Tag Archives: Arabs In Sicily

PASTA CON SARDE – the baked version, Palermo, Sicily

Italy is a Catholic country and on Good Friday most Italians eat fish. Pasta con le Sarde is made with bucatini (thick long tubes of pasta) and the main ingredients are sardines (buy fillets for ease), wild fennel (or fennel bulbs) pine nuts, saffron and topped by fried breadcrumbs.

as you can see I have made this dish at other times.

Muslim Arabs took control of North Africa from the Byzantines and Berbers and began their second conquest of Sicily in 827 from Mazara, the closest point to the African coast and by 902 they well and truly conquered Sicily. The Muslims, were known as Moors by the Christians and by the time of the Crusades, Muslims were also referred to as Saracens.

The Muslim Arabs, via North Africa ruled Sicily till 1061 A.D.

This recipe can only be Sicilian and is particularly common in Palermo.

The origins of pasta chi sardi (Sicilian) are said to be Arabic. When a band Arab troops first landed in Sicily via North Africa, the Arab cook was instructed to prepare food for the troops. The cook instructed the troops to forage for food. He made do with what they presented – plentiful was the wild fennel and the fish (sardines). To these he added exotic ingredients and flavours of Arabs and North Africans –  the saffron, dried fruit and the nuts and so Pasta con le Sarde was born.

At this time of year, just before Easter, many readers look at my blog searching for Easter food ideas. The baked version is fancy enough to present on Easter Sunday – if you are that way inclined.

Pasta con le Sarde can be eaten hot or cold  and it can  be baked…..made into a tummàla (Sicilian word from the Arabic) – Italian timballo and French timbale – a dish of finely minced meat or fish cooked with other ingredients and encased in rice, pasta or pastry.  The dry breadcrumbs are used to line and cover the contents in the baking pan, the long bucatini can be coiled around the pan and the sardine sauce becomes the filling.

The recipe for Pasta con le Sarde is from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. This is a slightly modified version of the recipe.

I found very little wild fennel this time of year so I used fennel bulbs – there were a few available at the Queen Victoria Market. Because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel I added some ground fennel seeds and a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste.

Wild fennel

If you can get wild fennel, place it into some cold, salted water (enough to cook the pasta) and boil it for 10-15 minutes (it can be left in the water for longer). The green tinged, fennel-flavoured water is used to cook the pasta — it will flavour and colour the pasta. Reserve some of the tender shoots of wild fennel raw to use in the cooking of the sauce.

Drain the cooked fennel and keep the fennel-flavoured water to cook the pasta. Some of the cooked fennel can be added to the pasta sauce.

The recipe using bulb Fennel

  • bucatini, 500g
  • sardines, 500g
  • fennel a large bulb of fennel with the green fronds cut finely, a teaspoon of ground fennel seeds or a dash of Pernod
  • extra virgin olive oil, about ½ cup
  • onions, 1, finely sliced
  • anchovies, 4, cut finely
  • pine nuts, ¾ cup
  • almonds, ¾ cup, toasted
  • currants, ¾ cup, or seedless raisins or sultanas soaked in a little water beforehand
  • saffron, ½ – 1 small teaspoon soaked in a little water beforehand
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper or chili flakes to taste
  • coarse breadcrumbs, 100 grams made with day old, quality bread (sourdough/pasta dura) lightly fried in some oil. I added pine nuts (pine- nuts-overkill), grated lemon peel, a little cinnamon and sugar to my breadcrumbs.

Slice the fennel into thin slices and cut fronds finely.
Cut about two thirds of the sardine fillets into thick pieces. Reserve whole fillets to go on top and provide visual impact.
Heat oil in shallow wide pan.
Sauté the onions over medium heat until golden. Add the fennel and cook till slightly softened.
Add pine nuts, currants (drained) and almonds. Toss gently until heated.
Add the sliced sardines, salt and pepper or chili. Cook  for about 5-7 minutes, stirring gently. Add ground fennel seeds or a splash of Pernod to enhance the fennel taste – I did this because I only found a very small quantity of wild fennel.
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 saffron (and the soaking water) and continue to stir and cook gently.
Boil bucatini in the fennel water (if you have it) 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.
Mix the pasta with the sauce, sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and top with the sardine fillets.

The photos are of left over pasta that I made into a timballo. It was only for my household, nothing fancy and was a way of using leftovers.

Oil a baking tray or an ovenproof dish (traditionally a round shape is used) and sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs to prevent sticking.


Place a layer of the dressed pasta on the breadcrumbs – I coiled the bucatini around the baking pan, then added the sauce (solids- sardines, nuts etc) and placed more coiled bucatini on top.

if you want a deeper crust you will need greater quantities of breadcrumbs.

Cover with more breadcrumbs, sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil, cover with foil and bake in preheated 200°C for approximately 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. When the dish is baked, the breadcrumbs form a crust.

