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.
Today in Venice, Venetians are celebrating the feast day of their patron saint (25 April, the date of the death of San Marco).
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.
peas (young, fresh), 1 kilo unshelled rice, 300g vialone nano preferably, ham, cubed 50-70g, onion,1 finely cut (I like to use spring onions as well) parmigiano (Reggiano), grated 50g extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup dry white wine, ½ glass (optional), parsley, finely cut, ½ cup butter, 2 tablespoons salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste PROCESSES Shell the peas. Heat the olive oil, add ham and onion and over medium-low heat soften the ingredients. Do not brown. Add the shelled peas, parsley and when they are covered in oil, add very little stock (to soften the peas), cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the rice, and stir, add the wine (optional) and evaporate. Keep on adding the hot stock, stirring the rice and adding more stock as it is absorbed. End up with a wet dish (almost soupy and all’onda as Italians say) and with the rice al dente. In fact, the dish should rest for about 5 minutes before it is served so take this into consideration (the rice will keep on cooking and absorb the stock).Addparmesan and butter, stir and serve.
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.
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.
I sent three recipes to SBS and this was one of them. All have been published on the website
One of my recipes, Sarde a beccafico was selected as part of the food series My Family Feast and cooked by Sean Connolly (chef). You can see it making it online during the broadcast of the series.
You cannot go to Sicily and not eat pasta con le sarde.There are many regional variations of pasta sauces made with sardines, all called by the same name, but the most famous is anancient, traditional dish from Palermo. The pasta can be eaten hot or cold (at room temperature).
I like the way Sicilians often skip between the sweet and savoury tastes – the sour and/or salty is often combined with the sweet and what makes this dish unique is the unusual combination of textures and strong fragrant tastes: the strong taste of the oily sardines, the cleansing flavour of the fennel, the sweetness of the raisins and the delicate aromatic taste of the pine nuts.
Pasta con le sarde is presented with toasted breadcrumbs as a topping, in the same way that grated cheese is used.
Originally the breadcrumbs may have been a substitute for cheese for the poor. In some versions of this dish the cooked ingredients are arranged in layers in a baking dish, topped with breadcrumbs and then baked – the breadcrumbs form a crust.
Unfortunately we are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia, but we do have the wild fennel that grows in neglected areas such as on the side of the road, vacant land and along banks of waterways. In Sicily it can be bought in small bunches. In Australia you will recognise it by its strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed.
Fresh bulb fennel can replace the wild fennel, but the taste will not be as strong. If you are using bulb fennel try to buy bulbs with some of the green fronds still attached. I usually buy more than one fennel at a time and save the green fronds to use as a herb in cooking and I enhance the taste by using fennel seeds as well.
The addition of almonds is a local variation and is optional – it brings another layer of taste and texture to the dish. If you choose not to use the almonds, use double the quantity of pine nuts (see recipe).
The origins of pasta chi sardi (Sicilian) are said to be Arabic. In one story, an Arab cook was instructed to prepare food for the Arab troops when they first landed in Sicily. The cook panicked when he was confronted by a large number of people to feed, so the troops were instructed to forage for food. He made do with what they presented – wild herbs (the fennel) and the fish (sardines) to which he added Arabic flavourings, the saffron, dried fruit and the nuts.
I remember coming back to Australia and cooking this dish for friends after eating it in a restaurant in Palermo (Sicily) called L’ingrasciata (In Sicilian it means The dirty one!), and how much all of my guests enjoyed it. I have continued to cook pasta con le sarde over the years, especially since sardines are plentiful, sustainable and now widely available in Australia.
Pasta con le sarde is fairly substantial, and although in Sicily it would be presented as a first course (primo), in AustraliaI am happy to present it as a main (secondo) and I use greater quantities of fish. I follow the pasta course with a green salad as a separate course, but I never serve pasta and salad together. Part of me remains Italian to the core – in Italy a salad is a contorno (a side dish) and an accompaniment to a main course. Pasta, risotto and soup – which are all primi, cannot be accompanied by a side dish.
Traditionally the sauce is made with sardines that arebutterflied (i.e. remove the backbone), or as the Italians say, aperti come un libro (opened like a book). I buy fillets to save time.
fennel, wild is preferable, stalks and foliage, about 200g. If not, a large bulb of fennel with the fronds, cut into quarters and a teaspoon of fennel seeds to strengthen the flavour
extra virgin olive oil, about 1 cup
onions, 2, finely sliced
anchovies, 4, cut finely
pine nuts, 1 cup
almonds, 1 cup, toasted and chopped (optional)
currants, ¾ cup, or seedless raisins or sultanas
saffron, ½-1 small teaspoon
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
breadcrumbs, 4–5 tablespoons
Cook the fennel
The wild fennel is put into cold, salted water (to give maximum flavour to the water) and boiled for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water will be used to cook the pasta – it will flavour and colour the pasta. The boiled fennel is added as an ingredient in the sauce. Reserve some wild fennel to use in the cooking the fish.
If using the bulb fennel, wash and cut the bulb fennel into quarters but reserve the green fronds to use raw in the cooking the fish. Add fennel seeds and boil until tender.
Drain the cooked fennel in colander, and then gently squeeze out the water. Discard the seeds and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta.
Chop the fennel roughly, this will be added to the sauce later.
Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. The whole fillets go on top and are used to provide visual impact.
Heat oil in shallow wide pan, suitable for making the pasta sauce and to include the pasta once it is cooked.
Sauté the onions over medium heat until golden.
Add pine nuts, raisins and almonds (optional). Toss gently.
Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper and the uncooked fennel. Cook on gentle heat for about 5-10 minutes, stirring gently.
Add the anchovies (try to remove any bones if there are any) and as they cook, crush them with back of spoon to dissolve into a paste.
Add the cooked chopped fennel and the saffron dissolved in a little warm water and continue to stir and cook gently.
Boil bucatini in the fennel water until al dente.
Fry the whole fillets of sardines in a separate frying pan, keeping them intact.
Remove them from the pan and put aside.
Drain the pasta.
At this stage the pasta can be assembled and presented, or baked.
Place the pasta into the saucepan in which you have cooked the fish sauce.
Leave the pasta in the saucepan for 5-10 minutes to incorporate the flavours and to preserve some warmth.
Gently fold in the whole sardines.
When ready to serve, tip the pasta and fish mixture into a serving bowl, arranging the whole fillets or butterflied sardines on top and dress the whole dish with the toasted breadcrumbs.
If you are baking the pasta:
Oil a baking tray or an ovenproof dish and sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs to prevent sticking (it is not necessary that they be browned in oil, just browned in the oven).
Place a layer of pasta on the breadcrumbs, top with some of the fish sauce and some whole fillets of sardines. Form another layer and ensure that some of the whole fillets are kept for the top.
Cover with fresh breadcrumbs and sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and bake in preheated 200C oven for approximately 10 minutes. A teaspoon of sugar can also be sprinkled on top of the breadcrumbs – this, with the oil will help the bread form a crust, adding yet another contrasting taste and a different texture.
SBS website withSarde a beccafico – part of the food series My Family Feast and cooked by Sean Connolly (chef):
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.