This Sicilian caponata is certainly different to the Christmas fare we are used to in Australia, but it makes a perfect antipasto or salad as an accompaniment to meat or fish .
Eggplants and peppers are summer vegetables and not in season in winter for Christmas, so this caponata is made with celery hearts, traditionally boiled first before being sautéed. In some parts of Sicily green, leafy winter vegetables (for example chicory, spinach, endives) are also used with the celery.
I do not pre-cook the celery; I prefer to slice it very finely and just sauté it till it is slightly softened.
It is a very unusual caponata with a combination of textures and flavours –sweet, salty, sour… soft and crunchy. This recipe is one of the many caponate in my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
Sultanas or currants are both good to use. Muscatels and raisins are OK as well, but their size may not be as visually pleasing.
Sometimes I toast the almonds, sometimes I do not. I made this caponata in a friend’s kitchen and on this occasion I used whole almonds rather than chopped ( the was no food processor/ kitchen wizz). On other occasions I have used pine nuts.
I have paired this with meat and fish but I really like to eat it on by it self… especially at the start of a meal.
almonds, 1 cup, blanched, toasted and chopped
celery, 1 large, but remove the outer leaves and only use the centre, pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves
onion 1, large, chopped
sultanas or currants, ¾ cup, sun-ripened
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ½ glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper
These can be sprinkled on top when the caponata is ready to serve: Coarse Toasted Breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons, made from good quality 1-2 day old bread and then toasted in a frypan with hot oil.
Slice the celery finely and chop the leaves.
Sauté the celery with the onion in a deep frypan until it has softened, add salt and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the olives, sultanas and capers and cook for another 2 minutes.
Empty the cooked ingredients into a bowl.
Agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce): To the frypan already coated with caramelised flavours, add the sugar and heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and some of the almonds, reserving some for decoration if you are not going to use the toasted breadcrumbs.
Leave the caponata in the fridge, at least overnight. Serve at Room temperature. Top with the rest of the almonds or breadcrumbs when ready to serve.
Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).
In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.
If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.
I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.
In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.
For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.
I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.
The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….
As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.
There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.
Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).
You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).
Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.
For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):
Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.
When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.
CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)
In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.
Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.
Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.
Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.
Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.
In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :
Frittedda is exclusively Sicilian and is a luscious combination of spring vegetables lightly sautéed and with minimum amount of stirring to preserve the textures and fresh, characteristic flavours of each ingredient — the sweetness of the peas, the slightly bitter taste of the artichokes and the delicate, nutty taste of broad beans. It is really a slightly cooked salad and each vegetable should be young and fresh.
In Sicily this dish is usually made at the beginning of spring (Primavera), around the feast day of San Giuseppe (19 March) when the first peas and broad beans come into season. It is thought that the origins of the dish are from around the northwestern part of Sicily (from Palermo to Trapani), but I have also found recipes from the agricultural areas in the centre of Sicily, in Caltanissetta, Enna and across to Agrigento and all have their own variations.
Because frittedda is a celebration of spring, I also like to include asparagus, but this is not in traditional recipes. Use white or green asparagus, thick or thin. Yet again breaking with tradition I often add a little strong broth for extra flavour — Sicilians seldom add stock to food and rely on the natural flavours of the ingredients. They know that the sun always shines in Sicily and therefore, their produce tastes better.
To fully appreciate the flavour of frittedda, I like to eat it at room temperature (like caponata) and as a separate course — as an antipasto with some good bread. The recipe also makes a good pasta sauce to celebrate spring.
artichokes, about 3 young, tender
peas, 750g (250g, shelled weight)
broad beans, young, 1kg (these will result in about shelled 350g) The broad beans should be young and small — if they are not, (remove the outer peel of each bean)
asparagus (250g). Snap the bottoms from the asparagus and cut the spears into 2cm lengths
spring onions, 3-4, sliced thinly (including the green parts)
lemon, 1 for the acidulated water
extra virgin olive oil, about ½ cup
salt and pepper
white wine vinegar, ½ tablespoon or the juice of ½ lemon
sugar, about a teaspoon
fresh mint leaves, to sprinkle on top before serving
Prepare the artichokes – strip off the tough outer leaves. It is difficult to purchase young artichokes in Australia so you may need to remove quite a few of them.