LINKS:
WILD FENNEL, link with photos
PASTA WITH ANCHOVIES , wild fennel and breadcrumbs recipe
EASTER IN SICILY
SCACCE, Focaccia stuffed bread

 

 

ARABS IN SICILY, some sweets – petrafennula

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 Mary Taylor Simeti talking with Helen Greenwood

I was in Sydney where I attended some sessions of the Sydney International Food Festival. The World Chef Showcase on Saturday focused strongly on the cuisine of the Middle East and Mediterranean –this was the program that interested me the most.

The Festival list of Australian and overseas guests was very impressive and included: Musa Dagdeviren (Istanbul), Yotam Ottolenghi (London), Mary Taylor Simeti (Sicily, food history), Joe Barza (Lebanon) and Kamal Mouzawak (founder of Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb – a weekly market farmers’ produce and Lebanese food), Anissa Helou (London), Ozden Ozsabuncuoglu (Turkish food authority) and Mehmet Gurs (Istanbul).

Those of you who like Middle Eastern food and live in Melbourne will almost certainly know the names Ismail Tosun (Gigibaba) and Greg and Lucy Malouf (cookbook collaborators and Mo Mo Restaurant), also Abla Amad (Abla’s Restaurant). Sydney readers may recognise Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy Restaurant in Balmain).

Abla Amad was accompanied by Yotam Ottolenghi who was relatively unknown in Australia  at the time and i was one of the first to hear him at Abla’s session.

There is an obvious and powerful connection between Middle Eastern and Sicilian cuisine – the Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries (in medieval times they were sometimes called “Saracens” or “Moors”). The Arabs contributed to the development of Sicilian culture, agriculture and architecture and had a profound influence on the cuisine of Sicily.

The food that was prepared and discussed by the participating Festival guests featured many of the distinctive ingredients of Middle Eastern food – the rich spices (especially saffron and cinnamon), rice and grains, nuts and seeds (especially pine nuts, almonds, pistachio, sesame), sugar, and the typical fruits (citrus, figs, pomegranate) and vegetables and flowers (orange, jasmine, rose flower waters) of the Mediterranean.

The ‘Arab’ ingredients and flavours are not unique to Sicily. They are present in other countries of the Mediterranean, for example the cuisine of Spain and France.

A post on my blog is not the venue to discuss this topic at length. However I have already written about some recipes of sweets that could be attributed to the co-Arab and Sicilian association (for they cannot be attributed just to the Arabs).

Cubbaita

They are:
Cubbaita (my relatives call it giuggiulena), gello di mellone, nucateli, riso nero (also called riso amauticato).

Here is a similar recipe to cubbaita (giuggiulena) and it is called petrafennula, (also called petramennula depending on the Sicilian locality).

All my Sicilian relatives and friends keep a selection of these small homemade sweets at home just in case someone visits unannounced.

PETRAFENNULA – PIETRA DI MIELE (Rock made of honey).

INGREDIENTS
honey 1kg,
almonds, 500g blanched and roughly chopped into large pieces
candied orange peel, 400 g chopped finely,
cinnamon, ½ teaspoon (optional).

PROCESSES
Place the honey in a saucepan.
Add the peel.
Allow the mixture to simmer gently and stir from time to time until it begins to solidify.
Take the mixture off the stove and work quickly
Add the almonds and the cinnamon and stir gently to incorporate.
Pour the mixture on to baking paper placed on a cold surface – such as a marble slab or a baking tray (traditionally this is done without paper on an oiled marble slab).
Break it into pieces when it is cold. When my mother made this, she sometimes used to drop dollops of the mixture (about a tablespoon in size) on to a cold surface to form small odd shapes – more like pebbles than sharp rocks. This seemed easier than shaping it into one large slab, which then needs to be broken into smaller pieces.

I have a friend in Adelaide who has the most wonderful garden and beehives. She used her honey to make giuggiulena and the petrafennula and both resulted into slightly softer versions of candy. We discussed this and think that it must be due to the varying levels of moisture in different types of honey and from the various locations. I have used a variety of honey including leatherwood (definitely not Sicilian) and other organic honey from a variety of Australian locations and have achieved the required results.

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PASTA CON LE SARDE (Pasta with sardines, from Palermo, made with fennel, pine nuts and currants)

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 an ancient, 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.

Pasta con sarde 1

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.

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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.

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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 Australia I 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 are butterflied (i.e. remove the backbone), or as the Italians say, aperti come un libro (opened like a book). I buy fillets to save time.

 Sardines butterflied_0019

INGREDIENTS

bucatini, 500g
sardines, 700g
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

PROCESS

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.
To assemble:
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 with Sarde a beccafico – part of the food series My Family Feast and cooked by Sean Connolly (chef):

http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/myfamilyfeast/recipes/detail/recipe/893

 
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RISO NERO (Black rice, Sicilian dessert)

maria's tindari
A rice pudding is something I have always associated with English cooking – the very simple type of rice pudding my English mother-in law used to make with milk, a little rice, sugar and butter, topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon and then baked in a slow oven. But there are variations to this recipe even in England and not surprisingly there are rice pudding-type desserts made all over the world using either long grain, short grain or black rice, and cooked on the stove, or baked, or wrapped in leaves and steamed. Some eat them hot, others cold.

