I love baked ricotta, but not the bastardized versions blended with eggs and herbs I have seen for sale. I do not know where these originated – not in Italy and definitely not Sicily!
ricotta, fresh and a solid piece
Cover with foil and bake in a 180 C for 15 minutes . Remove the foil and bake uncovered until the it has just begun to turn golden brown – it may take about 40 minutes or more, depending on the size.
Cover with foil – this dish will keep well in the fridge for 3 days. A perfect dish to prepare well ahead of time.
It can also double up as a dessert if dribbled with honey.
Ricotta is much loved by Italians particularly Sicilians who like to eat it very fresh (made on the day). It is eaten on its own and is an essential ingredient, both in savoury and in sweet dishes.
In Sicily the more prized ricotta is made from sheep’s milk. It is creamier, sweeter and more fragrant than the cow’s milk variety – this is especially used in Sicilian pastries especially cannoli and cassata.
The word ri-cotta means re-cooked. After the curd has been removed to make cheese, the left over whey is recooked to make the ricotta so interestingly in Italy it is not considered a cheese. However, a cheese manufacturer in Australia has told me that ricotta is mostly made from whole or part skim milk (sometimes called ricotta magra) and because it is a first curd we can call it a cheese.
In Australia ricotta is mostly made from cows’ milk but there are some manufacturers that use sheep’s milk. An excellent one is from a sheep dairy on Kangaroo Island’s Cygnet River in South Australia (Island Pure). Mt. Emu Creek in Camperdown, Western Victoria also make one and I have also tasted one in Tasmania, but at that time the texture and taste needed further development (the other sheep’s milk cheeses from this particular cheese manufacturer were excellent).
My parents lived close to a cheese factory in Adelaide and when my father retired and was still alive, they used to buy their ricotta three times per week. They knew the time and the day that it was made and collected it and consumed it while it was still warm and fragrant, any left over ricotta was used in cooking. If it was to be eaten the next day, it was heated in the microwave for a few minutes to rinfrescarla (refresh it).
The same Adelaide cheese manufacturer makes ricotta salata. This cheese is extraordinarily good to eat fresh – it is much thicker and tastier than the fresh ricotta because it has been salted and drained for about one week before it is sold. It also tastes exceptionally good baked, fresh and unadulterated – use a slow oven. If you have enough willpower to allow some to dry naturally, you can use it as a grating cheese (my father used to have an electric fan, positioned on top of the cheese to help the drying process). The hard, strong tasting Greek variety of ricotta salata that seems to be more readily available commercially is quite different.
When we first came to Australia we were unable to buy ricotta. My father explained how the contadini (people who lived in rural areas and had some produce) used to make ricotta by using milk from their goat, sheep or cow, and the natural rennet from the stomach lining of one of these slaughtered animals to coagulate the milk. Rennin is now synthesized. Because the rennet was not always available (it depended how often one slaughtered) the contadini also used the sap of a branch from the fig tree to set the milk.
On a radio program I heard of an interesting development that took place around the town of Woodburn in New South Wales. In 1882 a number of Italians arrived and built a happy and prosperous settlement, which was called “New Italy”. They grew vegetables and grapes, used to fatten pigs and calves; they made salami and also cheese. To do this, after the calves were killed for meat, they filled the stomach with milk and smoked it slowly over a fire for at least 3 days. The rennet set the milk and they had cheese. Where there is a need there is a way.
Back in the past I did try to make ricotta and used the sap from a branch of a fig tree. It did work, but I would like to have known about junket tablets, which were at the time, very popular for setting milk as desserts and are commonly still produced in South Australia.
Several of my friends are beginning to discover and appreciate the taste of fennel. It is prolific at present in Melbourne and most refreshing eaten raw. It can be cooked – braised, baked, made into a tortino (see recipe in blog tortino di finocchio) and as in this recipe, made into a soup (not a very common way to cook fennel).
Salsa moresca is an interesting name for a pasta sauce. The sauce is eaten in and around the town of Scicli, a beautiful baroque town not far from Modica (also beautiful) which is close to Ragusa (where my father’s relatives live). The ingredients are a combination of the sweet and the savoury and include bottarga (tuna roe), sugar, pine nuts, cinnamon and the juice and peel of citrus.
I was interested in the name – murisca (moresca is Italian for Moorish). The ingredients could well be of Moorish origins but it is also the name of a dance – la moresca. It is still performed in some regions of Sicily, especially on certain religious feast days.
