There are two words for carciofi in the Sicilian dialect, cacocciuli. and carcioffuli.
The Italian word for artichoke is carciofo and carciofi is the plural. And were would Italian cooking be without artichokes?
My favourite way of cooking artichokes is the simple way that my mother has always cooked them. My maternal grandmother Maria (originally from Catania but who lived in Trieste for about 20 years) also cooked them this way. She used the same mixture to stuff sardines, tomatoes and artichokes. I researched Sicilian recipes for stuffed artichokes and found that they are all braised in the same way, but there are regional variations in the stuffing, for example in some parts of Sicily they add mint, others include eggs, some minced onion, or more cheese and even salame.
In Australia, although artichokes are now widely available, they are still thought of as exotic and possibly difficult to prepare. Exotic? Yes, maybe – for their unique taste and appearance, but once you know how to prepare them, they are simple to cook. You may need to tell your friends how to eat them (most will attempt to eat artichokes with a knife and fork).
Selecting good artichokes is important. Time and time again I have chosen not to buy artichokes as they have been picked too late (too mature). I suspect that some of the inexperienced growers may think that big is better, however this is not necessarily the case (some of the green coloured ones can be large but also tender). And as with all vegetables, I never select ones that are bruised, blemished or withered
INGREDIENTS AND PROCESS
Select and clean the artichokes carefully (as described in my previous post, Carciofi – artichokes and how to clean them). Cut the bases off flat so that they can stand up in a saucepan. Select the size of the saucepan carefully – you do not want them falling over, the artichokes should be close together. Do not forget to include the cleaned stems to add to the braise and keep the artichokes in acidulated water as you work.
I include one artichoke per person and each artichoke only needs 2-3 teaspoons of stuffing.
STUFFING: Combine the ingredients for the stuffing in a bowl. This ratio is good: 1 tablespoon of fresh breadcrumbs (made of good quality bread), 1 teaspoon of each – chopped parsley, extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese (you can use parmesan, but generally pecorino is traditionally Sicilian) and some chopped garlic to taste.
Drain the artichokes, spread the leaves (especially in the centre) and sprinkle salt and pepper in between the leaves. Push the stuffing mainly in the centre and if there is any left over, between the leaves. I use my fingers.
Arrange the artichokes standing upright in a pan, put the stems between them and drizzle well with more extra virgin olive oil. Add enough cold water to reach to about 1cm below the artichokes. Cook slowly with a lid for about an hour. Having lived in Trieste, I always add a splash of white wine and sometimes a little stock or a good quality vegetable stock cube to the poaching liquid.
If you are adding peas, broadbeans and/or potatoes just add them to the poaching liquid. The potatoes can go in at the same time, the peas and broadbeans about 15 minutes before the artichokes are cooked. ‘Those Italians’ would cook them all at the same time –they like their food overdone, but maybe they are right and there is more flavour.
I like to present carciofi as a single course – they are too fiddly to eat as an accompaniment to a main course.
Key in “artichokes” in search button for more artichoke recipes.
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).
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:
Contorno ( vegetable side dish)
Cavolo nero is prolific in Tuscany and is one of the main ingredients in the famous Tuscan soup called ribollita. Bollita (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.
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.
Although fennel bulbs may look similar in shape there are two differently shaped bulbs and each is identified by its sex (or so the Sicilians and southern Italians say) – the round are known as the maschi (the male fennel) and the slightly flattened shapes are the femmine (females).
My father always said that the round shaped fennels are the best tasting ones and this is the shape of fennel I always buy, except maybe at the end of the season when the flat, elongated bulbs of fennel become much more common. The shape differences may be subtle, but the taste of the round ones is superior. This may be because the flatter bulbs are getting ready to sprout (hence, allocated the female gender) and therefore their flavour may be dissipated.
Recently, I began to doubt my conviction. I had read that the females are the round fennel bulbs and so last Saturday morning I made a point of buying my fennel from my Italian stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (I only purchase my fennel from one of the four stalls that sell the best fennel – two of these stalls are Asian). Just to make sure, I then asked several other Italian stallholders about male and female shapes.
Exactly right. I was very happy to have my viewpoint confirmed; for many years I have been advising many others about fennel (not only friends, but also stall holders and people who are selecting bulbs for purchasing). Besides, how could my father be so wrong? (I never appreciated his folklore as a teenager, but as an adult I began to make sense of his world – he grew up in Sicily and moved to Trieste as a seventeen-year old during the war. There he met my mother).