And even Sicilians have rice puddings, made like a rice custard – the rice is cooked in sweetened milk on the stove top and delicately flavoured with a cinnamon stick, almonds and candied fruit. Only the modern recipes include eggs, cream or butter, these probably used to enrich pasteurised milk. It is served cold. This particular Sicilian recipe has chocolate in it and in most references it is simply called Risu niru (Riso nero in Italian – Black rice). The flavours and origins of this particular Sicilian rice pudding are likely to be Arabic; they bought the more complex sweets and ingredients to Sicily – the cinnamon, sugar, and the rice, which they traded from Asia, the dried or candied fruits and more complex recipes that made greater use of almonds and pistachios. The Spaniards introduced chocolate much later to Sicily. 
 

The type of rice used in the recipes is not specified, but in Italy originorio rice is the standard type with short, round grains and a pearly appearance, and similar to the short grain calrose rice.

This chocolate rice pudding is in honour of the Black Madonna of Tindari (on the north east coast of Sicily). Tindari’s history is one long cycle of conquest and colonisation. It was one of the last Greek colonies in Sicily; founded by the Syracusans in 396 B.C. Tindari also prospered under the Romans and became a diocese during the early Christian period before been captured by the Arabs.

There are many fascinating legends and miracles attributed to the wooden statue of the Black Madonna housed in Tindari. It is thought that the statue came from the Christian east, around the late 8th or early 9th Century. It could have been smuggled out of Constantinople during the period of Iconoclasm (which literally means image breaking – the destruction of images for religious or political reasons). In the Byzantine world, the production and use of figurative images, particularly in Constantinople and Nicea were banned. Existing icons were destroyed or plastered over and very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period.

One of the legends tells how a storm forced the ship carrying the smuggled statue of the Black Madonna into the port of Tindari. When the storm abated and the sailors tried to leave, they found that the ship would not move. They realised that it was the Madonna that was preventing them and so they off-loaded the statue in a casket. Local sailors found the Black Madonna and took her to the tallest spot in Tindari and there they built a sanctuary (rebuilt on a number of occasions). The sanctuary houses the statue and is richly decorated with mosaics. It has miraculously withstood the raids by pirates and invading armies – no doubt due to the defending, dark-skinned Mary. She is also credited with having protected believers from such afflictions as earthquakes and pestilence.

At the base of the statue is the Latin inscription: Nigra sum sed formos (I am black but beautiful) and riso nero is cooked and eaten in her honour – the chocolate is her dark, luscious skin, the almonds and fruit represent the stars in her gown and the coloured stones of the mosaics. Cocoa is used in the older recipes. In the more modern versions dark chocolate is added and melts in the rice custard.

The pudding is prepared in two stages, the basic rice cream is cooked and cooled before the other ingredients are added and shaped into a pudding.
Serves 6-8
INGREDIENTS (for the rice cream)
full cream milk, 9-10 cups (I like to use organic, unpasturised milk when I can get it. Modern versions of this dish replace one cup of milk with cream)
short grain rice, 1 ½ cups a little
salt, a little
white sugar, 1 cup
cinnamon sticks,  2
lemon peel, large strips from 1 lemon.

ADDED INGREDIENTS

sugar, ½ cup
bitter cocoa, ¾ cup of (mixed together with a little milk) or 250 g block of good quality, dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
almonds, 1½ cups of (blanched, toasted and chopped)
candied or glace fruit, 1 cup – a mixture of chopped orange, lemon and/or citron, but save some of the nuts and fruit to decorate the top.

PROCESSES

Pour 8 cups of milk and all of the ingredients for cooking the rice into a large (heavy bottom) saucepan and mix gently. Because rice has different absorption rates you may need to add the extra cup of milk as you cook it.
Simmer the contents gently and stir frequently until creamy and add the extra milk as you cook it if necessary.
Remove from the heat and take out the lemon peel (could taste bitter if it is left) and the cinnamon sticks. Cool slightly before adding cocoa and sugar or dark chocolate. Mix thoroughly.
Add some almonds and fruit, but save some to decorate the top.
Traditionally the pudding is shaped into a mound on a plate. Decorate the pudding with the almonds and candied fruit before serving.
 A Sicilian prayer
Beddra ‘n terra, beddra ‘n celu, beddra siti ‘n paradisu; beddru assai, è lu Vostru visu.
Bella in terra, bella in cielo, bella sei in paradiso; molto bello e il Vostro viso
(Italian translation)
Beautiful on earth, beautiful in the sky, beautiful you are in paradise; very beautiful is your face.

Black Madonnas are found in various parts of the world. This photo below is de Nuestra Señora del Sagrario in the Cathedral of Toledo. She is beautiful.

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