Monday, November 28, 2011

Sicily and England: A Relationship Forged In Time

 London's Big Ben
 I am writing to you from The Langham Hotel at Oxford Circle, London, an elegant Victorian-era hotel dating back to mid 1800s and a time of great splendor in London.  My husband and I find ourselves in London for work reasons and to visit my stepson Matthew Volkov, an economics and philosophy double major, who is spending his semester abroad studying ancient Greek and other intriguing subjects.  Matthew's  mastery of the city's historical sites, neighborhood pubs, and ethnic restaurants has made this visit especially enjoyable for us. 

Entrance to the Langham Hotel
 From a purely Sicilian perspective, many of my compatriots and I feel a special kinship to the British. In many Sicilian towns you will see streets with exotic names like Woodhouse, Ingham and Whitaker, memorializing important Britons who made lasting contributions to Sicily, including the discovery and promotion of our trademark wine, Marsala.

Sicily's importance in the Mediterranean dates back not only to ancient explorers and sea-farers, but to  modern ones as well. In the late 1700s, John Woodhouse, a clothing merchant from Liverpool, arrived in Sicily and noticed that Sicilians produced a wine that he felt could be exported to England less expensively than the popular Madeira wine from Spain. He helped spur the wine industry by investing in it and experimenting with local wine makers to produce a fortified wine and transport casks that could withstand the long journey to England.

Woodhouse's entrepreneurial spirit helped build the city of Marsala by providing infrastructure such as docks and paved streets. 
Lord Nelson,Trafalgar Square
At about the same time, a merchant from Yorkshire named Benjamin Ingham, a wool merchant, was so enchanted with the island he stayed and became a wine producer as well.  Marsala wine today is a major export of Sicily and an important Sicilian brand.  

 Perhaps the most illustrious Brit to influence Sicily is Lord Horatio Nelson, commander of the British Navy. Lord Nelson defended the Bourbon king, Ferdinand I and his wife Marie Caroline, (sister of Marie Antoinette) of the court of Naples, against French invasion.

King Ferdinand I
Following the  French revolution, Napoleon made his way to Naples to overthrow the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. The Neopolitan people too,  wanted to free themselves of the Bourbon rule. Lord Nelson personally escorted the Bourbon monarchs to safety in Sicily and held off the French invaders for a couple of years.

Napoleon eventually did take control of Naples and installed his brother Joseph to rule it. He had designs on Sicily primarily because of Sicily's abundant sulfur mines. Sulphur at that time was used as medicine,and  for the production of gunpowder, among other things.  At King Ferdinand's request, Lord Nelson brought 18,000 British troops to Sicily to defend the island  and the monarchy against Napoleon and the French. The  British occupation of Sicily created an economic boon and was enthusiastically received by locals.
 
Whitaker's bird collection
In western Sicily, a name that is as noted and revered today as it was in the 1800's, is that of the Whitaker family.  Joseph Whitaker was a well known ornithologist of his time, and later an anthropologist and wine producer, who died in 1936. The Whitakers were a wealthy merchant family from Yorkshire who came to Sicily, much like John Woodhouse, and helped develop the wine industry in Marsala in the early 1800s. 

The Youth of Motya
Although based in Palermo, Joseph --or Giuseppe-- Whitaker  inherited the family's vineyards in Marsala and its charming mid-19th century estate on the island of Motya, which now houses a small but extraordinary museum.


The Museum is home, among other things, to the recently discovered statue "The Youth of Motya" an atypical Hellenistic "puer" statue which has rocked the world of art and archeology by its unusual features and mysterious provenance. The statue has taken several international tours to museums around the world with great acclaim. The Whittaker Museum of Motya itself was recently renovated by award winning architect Antonino Parrinello of Studio Technico Architettitrapani, who is also handling renovations for our family home in Marsala.

An ornithologist by training, Whitaker was known for his work on the birds of Tunisia, but he had a great interest in archeology as well and authored a book on the archeology of Motya. Upon the death of his last remaining daughter Norina, the Whitaker Foundation was established and today is responsible  for funding important archaeological studies that are being conducted on the island of Motya, aimed at uncovering the mysteries of its early Phoenician and Greek  inhabitants.