Bottom photos show the characteristic shapes of male and female fennel bulbs.
A friend of mine who grows fennel in her wonderful Adelaide Hills garden tells me how the plant at the very end of the growing season produces some very flat bulbs, which never mature. After speaking to her about this (last year) I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale in one of the stalls at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. I spoke to the vendor who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he would bunch them and try to sell them. When I saw him the following week, he said that they were not a huge success. These may one day become marketable and could be used as a substitute for making Pasta con le sarde ortheMinestra di finocchio e patate.
What happens to the flat shaped bulbs of fennel in Italy?
If you have a look at all my photos of fennel in this blog taken in Italy, you will see that they are all round in shape. I do not know what happens to the flat ones, but I have never seen them for sale. Maybe these are removed when young? My father always removed some of his fruit crop when the fruit had just formed. This allowed the remaining fruit to grow big.
There are many recipes for how to use fennel on my blog ( too many to list here). Key in fennel in the search button.
This is a very simple and colourful salad, full of different flavours and it includes fennel –very prolific and in season in Australia at the moment. I always find this vegetable very refreshing and cleansing.
Capricciosa means whimsical or fanciful in Italian and the salad lives up to its name. I found this salad in a book about Sicilian recipes that I bought at a railway station. It is listed as N’ZALATA CRAPICIOSA – a misprint, surely? But capricious to the end!
INGREDIENTS and PROCESSES
This salad consists of finely sliced fennel, chopped green olives, capers and red salad onion. In Italy this type of onion is called cipollacalabrese or cipolla Tropea. The name is appropriate – it grows extensively in Calabria and is a dominant ingredient in Calabrese cooking.
Red onions do not just grow in the South of Italy, I also found fresh red onions (sold with their green tops) all over Tuscany and Rome at the end of last year. (The photo was taken in the Greve market, held each Saturday morning in the Piazza where we were staying in December 2008).
Onions, like all vegetables are seasonal. As well as using fresh onions raw in salads, Sicilians also use mature ones (those with dry skin) but usually they “sweeten” them first.
My father always did this, especially for his famous tomato salads. Raw onions are first sliced and then sprinkled with salt (some soak them in cold, salted water) for about 20 minutes – use a colander. The onions are then squeezed to remove the excess liquid and the strong flavour (my father wore his glasses for this process); he also quickly rinsed the onions at the end.
As a variation, for colour and flavour I have used some chopped finely fennel fonds and sometimes finely chopped mint for extra zing.
For the dressing use quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of vinegar. Dress and toss the salad just before serving.
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.
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.
It may be apparent that I am very passionate about authentic recipes, especially the ones which claim to be Italian or Sicilian.
One of the recipes is parmigiana. I have read about it in a number of sources, I have tasted it in a number of places in restaurants in Australia and have also seen it cooked on television. I have been determined to get the real story across, so much so, that I have sent this information and the recipe to two sources and I hope that they publish it. SBS have now published it on their website.
I have written this not necessarily because I am a purist, but because I always like to be aware of the origins of traditional recipes and their names. I believe that like language, recipes evolve and if someone adds a personal touch, well and good, but I do like to acknowledge the origins of the authentic recipe – once one knows the basics, there is always room for creativity.
This is how my family has always cooked parmigiana. It is how it was cooked by my mother, her mother and (more than likely) her mother before her. It represents generations of preparing and eating parmigiana in Sicilian kitchens. And those of you who are Italian, this is how the ‘existing firsts’ made it.
A parmigiana made with eggplants or with zucchini is a very common contorno (vegetable accompaniment) all over Sicily. (See variation below if using zucchini). It was once a seasonal dish of summer and autumn, but now in Sicily eggplants are grown successfully in the numerous serre (greenhouse farms) which have sprouted in most parts of the island and allow the production of summer vegetables well before and after their normal season.
Contrary to expectations it does not contain parmigiano (Parmesan cheese) nor does it originate in Parma, the home of parmigiano and the prosciutto di Parma. Pamigiana isan old Sicilian dish, most likely an adaptation and development from the fried eggplant dishes introduced by the settlers from the Middle East (the Persians). One common dish still prepared today in Iran is Kashk-e Baadenjaan. It consists of layers of fried eggplants (baadenjaan in Iranian), covered with a thick whey (kashk – a Iranian product similar to yogurt) and then sprinkled it with mint.