Keep the artichokes in acidulated water (use juice of 1 lemon) as you clean them and until you are ready to use.
Cut each artichokes into quarters. Slice the artichokes into thin slices. I also use the stalk of the artichoke (stripped of its outer fibrous layer).
Select a wide pan with a heavy bottom and cook as follows:
Add some of the oil.
Add the artichokes and sauté them gently for about 5-7 minutes (tossing the pan, rather than stirring and trying not to disturb the ingredients too much).
Before proceeding to the next stage, taste the artichokes, and if they need more cooking sprinkle them with about ½ cup of water, cover the saucepan with a lid and stew gently for about 10 minutes. You will know when the artichokes are cooked as there will only be slight resistance when pricked with a fork.
Add more oil, the spring onions, the peas and broad beans, salt and pepper. Toss and shake the ingredients around gently to ensure that the vegetables do not stick. Cook for about 5-7 minutes. Add a dash of water (or stock).
Add the asparagus and cook for a few minutes longer.
Place the ingredients into a bowl or they will keep on cooking.
Add the white wine vinegar or the juice of ½ lemon – the small amount of vinegar or lemon juice provides a little acidity in contrast to the sweetness of the dish. You could also add a little sugar.
I sometimes add a little grated nutmeg – this accentuates the sweetness of the ingredients. Fresh mint leaves will accentuate the freshness but put them on top the frittedda when you are ready to serve it (mint leaves discolour easily).
The Palermitani (from Palermo) add the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce like when making caponata) made with caramelised sugar and vinegar at the end of cooking.
In Enna, in the centre of the island, wild fennel is added during cooking.
Panettone’s popularity round the world keeps on growing and I have seen various packages of imported Italian Panettone in select shops. Panettone is traditionally eaten during the Christmas and New Year holiday period in Italy. Christmas is close.
Panettone was made famous and affordable when it was commercially produced (from the 1920’s) and railed all over Italy and now in many parts of the world.
The cheaper versions of light textured Panettoni (plural of Panettone) that you may be familiar are made with commercial yeast. The artisan and much more expensive varieties of Panettone are made with natural yeasts using the same traditional principles as making bread by the sourdough method.
When I first started playing around making bread at home I used commercial yeast (called lievito di birra in Italian) and my father used to remind me of how his mother made bread – she always saved a bit of uncooked dough from the loaf she was shaping, keep it in a jar with a lid and use it in the next batch of dough. He said that she never used commercial yeast. He was Sicilian and full of stories. He used to tell me about companion plantings and the effects of lunar cycles on plant germination, growth, and development.
But thinking myself a modern woman, most of the time I doubted the folk lore. It was only years later that I learned about natural leavening and how my grandmother was using lievito madre, ‘mother’ or a ‘starter’ in her baking – this is the wild yeast mixture that develops bacterial and lactic ferments that promote natural leavening. It is what imparts the bubbles in the texture of the dough and contributes to the characteristic aroma and flavour found in sour dough bread.
I like artisan breads – handmade and hand-shaped sourdough breads made with quality ingredients and integrity in bakeries like Zeally Bay Bakery. It is based in Torquay, but there are stockists in Melbourne and in some parts of regional Victoria.
‘Like many great things, sourdough requires time, skill and patience’
The above quote is from Zeally Bay’s website. John and Jan Farnan began making quality sourdough breads on a small scale in 2007. John, his son and a team of dedicated bakers have continued to develop an entire range of baked goods using Australian, certified, biodynamic and organic ingredients and applying traditional methods for making sourdough. The long fermentation process used in sourdough breads has many health benefits. Of interest is that the bakery is using the natural leaven culture that was began in 1981.