With my stepson Matthew
So as my husband and stepson and I sit in Matthew's favorite neighborhood pub in London and sip our ale, we raise our glass to the Brits and their special Sicilian connection!

Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Art of Eating Well In Sicily: Anatomy of a Meal

Cups by Sicilian ceramic artist,
the late Giovanni de Simone and a Stella
 (Arianna) espresso coffee pot
A full appreciation of Sicily’s food requires not only an understanding of its history, but also of its gastronomic traditions. As in all of Italy, there are very precise rules surrounding the consumption of meals in Sicily.
Breakfast generally consists of a demitasse of espresso or “caffè latte,” coffee with milk, and a “biscotto” which is the generic word for cookie. As children we were given a bowl of warm milk for breakfast, flavored with coffee and lots of sugar, and filled with pieces of crusty bread or cookies that were eaten with a spoon.  If breakfast is consumed at the “bar,” what Italians call a cafe, one might order a “cornetto, or “little horn,” a type of croissant filled with marmalade or pastry cream, along with an espresso or cappuccino. In Sicily the range of piping hot, fresh-out-of-the-oven morning pastries is as varied as the pastries are delicious.
My son Carlo at Bar Enzo e Nino in Marsala
where you can find classic, traditional Sicilian pastries.



The main meal of the day, "pranzo," begins sometime between 1pm and 2pm. Stores close at about 1pm and everyone goes home to eat with their families. As you wander through the residential streets of any Sicilian town at this hour, you will be greeted by sublime cooking aromas that waft from every balcony and window.  

Pranzo has at minimum four elements: a first course of carbohydrates, a main entree of protein and a vegetable, a fruit course and finally coffee.   The first course is typically pasta prepared in any number of ways, or sometimes “minestra,” a soup which can incorporate “pastina” a small-cut pasta. Rice and other grains like couscous are used as well, although less frequently. 
The second course consists of a protein such as fish, meat or poultry, or occasionally eggs and a salad or vegetables. An important rule of thumb with regard to Sicilian food, and Italian food in general, is that balance is everything. Italians do not typically eat only carbohydrates in one meal-- for example, pasta and rice or soup and pasta. A carbohydrate is usually paired with a protein in separate courses. An exception to the rule is pizza, which in restaurants is served at dinner time.

 In Sicily a meal ends with seasonal fresh fruit which is usually brought to the table on a platter, whole and unpeeled,  and served on a separate plate as the third course.  This is true in restaurants as well as homes and most Sicilians are practiced at peeling their fruit with a knife and fork. You may notice at fancy meals or in elegant restaurants, a smaller knife and fork, placed horizontally above the plate, pointing toward the entree knife. These are fruit utensils and mastery of this culinary detail distinguishes the natives! 
The Sciacca clan at a family meal with my late uncle
Matteo Sciacca and my Zio Ciccio and Zia Dora Sciacca
along with numerous cousins
Sciacca clan summer time family meal
At the weekday meals, desserts are rarely eaten but on Sundays or other special meals,  dessert is served after the fruit and before the coffee.  Espresso is consumed at the end of a meal and Italians hold it in such high regard that it is served as its own course, not with a dessert as is the custom in the United States.  A critical rule to remember is that milk products are never consumed after 11am and never-ever after a main meal. Ordering a cappuccino after a meal could be grounds for expulsion! Break the traffic laws or other rules if you must, but please don’t end your meal with a cappuccino!
A light meal  or "cena" is eaten at about 8pm. This may consist of a soup or "frittata," a type of egg omelet, or vegetables, along with local cheeses, olives and bread. Once again most Sicilians end this meal with fruit followed by espresso.
My son Carlo "resting" after a family meal in my cousin
Michele Sciacca's patio. Look closely
and you will see he is not the only one!
Eating  in Sicily is all about enjoyment and meals have a  rhythm that requires time, both in the preparation and the consumption.  As a rule, Sicilians don’t just eat to live, they live to eat and meals are one of the most creative and restorative parts of their day. Most Sicilians come home to their families to eat in the middle of the day.  They re-energize and refuel before going out into the world again. At home they spend time talking, laughing, catching up on the day.  After the meal, many will rest or nap and then freshen up before going back out to resume the business day at 4pm. They generally return home for the night at about 8pm, and have a light meal with their families.

