if it is sustainable depends on how and where it is caught – it should be wild caught and aquaculture is not an option.
Unfortunately I rarely find albacore tuna where I live in Melbourne and if I do, I always grab it when I can and cook it as I would cook blue fin tuna.
I like tuna seared and left rare centrally but my Sicilian relatives eat tuna very well done and this is also how it is presented in the traditional home-style restaurants in Sicily.
In Sicily there are numerous ways tuna but Tonno alla stemperata is one of the favourites in the south eastern part of Sicily. It was first cooked for me by one of my cousins, Rosetta, who lives in Ragusa. She and her husband have a holiday house on the beach at Marina di Ragusa, and she usually buys most of her fish from the fishermen on the beach.
Although Rosetta prefers to use tuna in this recipe, any firm-fleshed fish, thickly sliced, is suitable. She prefers to cut the tuna into large cubes – this allows greater penetration of the flavours in the sauce and of course, it will cook to a greater degree and more quickly.
Rosetta cooked the fish in the morning and we ate it for lunch, at room temperature…in Australia you may find this unusual but eating it at room temperature and some time after it has been cooked allows the flavours time to develop.
A version of this recipe is also in my first book: Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
I have used Albacore tuna,trevally,mackerel or flathead (better choice category) successfully in this recipe.
tuna or firm-fleshed fish, 4 slices
sliced white onions, 2
capers, ½ cup, salted variety, soaked and washed
white wine vinegar, about 2 tablespoons or for a milder taste use 1 tablespoon of white wine and one of vinegar
extra virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons
salt, black pepper or red chilli flakes (as preferred by the relatives in Ragusa),
celery heart, 2 or 3 of the pale green stalks and young leaves, chopped finely
green olives, ½ cup, pitted, chopped
bay leaves, 4
Soften the onion and celery in about half of the extra virgin oil, and cook until the onion is golden, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the fish, olives, capers, seasoning and bay leaves and sear the fish. The pieces of fish only need to be turned once.
Add the vinegar and allow the vinegar to evaporate and flavour the dish.
Remove the fish from the pan if you think that it will overcook and continue to evaporate.
Optional: Decorate (and flavour) with mint just before serving.
You can tell I am in South Australia by some of the photos of the fabulous varieties of fish I am able to purchase in Adelaide when I visit.