The layers of eggplants resemble the horizontal slats of outside, louvered shutters for blocking sunlight while allowing ventilation. These are called parmiciane (in old Sicilianand persiane in Italian). In English they are commonly called Persian blinds or persiennes (from the French. Consequently the name milinciani a parmiciana, later distorted in translation from the Sicilian into Italian to parmigiana. The Italian word for eggplant is melanzana (Solanum melongena) and once called mad apple or apple of madness by some Europeans, either because it was heard as mala insana or because the eggplant belongs to the nightshade family and therefore associated with toxins, madness and death.
To make parmigiana, the eggplants or zucchini are fried before they are placed in layers (2-3 in a baking dish) each covered with a little tomato salsa, a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese and basil and then baked.
In some parts of Sicily, instead of grated pecorino, fresh tuma or primo sale can be used. Both are very fresh pecorino cheeses in different stages of production. The primo sale is the second stage of maturation when the first sprinkling of salt is added to the outside of the cheese. These are available from Italian fresh cheese manufactures, but pecorino fresco (fresh pecorino) can be a good substitute.
I ate a version of parmigiana in Agrigento and it had hard- boiled eggs in it. There are regional variations for making parmigiana in Sicily.
Traditionally the eggplants are fried in plenty of oil, but a non-stick fry pan using a little oil can also achieve the wanted results.
Salting slices of eggplants to remove bitter juices was once thought necessary for all eggplants, but a fresh, in season eggplant is very unlikely to be bitter when cooked.
Soaking slices of eggplants in salted water while you work, however, will prevent the eggplant from discolouring and minimize the absorption of oil.
An Italian signora (one of the many women stallholders I have befriended in the Queen Victoria Market) told me how to tell if the eggplants are going to be good ones. She said that as well as looking at the colour (shiny and deep purple) I needed to look at the eggplant’s bellybutton (the mark at the base and where the blossom once was). If the eggplant is fresh, the bellybutton should be either a narrow line or a line stretched into an oval shape but never round (evidence of seeds). I must look odd when I shop for eggplants, turning them upside down to check their belly buttons! I have now shared this tip with all my friends (many who live in Adelaide) and wonder how long it will be before stallholders are wondering what this new craze is all about!
It is the wilted, softer eggplants, or the ones that are not quite dark purple and are tinged with green (a result of not enough sun or being grown out of season) that are likely to be bitter. When cut, it is probable that these eggplants are likely to have many dark bitter seeds.
Eggplants discolour quickly so they need to be cooked soon after being cut and this is why soaking them in salt water may not be a bad idea when you are cooking large amounts.
Eggplants are cooked in many ways by Sicilians and similar to meat (they are fried, baked, grilled, stuffed, boiled, sautéed and roasted). Their versatility is a demonstration of the cucina povera (the cuisine of the poor, making the most of simple common ingredients), central to Sicilian life.
eggplants, 2 large peeled and sliced thinly, lengthways
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup or more (see above)
tomatoes, 1k, ripe, peeled, seeded and diced (or use canned)
onion, 2 sliced
garlic 1 clove
basil leaves, fresh about 1 cup, small, tender and whole
salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated pecorino cheese, ¾ cup
Slice the eggplants (soak in slated water, optional).
Pat dry gently and fry the slices of eggplants in several batches until golden brown.
Place fried eggplants on paper towels to drain the oil.
Make the salsa: heat a little of the olive oil over a medium flame and sauté the garlic. When it is golden brown remove it and discard. Add the chopped tomato, salt and pepper and some basil leaves and cook till thick.
Heat the oven to 200C
Oil an ovenproof dish and cover the bottom with a thin layer of tomato sauce, sprinkle with the cheese and a few basil leaves. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up and you have 2-3 layers, leaving a little cheese for the topping.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Present at room temperature garnished with basil leaves.
There are local variations. Many add slices of hard-boiled eggs between the layers.
Parmigiana di Zucchine
Sprinkle thin slices of zucchini with a little salt. Leave them for about 20-30mins – this will help to draw out some of the liquid.