The reason that I mention Zealy Bay is that I have been privileged over time to try a whole range of their breads including their brioche and Easter buns and recently the Panettone that the bakery has been perfecting in time for Christmas… and it is great.
It was fragrant and had complex flavours, a result of using high-quality, natural ingredients and a long fermentation process. I could taste the natural flavours of the yeast, flour, eggs, butter and the fruit. Panettone made with sourdough if wrapped well, will remain fresh for days and just like in good bread, the flavours will mature and develop.
Being certified organic is a guarantee that the ingredients do not contain GMO’s, chemical pesticides or result in land degradation.
So, if you plan to have Panettone for Christmas it is worth considering if you will buy a local or imported one or make one at home?
The more affordable and commercially produced Panettone made by large production companies is bound to have preservatives and artificial flavours. If it is imported, you will have no way of knowing when it was baked and how it was transported.
The more expensive range of imported Panettoni are very likely to taste better than the cheaper versions. They are also more likely to have been made using the sourdough method – the older and more traditional method of making Panettone. Panettone is no longer just made in Milan. There are regional varieties made by artisans using local variations – for example some may have saffron, chestnuts, chocolate, figs rather than sultanas. The Sicilian versions are likely to contain higher amounts of citrus fruit, (this is grown extensively in Sicily). The artisan Panettoni may have been baked not as long ago as the more commercial ones and their expense may also reflect the cost of having been transported in faster and better climate-controlled conditions.
Few Italians bake Panettone at home and this is not surprising. Making Panettone at home requires patience and is a laborious process. It requires quite long leavening times over several days and three consecutive stages of mixing and kneading. You need good quality, gluten-rich flour to “support” such a rich dough.
The ‘mother’ or ‘starter’ has to be made well ahead of time and has to be mature, in strength, with the right degree of acidity. The bacteria contained in it must be nourished for fermentation, so every 3-4 days it is necessary to “refresh” the mother’s yeast and add some flour and water.
Ideally while it cools, the Panettone should be hung upside down to stretch and form a dome. Knitting needles are inserted all the way through the bottom half of the panettone between two objects of equal height or over a large saucepan and left to stretch at least six hours.
It is Spring in Melbourne and artichokes (carciofi) and asparagus (asparagi) season.
We do not see the numerous artichokes in large bunches with long stems that one sees all over Sicily but artichokes in the larger Australian cities have become more common and I have even seen some in supermarkets, but not necessarily fresh and crisp as they should be.
Last year I was able to buy artichokes from a grower in Werribee – not far from Melbourne.
Asparagus are everywhere in Melbourne (other places in Australia as well). Mostly they are the thin variety of asparagus sold in bunches but in the last few years the thick asparagus sold by weight are easily found. Those of you who eat out or read recipes may have noticed that more and more vegetables are presented char grilled (rather than steamed) and the large asparagus are perfect for this.
In Australia (or at least in Melbourne) we have not yet reached the wild asparagus trend (photos above and below). Wild asparagus are appreciated all over Italy.
I quite often cook asparagus and artichokes together. I have a friend who eats gluten free food so I stuffed these artichokes with almond meal, parsley, garlic and one egg (make a stiff paste). I braised the artichokes in stock and white wine and because I did not have the correct sized saucepan (I am not living in my apartment at the moment) I had to use a large saucepan.
No problems – I used whole potatoes to support the artichokes in an upright position. I then added asparagus a few minutes before I was ready to present the artichokes.
I have written many recipes for artichokes on my blog… Use the search button and type in ‘artichokes’ if you wish to find how to clean artichokes and recipes.
Stripped of their tough outer leaves artichokes are perfect for eating with just a fork and a knife. The artichokes in this photo were cooked by a friend and she braised them with beans (pulses).
