If you aren’t feeling well, especially if you have an upset stomach Italians say that you are debole di stomaco; this seems to be a common malady with Italians. The home cure is to eat in bianco – white food (bianco is Italian for white). In bianco is the culinary term used to refer to a dish, which is served plain and with little seasoning.
Broth, boiled rice, boiled chicken/veal, certain boiled vegetables, steamed white fish, bistecca di vitello a bagnio maria (veal steak cooked in a baine marie), latte di mandorla (almond milk) and bianco mangiare (dessert= thickened almond milk) are some of the foods which are considered mangiare (food) in bianco.
The perfect in bianco food and the cure for any ailment of course, is brodo (broth).
I usually use a whole, organic chicken and eat the flesh after I have made the broth. If I use a veal shin I also eat the flesh (try it with a salsa verde). If I am eating the meat, I remove the chicken or veal from the broth after about 60-80 minutes of gentle cooking and then evaporate the broth on high heat.
Obviously the more solids, the more taste. To concentrate the flavours, cook the broth for longer and towards the end of cooking, leave it uncovered to evaporate.
If you do not wish to eat the meat, fleshy bones from organic chickens are a suitable substitute. Because stock is the foundation for cooking, the quality of the bones is important, cheap bones from battery hens will not produce flavourful stock and it is likely to be full of concentrated chemicals.
Gallina vecchia fa` buon brodo (Ancient Italian proverb).
An old chicken makes good broth.
Ingredients: 1 large onion, chicken (or carcasses, necks and wings and/or veal bones) salt, peppercorns(optional), celery stick, carrot, 1-2 red tomatoes) and water to cover ingredients.
Processes: Peel and halve the onion, remove obvious fat from meat, clean the celery and carrot (no need to peel as it will be discarded). Add all of these ingredients and the seasoning to a saucepan or stockpot and cover the contents with cold water. Cover with a lid and slowly bring the broth to a boil. Simmer for 2 hours (or up to 3 hours if using large bones), skimming frequently. Strain the broth, discarding solids (unless you are eating the meat).
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.
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!
I like to make the authentic, baked ricotta – unadulterated, white and fresh tasting in the centre, with a golden-brown crust. I particularly like it as a first course accompanied by a tomato salad and presented as a light meal.
Purchase the solid ricotta, in Australia usually sold by weight from four kilo shapes . The creamy variety sold in plastic tubs is not suitable.
In Sicily the ricotta is drained (on a rack overnight in the fridge) and just rubbed with salt and baked slowly uncovered until it becomes a dark golden colour. Sometimes, olive oil is rubbed over the ricotta before the salt is added, but not always. I also like to add a few herbs for flavour at the bottom of the ricotta while it is cooking and sometimes pepper (or red chili flakes) but this is not strictly traditional.
ricotta, fresh and a solid piece
extra virgin olive oil, to coat the ricotta
herbs:¼-½ cup dried oregano, enough to sprinkle as a covering and on the bottom
fresh rosemary and/or bay leaves (optional) placed under the ricotta
black pepper, ¼-½ cup or dried red chili flakes, 1 teaspoon (optional)
salt (flakes or coarse), to sprinkle on top.
The following cooking time is for a piece of ricotta weighing about 1 kilo.
Pre heat your oven to 180 C.
Oil the bottom of a baking tray, place a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and oregano (also the bay leaves and/or rosemary if you wish to include these).
Place the lump of ricotta (or wheel) on top of the flavourings.
Oil, the ricotta lightly – use your hands to coat it.
Sprinkle with the salt (I use flakes) and oregano – use your hands to ensure that it is well seasoned.
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.
Allow to cool before eating.
Cover with foil – this dish will keep well in the fridge for 3 days. A perfect dish to prepare well ahead of time.
In a restaurant in Syracuse I was presented with warm baked ricotta sprinkled with a coating of toasted pistachio nuts.
To make this version, rub the ricotta with olive oil and a little salt. Add the nuts in the last 20 minutes of cooking.
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 sointerestinglyin 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).
One of the delights for Sicilians is to eat ricotta when it has just been made. Sicilians go to the manufacturers (often these are very small farms called a masseria) and watch the ricotta form. Each guest is given a spoon and a terracotta bowl with broken pieces of fresh bread on the bottom and when the curds separate from the whey each is given a ladleful to eat hot.
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.
To make fresh cheese with junket tablets:
Into a saucepan with 1 litre of whole milk heated until luke warm, add 2 junket tablets (crushed and dissolved in a little warm water). Stir until separated. With a slotted spoon tranfer the curds into a small basket or colendar lined with cheesecloth. Place on a rack to drain freely. It will set in about an hour.