Fry the zucchini in batches and proceed as above.
My relatives in Sicily prefer to use the violet coloured eggplants they call violette in preference to the dark skinned variety they call Tunisian (they believe that they are originally from Tunisia). The violette are seedless and sweet. There is a heirloom variety (seed) available in Australia called listada di gadia – it is purple striped and almost seedless.
Those zucchini grow rapidly and before you know it, they become zucche (plural of zucca,) The marrows I am talking about are no longer than 22 cms, still tender and have flavour – any larger than this they become tasteless and dry and are good for the compost. Usually, zucche are stuffed, but these can also be used successfully to make a salad.
I use a mandoline (kitchen utensil used for slicing and cutting) to cut the marrows into matchsticks and then use a method similar to the one for making Italian vegetable preserves.
Sicilians (and southern Italians) are fond of preserves – the most common are made with eggplants or green tomatoes, sliced, salted, squeezed dry (the next day), then placed in vinegar for a day, squeezed dry and finally placed in oil and oregano.
I treat marrows in a similar way, but because I want to eat them fresh it is unnecessary to go through the lengthy process I have described above – the salting process takes about 30 minutes and the rest is completed in no time at all. If I am using zucchini, I slice them long-wise and very thinly (a potato peeler can be good).
The following amounts are for processing 1 marrow…..and not too large or seedy.
salt, 1 teaspoon
white, wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon
extra virgin olive oil, 1/3cup
oregano, ½teaspoon dried is more pungent,
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cut marrow into half, remove seeds. Cut into match sticks or use a mandoline or a turning slicer which cuts into spirals.
Place in a colander with salt. Leave to drain for at least 30mins. Squeeze dry.
Dress with the oil and vinegar and crushed oregano.
Leave for about 10 minutes for the flavours to infuse.
I have shopped at the Queen Victoria Market ever since I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. I am always excited by new produce, whether it is new in season or because it is new to me. I saw the vlita at one of the stalls where I often buy my vegetables. I had never seen vlita before – sold as a very large bunch of a long, green leafy plant with its roots still attached. Greens leafy vegetables in January are not very common.
One of the stall owners is a Calabrese (from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy) so I assumed – incorrectly – that it was a wild green, traditionally eaten like spinach in Italy and one I was not familiar with.
As I continued my way down the aisle, the vlita was attracting a lot of attention, but from people of Greek heritage, not Italians. I was stopped four times and they were surprised to hear that I knew the name and that I intended to sauté it in olive oil with garlic. A couple of them mentioned the word horta.
Further down the aisle, I was stopped by yet another woman who told me these plants were much appreciated in her country – India. She said that she was more familiar with a purple tinged variety. So home I went with my various bits of information, determined to discover more.
Yes, vlita is a common weed in Australia, but it is a wild green and one of many gathered and eaten in other parts of the world including Greece, Japan, India, South America and Taiwan. The taste is a little like a beet or spinach, only more grassy.
Vlita belongs to the amaranth family and this variety is known as palmer amarynth.
The amaranthus tricolor or red amaranth is sold more in commercial quantities than the green variety and is a very attractive plant; the leaves are much more colourful than palmer amaranth and it is sold in many stalls which sell Asian vegetables.
Alternative names are een choi (Chinese) phak khom suan (Thai) radên (Vietnamese) bayam (Indonesian).
In different parts of Greece, it is usually served as a cooked green salad. Horta are leafy green vegetables or wild greens and vlita is one of these.
Some varieties of the plant are grown as a grain crop for their seeds – which are very nutritious and can be made into flour – and amaranth flour is becoming increasingly well known as a nutritious alternative to wheat, especially in America.
The young leaves and tender stalks are picked and eaten before the plant flowers. They were sold to me in large bunches with the roots attached – picked this way, they last longer.
Wild greens are called erbe spontanie in Italian (spontaneous herbs) and Sicilians are very fond of them. They forage for them and can also buy them at the market.
Weeds, like vegetables are seasonal and collected by many people. Some of these wild greens are also sold in markets.
Gira (or giriteddi), sparaceddi (wild asparagus) or amareddi are particularly popular.
Last October–December), when I was in Sicily there were lassine, sanapu, agghiti (wild spinach), urrania (borage) and wild fennel.
Wild greens/ Edible weeds can be cooked alone or mixed with other green leaf vegetables.