The dance is said to have been introduced by the Moors into Spain and became popular all over Europe during the 15 th and 16th Centuries. Dances with similar names and features are mentioned in Renaissance documents throughout many Catholic countries of Europe – Sicily, France, Corsica and Malta – and, from the times of the Venetian Republic, Dalmatia – also through Spanish trade, Flanders and Germany.
La moresca is remarkably like the English Morris dance (or Moorish dance) a folk dance usually accompanied by music where the group of dancers use implements such as sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs. In Sicily they only use handkerchiefs, but this may have been modified over time. La Moresca and the Morris dance are considered to be one of the oldest traditional European dances still performed and inspired by the struggle of Christians against the Moors, in some places Christians and Turks, in other places between Arabs and Turks. In parts of England, France, the Netherlands and Germany the performers still blacken their faces but it is uncertain if it is because they represent the Moors. This custom is not observed in Sicily.
Each year in May, there is a sacred performance in Scicli that recalls the historical battle in 1091 between Arabs and Christians. Legend says that “La Madonna delle Milizie” came astride a white horse to champion the Christians. Pasta alla moresca is still cooked to commemorate this event.
Salsa moresca (the sauce for the pasta) is not cooked – it is an impasto – a paste or mixture, and probably traditionally made with a mortar and pestle.
INGREDIENTS: 500g long pasta, (spaghetti or bucatini), 150g grated bottarga, ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 chopped red chili, 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic, 4 finely cut anchovies, juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon, peel of ½ lemon, ½ teaspoon of powdered cinnamon, 1 large spoonful of sugar and 1 of vinegar,1 cup pine nuts, ½ cup finely cut parsley, 1 cup breadcrumbs ( from 1-2 day old bread) lightly browned in a little extra virgin olive oil.
Pound all of the ingredients together preferably in a mortar and pestle: begin with the garlic the bottarga and anchovies. Follow with the sugar, cinnamon, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, parsley, peel and chilies – lubricating the paste gradually with the oil and juices as you pound.
Add the vinegar last of all.
And by now, having read about it, you can probably smell it.
Fans of the television series Montalbano (was a big, hit in Italy and Australia) are likely to be enchanted with the beauty of the Sicilian landscape and the array of specialty Sicilian food featured in the series.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano is a police commissioner and he lives in the south-east of Sicily, near Marina di Ragusa where my relatives have their holiday houses. Montalbano’s beach house is in Punta Secca is a small fishing village, in the Santa Croce Camerina comune, in Ragusa province, Sicily.
Andrea Camilleri is the writer of the crime stories and the books abound with delicious Sicilian food references.
Montalbano is an extremely appealing character who loves to eat. He savours his food, relishing all that is prepared for him with appreciation and gratitude. He readily accepts invitations to the homes of others and has his favourite trattorie (small restaurants). Montalbano is a detective who uses food to cheer himself up, plan his next moves and to weigh up the evidence. In the evenings he anticipates what Adelina (his housekeeper and cook) has left for him to eat and he hates to be interrupted over his dinner, but the phone often rings. He often seems to be thinking of what he will eat next or what he has eaten and in the books, Camilleri describes almost every dish Montalbano eats. And every dish is traditionally Sicilian.
On my last trip to Sicily, I ate in a couple of trattorie in Palermo where Camilleri and his friend Leonardo Sciascia (Sicilian writer) have been frequent patrons. One of Camilleri’s favourite dishes must be pasta or rice with black ink sauce – there are references made in a number of the books in the Montalbano series. In Siracusa I ate ricotta ravioli with black ink sauce.
Camilleri lives and works in Rome but spent a great number of years in Sicily before he moved north. He was born in Porto Empedocle, which is not far from Ragusa, and although Camilleri has given the places in Sicily fictitious names, the locations are recognisable. For example the scenes in Montalbano’s beautiful house overlooking the sea in Marinella near the fictional town of Vigàta is really of Punta Secca in Porto Empedocle (see photo). Fiacca is Sciacca, Fela is Gela, and Montelusa is Agrigento. The police station is a building in Ragusa Ibla and all of these towns are close to Ragusa, where my relatives live. The trattorie and restaurants in these south-eastern part of Sicily where the series were shot, have capitalised on this – a traveller visiting this part of Sicily can always sit down to eat pasta (or rice – risu) cu niuru di sicci.