Anchovies are often added to fish in Sicilian cuisine – they are either stuffed in the slashes made on the sides of the fish or gently melted with a little oil and added to the fish whilst it is cooking. Trout has flaky, delicate flesh and slashing it is not a good idea so I chose to do the latter.
I always use herbs for all my cooking and this time I selected sage that is often associated with veal and pork but I quite like it with trout. Sage is not a common herb in Sicilian cooking and you may prefer to use rosemary instead.
whole fish, one large trout (for 2-3 people)
lemons, 1-2 whole – ends trimmed, sliced into thick circles
extra virgin olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
anchovies, 3-6 cut finely
green olives, a couple of tablespoons, well drained
sage or rosemary
Prepare the fish – clean, dry and stuff a few herbs in the cavity.
Add a little oil (about one tablespoon depending on your pan) to the frying pan and over medium heat. Add the lemon slices and pan fry them until lightly browned – turn once. In order to brown the lemon slices they should not be overcrowded so you may need to pan fry them in two batches.
Remove the lemon slices from the pan with the oil and any of the juices.
Add a little more oil to the fry pan, heat it and add the anchovies. Stir them around in the pan over medium-low heat until they dissolve.
Add the trout. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (remember that the anchovies are salty) and add the sage. Pan fry the fish on both sides and only turn once.
Add the olives half way the cooking.
Toss the slices of lemon and the juices back in the pan and heat through.
When I was in Paris a couple of months ago I saw this hand painted Fridge in a store window. This fridge is part of Sicily is my Love, a colourful collaboration by Smeg fridges and Dolce&Gabbana’s signature decorative style. Each of the 100 fridges illustrate Sicilian folklore in bold, vibrant colour and are hand-painted by Sicilian artists. They were released during the Milan Design Fair, Salone del Mobile di Milano in 2016.
In the 90s I frequently used earthenware cooking pots of various sizes (also called clay and terracotta pots) mainly for baking. Some had lids and were perfect for braises. Some were glazed, partially glazed, or unglazed and most of them were Italian. Some were French.
There are various names in Italian for t earthenware pots depending on the shape and function – for example a tegame di terracotta only has one handle and is in the shape of a frypan, a legumieria is for cooking legumi (vegetables and pulses) and therefore has a lid and a wide middle, a teglia is shallow and for baking and comes in oval, round, square or rectangular shapes. The pignatta (or pignata) with a lid is for braises.
I used to use my French pottery for terrines, pâtés, French onion soup, gratin potatoes (or other vegetables), cassoulet, and the like and use my Italian earthenware pots for baked fennel, Italian braises like chicken or capretto (kid) and potatoes, veal shanks, hare.
There was no mixing of cultures in my kitchen – French recipes and Italian recipes were segregated to the correct pot.
But, cooking is also influenced by trends and fashion, and using earthenware became passé. I gave many of my earthenware pots away and over the years the ones I have kept are hidden in various cupboards in my apartment.
Many of them are out of reach and unfortunately, as often happens ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Recently I found my Römertopf and I have begun using it again and some of the other pots too. Some of you (the more mature people) may remember the Römertopf casseroles. The original casseroles are a German brand first introduced in 1967 and still being made. They are made of natural clay and are a terracotta colour, have a lid, are rectangular and unglazed. I saw some in Paris cook shops not very long ago and are probably making a comeback.
This is my second Römertopf. I ruined my first one by cooking a very strong flavoured, spicy pork dish with lentils and could not get the flavour or smell out – everything I cooked tasted the same. Earthenware, especially the unglazed or partly glazed ones are porous and therefore the clay will absorb the flavours and fats of whatever you cook in them. it is a good idea to use one pot for similar flavored dishes or to have several pots as I indicated at the beginning of this post.
When it comes to washing earthenware I only use hot water and a brush – no soaking or detergents as they too can be absorbed. Clay retains water so I also allow the pots to dry completely before I store them to prevent mold from forming on the surface.