It will only make a small amount.
I am able to purchase unpasteurized Jersey cows’ milk (called bath milk) at the Queen Victoria Market. My brother tells me that he has seen reed baskets in some continental supermarkets in Adelaide, but a colander lined with cheesecloth serves the purpose however the cheese will not look as good.
The photo was taken in the Catania market. Ricotta is often sold in these reed baskets and in some Sicilian communities the farmer who manufactures the ricotta sells them from door to door and return the next day to collect the empty containers.
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).
Traditionally this recipe should be made with wild fennel and this is how I first tasted this soup.Obviously if this ingredient is not close by, the bulb can be used. If you can collect some wild fennel (make sure it looks healthy, see recipe in blog pasta con le sarde), experiment with this recipe and use both the wild and the cultivated bulb with some of its tender fronds and stalks (choose round, shiny bulbs, as in photo taken in the market of Syracuse).
It is one of the simplest soups to make and when it was first made for me (using wild fennel) all of the vegetables went into a pot with the water and once softened, broken spaghetti were added – soup without pasta is rarely presented. The broken spaghetti were once the way to use them up, by all means use some short, small sout pasta shape.
I am always amazed how Sicilian soups cooked so simply can be so appetising. My relative presented the minestra with a drizzle of the very flavourful oil given to her by a relative in Noto. Maybe the oil is the secret ingredient! Boiled vegetables cooked this way and presented with the water is considered rinfrescante, calming and soothing for the digestive system and very common as the evening meal (Sicilians still eat their main meal at lunch time).
I have intensified the flavours by varying the method of cooking and I sauté the vegetables before adding the liquid, this being a common way to make soup in the north of Italy. I also like to add stock instead of water, but when I cook this version it is no longer traditionally Sicilian.
I also found a version of a recipe for maccu (a very Sicilian soup) made in the Madonie which is very similar but uses wild fennel , dried broadbeans (soaked overnight and peeled) and no potato. The dried broadbeans add a very different taste and as they are floury, also thicken the soup as does the potato.
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), 150ggrated 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.
Use this to dress spaghetti or bucatini. I scattered basil leaves on top to decorate the pasta dish.
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.
pasta, 500 g (spaghetti, linguine or bucatini)
squid or cuttlefish, 600g, and 2-3 ink sacks
ripe tomatoes, 300g, peeled and chopped
tomato paste, 1 large tablespoon
salt (a little) and, chili flakes or freshly ground black pepper to taste
onion, 1 medium or/and garlic 2 cloves
white wine, 1 cup
parsley, 1 cup finely cut
grated pecorino or ricotta to serve (optional)
Clean the squid carefully and extract the ink sac (see pg…). Cut the squid into 1cm rings and set them aside. The tentacles can be used also.
For the salsa:
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil. Addthe tomatoes, chopped parsley, salt, white wine and tomato paste. Bring to a boil and evaporate until the salsa is thick.
Add the squid ink, red pepper flakes to the salsa and mix well.
Add the squid rings and cook over a medium-high heat until the squid is cooked to your liking (for me it is only a few minutes). If you prefer to cook the squid further (as the Italians do), add a little water, cover the pan and braise for longer.
Present the pasta with grated pecorino (or topped with a little ricotta – you do not want to end up with grey ricotta, so do not mix through).
Although Sicily is relatively small, the food is very local and there are always regional variations:
Keep the squid white – sauté it in a little oil for a few minutes (add a 1 chopped clove of garlic and 1-2 tablespoons of finely cut parsley). Fold it through the dressed pasta gently and reserve some for on top.
·Add 1 cup of shelled peas at the same time as the tomatoes.
·Add bay leaves at the same time as the squid.
·Reserve some of the salsa and present the black pasta with a spoon of salsa and a spoon of ricotta on top.
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.
borlotti beans, 250g soaked overnight
potatoes, 250g, peeled and cubed
olive oil, ½ cup
ham hock or smoked ribs, shanks, 300-400g
pork, smoked sausages made from coarsely ground meat
garlic, 2 chopped
pepper and salt to taste
plain flour, 2 tablespoons
Place beans, salt pork, potatoes and bay leaves in large pot of cold water. Cover ingredients fully.
Simmer slowly (about 1 ½ hours). Add sausages about half way through the cooking.
Remove about half of the beans and potatoes and mash them. Add salt and pepper to taste and return them to the pan.
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.