This is how I cook it.
Although Sicily is relatively small, the food is very local and there are always regional variations:
Photos of Ravioli and Pasta are by Graeme Gilles, stylist Fiona Rigg, from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
Time to write about Trieste again. Now and again I feel nostalgic for this city where I spent my childhood before coming to Australia.
Today is my son’s birthday and lately he has been cooking iota (he does not live in Melbourne), but he tells me that it is not as good as mine.
Iota is a very old traditional dish from Trieste. It is very strongly flavoured, thick soup and the main ingredients are borlotti beans, sauerkraut and smoked meats. It is not a light dish by any means, but very simple to make and most suited to cold weather. It is usually made at least 1 day before you plan to eat it – the flavours mature and improve with age.
This is not a dish that many would associate with Italy but if you look at the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia it is easier to understand why this recipe is very characteristic of the area around Trieste.
I was last in Trieste in December 2007 and visited an osteria in the old part of Trieste (la citta` vecchia – the port / waterfront, see photo) to specifically eat cucina triestina. When I told the signora that I was reliving the food of my childhood she could not do enough for me – I had iota, sepe in umido (braised cuttle fish) matavilz (lamb’s lettuce salad) and strucolo de pomi( apple strudel). White wine of course (characteristic of the area) and we finished off the meal with a good grappa. Nothing like Sicilian food, but enjoyable for different reasons – nostalgia has a lot to do with it.
I have seen iota written by a variety of spellings: iotta, jota, yota are all pronounced the same way. Some also refer to it as fasoi (beans) and capuzi garbi (sauerkraut).
In some nearby places close to Trieste turnips are sometimes used instead of saurkraut.
There are variations in the making of iota: some add smoked sausages (as I always do) some parsley, and some a little barley – the texture of barley is good.
I always buy my sausages from a Polish or German butcher. When I lived in Adelaide I used to go to the Polish stall at The Adelaide Market and now, at the Polish stall in the Queen Victoria Market. I also buy good quality saurkraut there.
Most Triestini add flour to thicken this one course meal, but I generally do not do this.
Add the saurkraut and cook for about 30 minutes longer (some Triestini cook them separately, but I see no point in doing this).
To thicken the soup, add the flour and garlic to the hot olive oil – use a separate small pan, stir vigorously and try not to have lumps. This is like making a French roux but using oil instead of butter. Some of the older Triestini use lard.
Happy birthday……. and I am sorry that I am not there to cook it for you.
Risi e bisi the classic Venetian dish was traditionally offered to the Doge (do not know which one) on April 25, the feast of Saint Mark. This is not surprising, it is spring in the northern hemisphere and peas are one of the symbols of the season.
It is a public holiday in Venice and all sorts of events take place.
Although Venetians celebrate his feast day they also celebrate Liberation Day (liberation from the Nazis at the end of 2nd World War) and Festa del Bòcolo (is a rose bud) and it is customary for all women, not just lovers, to be presented with a bud. The very old legend concerns the daughter of Doge Orso Partecipazio, who was besotted with a handsome man, but the Doge did not approve and arranged for the object of her desire to fight the Turks on distant shores. The loved one was mortally wounded in battle near a rose bush. There he plucked a rose, tinged with his heroic blood and asked for it to be given to his beloved in Venice.
I grew up in Trieste (not far from Venice and in the same region of Italy) and risi e bisi is a staple, traditional dish.
The traditional way of cooking it does not include prosciutto but prosciutto cotto, what we call ham in Australia. Poor tasting ingredients will give a poor result; use a good quality smoked ham. As an alternative some cooks in Trieste use speck, a common ingredient in the region (it tastes more like pancetta). Some of the older Triestini use lard and only a little oil.
My mother also added a little white wine to the soffritto of onion and the ham, but this also would have been a modern addition. The butter is added last of all for taste. Use parmigiano – parmigiano is the cheese used in the north of Italy, pecorino in the south.
The secret is in using good produce, preferably organic, young and freshly picked peas (for their delicate taste) and a good stock. My mother made chicken stock. If she had no stock, she used good quality broth cubes- very common in Northern Italian cooking.
Maccarruna (maccheroni in Italian) is sometimes used as the generic word for pasta and is still common, especially in Naples and Sicily. It is also the term used in ancient recipe books. Most pasta, of whatever sort, was labelled maccheroni until 1850-70, after which local folk names were widely adopted by producers and consumers.