The structure of the day always gives me a sense of harmony and wholeness when I am in Sicily. The days are long enough to accommodate the world of work and the world of family, friends and relaxation. People are productive without compromising their right to live full lives every day. This is one of the most beautiful parts of Italian life and  it is among the things I miss most when I am away.

Ciao a presto!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Caponata: The Fragrant Essence of the Sicilian Summer

Il Cappero-
the delicate caper flower
I have a lingering memory from my childhood in Sicily of sumptuous  summer vegetables casually resting on my grandmother’s wooden kitchen table, with dappled light streaming across them from the slats of her Persian shutters, opened just a tad to allow in light and keep out the intense afternoon heat of summer.  Late summer’s bounty in Sicily is an artist’s palette of bright purple eggplant, viridian squash,  fire red tomatoes and canary yellow bell peppers.   Outdoors, a sprawling carpet of sweetly scented caper flowers, delicate and white, crowned with a diadem of purple stamen, cover even the most lowly rock of the island. These sublime colors, flavors and fragrances are masterfully preserved  by Sicilian cooks for their families’ enjoyment in the winter months too.  Caponata, which is eaten as a side dish or “contorno,”   captures the splendid flavors of the Sicilian summer perhaps better than any other dish.
The raw ingredients of caponata
Caponata is an ancient recipe and is prepared throughout Sicly with many variations.  Although caponata is sometimes served as a starter, it’s important to note that the “antipasto” or starter, did not have a place in the Sicilian kitchen until very recently.  Southern Italian cuisine is sometimes characterized as  “cucina dei poveri,”  or “poor man’s cuisine,” a term I personally do not care for because it perpetuates an inaccurate stereotype of southern culture. Antipasti, we are told, were not part of Sicily’s gastronomic tradition, because people who labored did not need to have their appetites piqued,  which is the primary purpose of an antipasto.   Whatever the reasons, in the last 20 years or more, it has become fashionable to serve antipasti at meals, and Sicilians have done this largely by adapting dishes that were once used as “contorni” such as caponata.  
Below is the classic recipe for Caponata.

You will need 2 large sauté skillets and the following ingredients:
4 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into medium cubes , salted and allowed to “sweat”  for at least for 30 minutes
2 red medium onions finely sliced
2 or 3 whole tomatoes parboiled (called “pelati”), peeled, seeded and chopped
2 hearts of celery, washed and coarsely chopped
7 ounces (or 200 grams) green olives packed in brine, pits removed and cut into large  pieces.
5 ounces (or 150 grams) capers packed in salt
1½ T sugar
1 scant cup imported wine vinegar
Salt to taste and olive oil as needed to sauté

A sauté of onion, celery,tomatoes olives and capers

Wash and dry the eggplant and sauté it in a large pan with a generous half cup of a light quality olive oil suitable for cooking.   When done and tender to the bite, set it aside. 
In another large skillet, prepare the sauce. Sauté the onion in a quarter cup of olive oil until it is translucent and add the tomatoes. After a minute or two add the olives, capers, and celery and allow the sauce to cook at a low heat for an additional minute or two.  Do not overcook it as you want the celery to maintain its bite. Add the sautéed eggplant to the sauce and continue cooking, adjusting the salt. Then add the sugar and vinegar, stir and remove it from the heat.  Allow it to cool before serving. It can be refrigerated up to a week or longer, or preserved for the winter using traditional canning methods.