Italians cook greens, as the Greeks do: blanched/ whilted and drained, then seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon juice and presented hot or cold as a cooked salad.
My favourite cooking method (common mostly in the South of Italy) is to precook the greens in boiling, salted water, drain them well and then sauté them in olive oil, chilli and garlic. They can be eaten hot or cold.
I keep on seeing stunted specimens of fennel for sale in stalls at the Queen Victoria Market (Australia).
Where are they coming from at this time of year? One of the stall holders thought it was from Victoria or maybe Tasmania because it can still be cold there in certain parts at this time of year (January).
I am always amazed how people still want to buy produce which is well out of season. One such customer who was standing next to me at one of the stalls, bought some of these weedy specimens – small, dull and flat (late in the season with evidence of going to seed) and not very suitable for eating raw.
(Good specimens of fennel. The photo was taken at the Saturday morning street market in Greve, Tuscany in December 2008.).
It is easy to strike up a conversation while standing in front of a stall and the buyer was surprised when I told her that fennel can also be cooked.
My grandmother Maria (from Catania, Sicily) was fond of making a fennel tortino.
A torta in Italian is a torte or a cake, but it can also be a savoury cake, flan or pie. It is usually made of vegetables and partially baked. It may include pastry.
The ino as the ending in tortino implies that it is smaller, but this is not always the case. I have seen similar dishes called a sformato or a pasticcio and in Sicilian a turticedda. All this can be very confusing for a non-Italian, as basically they are the same things.
This tortino is made with fennel. Being an old Sicilian recipe breadcrumbs are used to thicken the vegetable dish rather than béchamel (white sauce) or eggs found in the modern recipes. Similar recipes are found all over Italy and if it is made in the the north, butter instead of oil and parmesan cheese rather than pecorino cheese are commonly used.
This dish is very versatile. I have presented it hot and cold, as a contorno (side vegetable dish) and as an antipasto. The fennel can be cooked beforehand and left until you are ready to assemble the dish or alternatively the tortino can be prepared and stored in the fridge (for 1-2 days).
The following recipe is for 6-8 people.
fennel bulbs, (to weigh 1k)
onion, 1 large, finely sliced
parsley, 1 cup, chopped finely
oregano, dried, ½ tablespoon.
garlic, 2 cloves finely chopped
pecorino, 1 cup grated
extra virgin olive oil, about ¾ cup to sauté the fennel and some more to coat the oven dish and to drizzle on top of the ingredients.
salt and pepper,
coarse breadcrumbs, about 2 cups made from 1-3 day old, quality bread. This will be used to scatter over the sides and bottom of the oven dish and between the layers of fennel.
Optional – Use a little wine or stock, rather than water, to add to the fennel as it cooks (modern rather than traditional).
Preheat the oven to 180C
Slice the fennel lengthwise and thinly. If possible add the soft green fonts chopped finely, as these will add colour and flavour.
Sauté the onion in the extra virgin olive oil, then add the fennel until it is slightly softened and coloured.
Add salt and pepper. You may need to splash a little water or a little white wine to the vegetables and cover them with a lid until they begin to soften.
Select an oven dish, which will accommodate all of your ingredients (I use a pan which is about 10 cm deep).
Oil a baking dish (I use glass or ceramic ). Lard instead of olive oil was common in many of the older traditional recipes.
Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs over the greased surface of the baking dish (be generous, as this process will prevent total sticking of the ingredients).
Mix the remaining breadcrumbs with the parsley, grated cheese and garlic. Begin with a layer of the fennel, then the breadcrumb mixture and repeat until you have used up all of the ingredients and you have at least 4 layers. Finish off with the bread mixture.
Compress the layers with your hands and top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil .
Cover with a heavy lid or a layer of foil with a weight on top so as to keep all of the layers compressed. To prevent sticking, my Sicilian grandmother used an ovenproof, terracotta plate as the weight.
Place the dish into a preheated oven 180 C for about 40-50 mins.
Check to see if the fennel is soft (cooked.) If it is not cooked or if it appears too dry add a little more water (or wine or stock). Cover and return to the oven until it is cooked.
Remove the cover, drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil and bake for a further 10 minutes until it has a golden crust and the liquid has evaporated.
The tortino should resemble a moist cake and should slice easily.