There are many explanations for the origins of the term maccarruna. Some researchers believe that it comes from the term, maccare – to squash. Others believe that it comes from the word maccu – a Sicilian, thick soup specialty made with pulses and pasta. There are also Greek words: macron meaning long, or makaria a dough of barley and broth, or makar – it means ‘very happy’ – the state maccarruna eaters presumably experience. Whatever the origins of the word maccarruna, Sicilians consume large quantities of it.
There are many small shapes of fresh pasta made in Sicilian homes. The following are some of the favourite maccarruna.
Gnocculi, gnucchiteddi, cavati, caviateddi are the most common names for gnocchi or gnocchetti (Italian) shapes. Some are rigati (have ridges on the surface) and some are lisci (smooth). All have an indentation in the centre to ensure even cooking.
Gnocchi look like dumplings and in Italy can be made out of potatoes, bread, fine cornmeal or semolina and with wheat flour. Sicilians prefer gnocculi or gnucchiteddi (the smaller shape), made with durum wheat flour. They are called different names in different regions in Sicily. When my relatives in Ragusa make gnucchiteddi, they include 1-2 eggs for each 800g-1k of durum wheat flour and as much water as the dough absorbs, but the standard practice in other parts of Sicily is to use no eggs at all.
Pasta making is a family affair. The photo was taken during my last trip to Sicily. The extended family is shaping gnucchiteddi by using a very useful gadget that belonged to my great grandmother. As you can see it looks like a loom. Very fine strips of dough are rolled around a needle-like reed and then the reed (and the shapes) are rolled on the shaping device. This fuses the dough together and gives each of the gnucchiteddi, the grooves on the surface.
Laura and Nancy in the U.S. have a great food blog called ‘Jellypress’. They invite readers to share photos of old foodways called ‘Hands on’ and I have contributed to this very interesting section in their blog.
I am really pleased that the three recipes I sent to SBS have been published on the SBS website.
One of the recipes may be selected as part of upcoming food series My Family Feast. Selected recipes will be cooked by Sean Connolly (chef) in a short website and published online during broadcast of the series.
This is one of the recipes:
Sarde a Beccafico
When I invite friends for a meal I like to present something that they may not have tasted before.
A beccafico is a small bird, which feeds on ripe figs – becca (peck) and fico (fig). The sardines when stuffed resemble a beccafico and sarde a beccafico demonstrates a sign of respect for this type of bird, a gourmand who stuffs himself on fresh figs. The beccafichi (plural of beccafico) are also eaten stuffed and cooked in the same way as the sarde (sardines). That is if this bird still exists in Sicily – Italians fancy themselves as great hunters (cacciatori).
There are local variations in the ingredients used for the stuffing, the method of cooking and for the names of the dish in other parts of Sicily. These are my favourite ingredients for this recipe from a combination of local recipes.
fresh sardines, fillets, 700g,
breadcrumbs, 1 cup made with good quality1-3 day old bread
anchovy fillets, 5-8 finely, cut finely
currants, ½ cup
pine nuts, ½ cup
parsley, ¾ cup, cut finely
bay leaves, 10, fresh
garlic, 2 cloves, chopped
lemon, 1, juice and zest
sugar, 1 tablespoon
nutmeg, ½ teaspoon
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
Prepare sardines: Scale, gut, butterfly and clean sardines and leave the tail. If you buy fillets, they are sometimes sold without tails – this may not matter, but when the fillet of the sardine is closed around the stuffing, the tail is flicked upright to resemble a bird – and this may be missing. (In the photo there are no tails – photo taken in a restaurant in Monreale, Palermo, December 2007)
Wipe each sardine dry before stuffing.
Preheat oven to 190 C
Prepare the stuffing:
Toast breadcrumbs until golden in about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (I use a non stick fry pan) over a low flame.
Take off heat and cool.
Stir in pine nuts, currants, parsley, anchovies, lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, pepper and garlic.
Add a little more extra virgin olive oil if the mixture is dry.
Place a spoonful of the stuffing in each opened sardine and close it upon itself to resemble a fat bird (any leftover stuffing can be sprinkled on top to seal the fish)
Position each sardine, closely side by side in an oiled baking dish with tail sticking up and place a bay leaf between each fish.
Sprinkle the sardines with lemon juice and any left over stuffing, the sugar the left over oil.
Bake for 20-30 minutes.