Caponata served on hand painted Italian
majolica from Gumps San Francisco,
a gift from our San Diego friends
Kate Leonard and Richard Forsyth

I’d like to add a word or two about the ingredients. Sicilians prefer to preserve the delicate and aromatic caper berry in salt rather than brine. The salt maintains the true flavor of the berry. Capers packed in salt can now be found in most Italian specialty stores in the United States. If using this kind of caper, be sure to let it soak in cold water for 5 minutes or so to deposit all the salt  and rinse it before cooking. 
I also feel it is important to use a good quality vinegar for this dish. I have experimented with many vinegars to best approach the flavor of caponata made in Sicliy   Although I like the flavor of balsamic vinegar, I feel it is too strong and overpowers the delicate flavors of the dish.  Another disadvantage of balsamic vinegar is that the sauce becomes very dark.  The caponata flavors should be delicate and the colors should be lively.  A good quality imported Italian wine vinegar is best for this dish.  
I suggest you serve the caponata as an antipasto, on a slice or two of crusty bread, or as a contorno to your main entre.   It works especially well with fish and poultry.

Buon appetito and  until next time,
Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Curious Custom of Kissing

My wonderful husband Michael Volkov,
who presents himself in Sicily with the pseudonym
Michele Sciacca aka" "the other Michele Sciacca!"
My husband's first memory of Sicily was meeting some 60 or more relatives for dinner and kissing them on both cheeks in greeting and again on both cheeks to say good bye. As I recall there were a few kisses of appreciation during the meal as well.  If my calculations are correct that would be 240 kisses--at least--in just one event!  And there could be several of these events in one day. That's a lot of kisses, and my husband, who is a passionate Russian American, loved it and was up to the task!

In Sicily, esteem for another person, even in a more formal setting such as business, is demonstrated through outward gestures of affection. People greet one another with a kiss on each cheek and they are comfortable expressing verbally their affection for another. It it common for family and friends to express their love for one another by saying, “Ti voglio bene,”  literally, “I wish you well”.  When a person is taken into the Sicilian inner circle, he or she becomes as family. For Sicilians this is the highest demonstration of love, respect and esteem.
With Zia Dora
I have heard that these customs are remnants of the highly ritualized court life of the Norman, Aragon and Bourbon kings of Sicily or of the courts of the Emirs during the Saracen period. I personally believe that they have something to do with being a island culture who, throughout history, was forced to submit to invading countries and people. 

With cousin Michele (the other Michele Sciacca!)
 There is a strong sense of place in Sicily. The proverbial scirocco winds may blow, but the people remain as strong and unaffected as the ancient secolari olive trees that dot the countryside. Because of their intelligence and creativity, Siclians adapt readily to a changing world, however their essence does not fundamentally change. This dichotomy has served them by protecting the steady core that has allowed them to weather millenia of change while remaining true to who they are.

With our beloved late uncle Zio Matteo.

Those who are fortunate enough to glimpse that inner circle and have a place in hearts of a Sicilian family, know that the demonstrations of affection are endless and the friendships are eternal. Sicilians are among the warmest people in the world.  To outsiders they appear open and fun-loving, but they are in fact, a very private people. To be invited into their inner circle is a rare privilege. 



While we are on the subject of affection and love, allow me to say to my wonderful husband, "Ti voglio bene," and to express to him congratulations and "auguri" on behalf of the entire family for his
newly published book, Corruption, Crime and Compliance, which as I write, is number 2 on the Amazon bestseller list in International Law!   Auguri Amore Mio!

"Michael Volkov, primary author of the blog called Corruption, Crime & Compliance, has published a book by the same name. It collects some of his best writing -- which means it's full of common sense for lawyers and laypersons. Staying calm and practical are what Volkov is all about. (One of his favorite quotes is, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” — from Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues).

Volkov brings to his compliance practice and writing plenty of experience -- 30 years as an attorney in Washington, D.C. − as a federal prosecutor, a Chief Counsel on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division, and now in private practice.

His mentor and friend, Judge Stanley Sporkin, the 'father of the FCPA,' wrote the foreword. He said: Michael Volkov’s book is a compilation of articles on a number of subjects important to advising clients how to stay out of trouble. He is a prolific writer and I can say without question, we have not heard the last of his musings.

Simply put, his book contains important information that should prove helpful to lawyers, particularly to those who practice in the white collar field.  Michael Volkov's Corruption, Crime and Compliance is available from Amazon here."