Earthenware will break with sudden changes in temperature; moving a hot pot from the stove or oven and placing it directly onto a cold surface is not a good idea. Nor is putting hot liquid or ingredients into a cold pot or cold into a hot pot.
They can be used in the oven or microwave and some can be used on the stove especially when a heat diffuser / simmer mat is used to help distribute the heat and cook on a slow simmer. My modern tajine is made of clay and obviously has been especially treated so that I can use this in the oven as well as the stove.
I now use my re- discovered Römertopf just for baking chicken. Earthenware helps to ensure that food is cooked evenly and maintains heat for a long time; the pot seals in moisture and the flavors of a dish and nutrients are preserved. My oven remains clean, nothing burns, nothing overflows.
The procedure for using the Römertopf is simple: the room temperature/ cold ingredients are placed into the cold Römertopf that has been soaked in water. It is then placed into a cold oven …no monitoring until the food is cooked.
Many ancient cultures including ancient Romans cooked in earthenware pots with lids by placing them in the glowing ashes of an open fire and the Römertopf is said to have been based on these Roman principles of cooking. Many cultures over the centuries have used this method of cooking in the ashes or over the ashes in fireplaces and chimneys.
There are many types of earthenware pots and each differ by the kind of clay that is used, the way it’s made, the shape, how it’s fired. The pots also come under different names, depending on and country of origin. For example the most common are the Moroccan tajines, the Provençal daubieres, Spanish cazuelas and the Colombian La Chamba pots.
I bought my first La Chamba pots from Oxfam in Adelaide about 30 years ago. They are a deep black colour and have a lustrous appearance. Recently I have seen many La Chamba pots in different shapes and sized in Australia.
Most Asian countries have different techniques of cooking food in clay and some of them require soaking (like the Römertopf) before cooking. I always soak (submerge) all of my earthenware pots in water (from cold water tap) for at least 20 minutes.
CHICKEN COOKED IN THE RÖMERTOPF
Whole chicken – free range, preferably organic. Remove any obvious fat. Sometimes I may place into the cavity one of the following: a whole onion or lemon, 2-3 whole garlic cloves or some herbs.
Herbs – any of the following but not too many as the flavours intensify and will be absorbed into the clay: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, bay, parsley or sage. Preferably, I place the herbs under the skin of the chicken.
Salt and pepper, rub inside and outside of chicken.
Vegetables – sometimes I may place vegetables under the chicken: whole mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, celery.
Do not preheat oven.
Soak whole Römertopf (top and bottom) in cold water for 15-20 minutes or follow soaking directions provided with the clay pot.
Pat dry chicken and sprinkle salt and pepper inside and outside the cavity. Place chicken breast side up and fill cavity of chicken any of the ingredients I have mentioned above. You will notice that I do not use strong flavours.
Place a few vegetables on the bottom of the chicken. There is no need to use vegetables unless you wish, but if you do you will taste the natural flavours of the vegetables – nice.
Cover the Römertopf and place in a cold oven.
Turn oven to 220C and bake 90 minutes. The chicken will be golden but if you wish to brown it further, remove the top during the last 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and place it on a towel or mat – nothing cold to avoid cracking. Food can be served from the pot.
This type of cooking will not taste bland, but I always find a reason to accompany it with a sauce…. the last sauce was one made with the remaining nettles growing on my balcony, and walnuts, but at other times there have been other sauces.
Walnuts and nettles sauce
Softened nettles or use spinach (2 tablespoons), parsley (1 tablespoon), walnuts (2 tablespoons), garlic (1 clove), salt, pepper to taste.
A dash of each of the following: extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sufficient chicken stock (the juices from the chicken) to make the sauce smooth and creamy.
Many of you would be familiar with the writings of Mary Taylor Simeti, one of the greatest authorities on Sicilian food. You may have a copy of her classic, in-depth, definitive book of the culinary history, traditions and recipes of Sicily called Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food. This was published in several editions and the same text was later republished as Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle.