Ciao a presto!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Sicilian Table: The Eggplant

Sauteed Melanzane fritte
eggplant served on a ceramic
dish from Ceramica Marsalese, Marsala
There are as many recipes for eggplant in the Sicilian kitchen as there are days in the month--and then some. The eggplant, called melanzana in Italian, is a favorite of the Sicilian kitchen. The eggplant originated in the area of what is today India and Pakistan and made its way to the Middle East where Arab conquerors brought it to Sicily. A member of the nightshade family, it is related to potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers--and not surprisingly, our Sicilian kitchen offers many opportunities for family reunions.
Sauteed eggplant on pasta seved
on my childrens' personalized
pasta plates from childhood
made for them at Ceramica Marsalese!

In Sicily our favorite way to eat eggplant is sautéed, over pasta with tomato sauce. The Sicilian eggplant recipe that has been most popularized outside of Italy is caponata, which combines eggplant, onion, capers, celery, olives, and tomatoes in a sweet-sour sauce of sugar and vinegar.

In choosing eggplants, look for several factors. Eggplants are available year round in many North American markets, but the growing season is typically late Summer to late Fall and when you buy eggplant during those months, you will taste the difference. Seasonal eggplants are described in Sicily as being "tender"; not only is the texture different, but the flavor is milder, less acidic. For these recipes, choose the rounder, meatier Italian style eggplants. As I write, small round purple or white eggplant can still be found in the farmers markets of Southern California.

Eggplants from the local farmers
market on a plate from
 Arte Ceramica, Marsala.
Look for a deep purple color and smooth unblemished skin. (Sometimes eggplants from farmers markets may have little imperfections--don't be concerned about that.I have grown eggplants in my own organic garden for many years and what influences flavor most is  how quickly they reach your table from the garden.) 

Eggplants are rarely peeled completely before cooking, but Sicilian cooks like to peel alternating large strips of skin to make them more "digestible". (Digestibility is very important to Sicilians.) The next step will be to cut the eggplant into long slices about a quarter inch thick, and sprinkle them with salt . I suggest you use sea salt such as SOSALT, which is imported from western Sicily and found in Italian specialty stores. This allows the eggplants to sweat. “Sweating” takes about a half hour and you will want to put the slices in a colander so that the dark bitter liquid that is deposited will drain. My mother and my aunts always place a plate face down on the eggplants and a weight on top of that to gently press the liquid out of the eggplants.

Sliced and salted,
 they are ready to saute.
The eggplant is then ready to sauté. Wash the slices with water, pat them dry and then adjust the salt before cooking. In your largest sauté pan, heat a half cup approximately of oil. Here my advice may run counter to what you may have heard about frying eggplant. Although it is common wisdom that sunflower, peanut, corn and other vegetable oils are more suited for frying than olive oil, in reality many Sicilians use olive oil in their homes. In my family we always keep two grades of olive oil—one which is very light and suited for cooking; and a premium quality one, often unfiltered, used raw on foods and vegetables. The latter is never used for frying. I personally do not like the flavor of food which has been cooked or fried in most vegetable oils, although if I am cooking something that requires very high heat, I will use sunflower oil mixed with a bit of olive for flavor. This is a very personal decision, but I suggest you try using a light quality olive oil of the varieties found in supermarkets and see for yourself.

When the oil is hot, add the eggplants one by one, making sure not to overcrowd them. There should be enough room for each slice to be in contact with the bottom of the sauté pan, and the flame should be kept fairly high. The slices will cook quickly so keep an eye on them and turn them over when they turn golden.


Saute on medium to high heat.
Cooking eggplant quicky until golden brings
out  its flavor.
 A word of advice regarding cooking time. Unlike some other vegetables, eggplants should not be undercooked. Eggplants need to cook thoroughly in order to release their flavors. As a rule Sicilians do not undercook vegetables, but this is especially true with eggplants. A properly cooked eggplant does not resist to the bite.  Keep some oil near by as eggplants tend to absorb a lot of oil while cooking and you may need to add a bit more as you go. 

Panini of sauted eggplant,
 basil and burrata photographed
on my patio in Southern California.
When they are done transfer them to paper towels or absorbent paper to remove any excess oil. Then serve them with pasta and tomato sauce. In Sicilian homes they are brought to table on a serving dish with the pasta course. They are also delicious served on crusty bread as a light meal or snack such as the one I made for you here. I look forward to exploring other Sicilian eggplant recipes with you soon.

Ciao a presto!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Poetry of Turi Toscano

One of the Sicilian poets whose work I hold most dear is Turi Toscano, a humble salt worker at the Saline Ettore e Infersa in Marsala, whose simple and direct words, written only in Sicilian dialect, express with extraordinary eloquence the nature of the Sicilian soul.

Below is a poem from his book "Ora Chi Si Fa Sira". There is anothr poet of sorts, who is close to my heart, my beloved uncle Matteo Sciacca, who passed away this year.

My father's youngest brother, Zio Matteo was the inspiration and soul of our family. A successful business man dedicated to his family and his friends, he was an inspired creative force who loved life and lived it to the fullest.  His absence left a deep void in our family. 

Matteo Sciacca was among the visionaries of Marsala.  He  loved his city and took great pride in it, investing time, treasure and talent to give it the international profile it has today.  He was responsible  for the renovations made to the Stagnone Windmill and the Museum Ettore Infersa in the mid 1980's and his picture hangs on the Museum's walls with words of gratitude.  This poem is dedicated to him and to the many beautiful memories of him that my family and I hold dear in our hearts

Li Mi Pinzera 
Rosetta with Zio Matteo Sciacca
Quannu 'nta la mia menti c'e' fuscura
e fazzu stentu pi la giusta mira,
mi giru 'ntunnu e penzu a la natura 
Lu suliceddu viu, quannu fa sira,
commu s'ammuccia 'n mezzu la russura
e lu cori veramente spira,
un gran misteru chi mi fa 'ncantari,
chissu e' lu munnu e nun si po' canciari.

Turi Toscano from his collected poems:
Ora Chi Si Fa Sira
Zio Matteo with my husband Michael

My Thoughts
When my mind is clouded
struggling to take aim,
I look around me and contemplate nature.
I see a hint of sun,when evening falls,
how it hides among the redness
and my heart perceives
a great mystery that enchants me,
this is the world, and it can't be changed.

Zio Matteo with  my son Fabrizio
Turi Toscano as translated by R.S. Volkov;
dedicated to Zio Matteo Sciacca....we will never forget you.



As always, thanks for reading.
Ciao a presto. 

Windmills in Sicily? The Great Salt Road

The Museum of the "Saline"
or Salt Works of Marsala, an ancient windmill
 dating from the late 1700s
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of salt in antiquity. Our modern relationship to salt is primarily for seasoning, but for the ancient populations of the Mediterranean, lacking any kind of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food. It was in a sense white gold, and it was sold and bartered as an important commodity. You will hear in many regions of Italy and Sicily a reference to "The Salt Road" or "La Via Del Sale" which in Western Sicily is most well known along the coast line from Trapani to Marsala. 

Starting in Trapani and making your way toward Marsala you will see Dutch-style windmills used for grinding salt and pumping sea water, along with  mountains of glistening white salt dotting the coastline. The ancient salt beds date back to the early Phoenicians, and their waters turn various shades of silver-grey, and later an incandescent salmon color as the water evaporates to a silvery white.    The salt beds are positioned in the shallow waters of the
lagoon of Lo Stagnone in Marsala and along the coastline of the towns of Paceco and Trapani. 

My son Fabrizio looking out of the window of the
Windmill at the Saline Ettore e Infersa in Marsala


Large deep pools are carved into the sea bed that allow the salty, iodine rich sea water of the lagoon to enter. The water is then pumped into shallower and shallower beds, and with each placement it is allowed to evaporate, leaving a residue of salt in an mineral-rich environment.

When the salt has reached its shallowest bed and the evaporation is complete, it is collected by salt workers, in the same way our ancestors have done for millenia. 