Or you may have read her other books about Sicily: On Persephone’s lsland: A Sicilian Journal, Travels with a Medieval Queen or Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. She has also written other books published in Italian as well as travel and food articles for various American, Italian and British publications including the New York Times and the London Financial Times.
Her new book is called SICILIAN SUMMER: An Adventure in Cooking with My Grandsons.
This time Mary takes us to her farm at Bosco, located some 40 miles west of Palermo in the hills overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare. The farm has been in the Simeti family since 1933. Mary and her husband Tonino inherited it in 1966 and is now a diversified farm of less than forty acres of vineyards, olive groves, fruit and vegetables with organic certification for their Bosco Falconeria wine, olive oil and produce.
SICILIAN SUMMER: An Adventure in Cooking with My Grandsons, is an account and photographs of the food that Mary and her 4 grandsons (aged 13, 10, 7 and 5 years) cooked over 10 intensive, continuous days for the Simeti family – Mary and Tonino Simeti (the nonni), the four grandsons and the four children’s parents. The recipes that Mary and the boys prepare are all described and they use the abundant summer produce they themselves have helped to harvest from the fields: cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, zucchini blossoms and zucchini.
And when you have abundance, you use the same vegetable to produce various dishes – there are numerous ways to eat tomatoes and the zucchini blossom is enjoyed battered, stuffed and cooked in pasta dishes.
But it is so much more than a book of recipes suitable for her grandsons of various ages. Mary captures the pleasure that family brings when the three generations of the Simeti family gather on the farm each summer and she meditates on the role food can play within the family in bonding, consolidating tradition and identity and creating memories of her own childhood and those of her children. In between memories and recollections there is a beguiling mix of a family history and an account of the development of the farm that Mary and Tonino now share with their daughter, her husband and two grandsons.
Mary’s honesty shines through the book. She questions her skill and ability to conduct these cooking experiences and is concerned about using safe implements for her young cooks. I loved the description of the very special garlic press:
A little boat of burnished steel, it has holes in its hull through which tiny pieces of garlic rise up as you press it into the peeled cloves rocking back and forth on a cutting board.
And I loved the description of Tonino. Grandson Matteo when young, would only see his grandfather once a year when he visited with his parents and brother from New York. Matteo was finding it difficult to relate to Tonino as he was unaccustomed and unfamiliar to him. But Mary describes how this all changed when the young Matteo … saw his grandfather drive up to the farmhouse on a tractor, a vision that in his mind would have outshone Apollo driving up in the chariot of the sun. Familiar or not, Tonino had achieved godhood.
Mary reflects on the current plight of the world that her grandsons are growing up in and wonders about the cooking project she has undertaken with them: Am I compiling an album of childhood memories, scenes that will have some relevance to their adult lives, or will this be the record – even for them – of a lost and irretrievable Golden age?
She hopes that these experiences in her kitchen will make these moments more significant and render their memories more indelible.
The book ends with the preparation of the last meal for Tonino’s 79th birthday celebration.
Scattered as we soon would be, the shared memory of the past ten days, the cooking and the laughing and eating together would link us firmly together. I have never felt closer to my grandchildren, more sure than our sense of family.
Could this be the last summer that the Simeti family spends together?
Sicilian Summer: An Adventure in Cooking with my Grandsons. The publication date is 25 September, but it is already available for pre-ordering on line, either in paperback form or as an ebook (search for them on line). Obviously, if you would rather support your local bookshop and help promote Mary’s writing by doing so, you could ask your favourite bookshop to order it.
Mary Taylor Simeti is one of my heroes – I think that sometimes it takes a newcomer with a passion to observe and describe and rediscover what is Sicily and tease out the history behind the food (not that she is a newcomer any longer, she is part of Sicily, an expatriate who has spent all her adult life dedicated to her new homeland and appreciating its culture).