A view of the salt beds
which I took from the roof of the
Museum Windmill

The salt is shovelled onto shore as great white pyramids that are covered with hand-formed "tegole" or tiles to protect it from blowing away. 
 It is then brought to the windmills where it is ground and prepared for shipping all over the world.

 
"Tegole" or tiles stacked and ready
to be placed on the great salt mounds

This is not an exaggeration. I divide my time between Southern California and Washington DC and in both locations I have found Italian specialty stores that sell salt from the SOCAL brand, harvested in Marsala and Trapani.

Pyramids of glistening white salt dot Sicily's
shore line.

They cannot keep it on the shelves--and with reason--it is the finest cooking salt in the world, rich in salt water minerals because it has not been overly processed as many brands of salt are.




SOSALT packaged for international markets along side a "tegola" or hand painted tile from Arte Ceramica in Marsala,







More thought on the Salt Works of Sicily in my next Blog.
Until then,
Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Sicilian Table: Mediterranean Fish Baked "Al Cartoccio"

Fresh lemons, parsley and garlic against  a serving plate
 from Ceramica Marsalese, Marsala  and ceramic jar
 from The French Garden Shoppe, San Diego. 
 Among the most delicious offerings of the Sicilian table are its fish, which in Sicily are fresh, abundant, varied and exquisite. Warm Mediterranean waters result in  a very different kind of seafood experience than deep water fish of the Pacific or Atlantic. Some of my most unforgettable dining experiences in Sicily have been seafood dishes.

Along with the prized blue fin tuna or "tonno,"  which is now eaten around the world, Japan being the largest consumer,  the "ricciola,"  or amber jack, known in Sicily as "la regina del mare" or  "queen of the sea," is rank highly among Sicilians. 
     
Also in abundance are "dentice" called  "dentex" in English; "spigola" and "branzino" both a type of European sea bass;  and a small, extremely sweet reddish fish called "triglia" or  red mullet. Shell fish of every variety, octopus, eels, sardines and a host of other seafood are also found at the fish markets and make their way to the Sicilian table.
Selections of the Trapani fish market.

 One of my favorite preparations is "pesce al cartoccio" or fish cooked in parchment paper--in this case aluminum foil. No one prepares this dish more skillfully than my mother's sister Dora and her husband Ignazio who live in Trapani, an area known for its fishing industry and excellent fish market.  Both are gifted cooks who understand how to heighten the flavor of fresh ingredients without altering or covering them up.   This, I believe, is the true heart of Sicilian cooking--fresh,  ingredients whose flavors are allowed to blossom without being fundamentally changed.

This recipe and photo come from a memorable meal my husband and I had at their home last summer.   To begin, have your fish market clean, scale and prepare a whole fresh fish of your choice--"ricciola" or "dentice" are often used in Sicily but you can use sea bream or Mediterranean branzino, which is now readily available in local markets and specialty stores in the United States. Sicilians leave the heads on the fish because the freshness of the catch is seen in the eyes.  If your fish is not completely fresh, consider making steak for dinner.

You will need a generous bunch of Italian flat leaf  parsley; 3 or 4 lemons; 3 large cloves of garlic, sliced; salt and pepper to taste and 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Wash the fish and pat it dry.  Make several diagonal cuts on the top of the fish and place it in on a double layer of aluminum foil large enough to loosely wrap around the fish. Season the fish with salt and pepper and a generous amount of olive oil. Chop half the parsley and sprinkle on the fish. The remainder of the parsley leave uncut and place it inside the belly of the fish. Slice the garlic and place some of the slices in the diagonal cuts along the top and the remainder in the belly as well.  Squeeze 2 or 3 lemons over the fish. The remainder of the lemon can be cut in slices and also placed in the belly. 
 
Ricciola al cartoccio
 prepared by Dora and Ignazio Occhipinti.

Bring the two sides of the aluminum foil together and loosely seam them together at the top allowing enough room for steam to circulate.  Bake in an oven at 350 for about 30 minutes depending on the size of the fish. (You can check if it is done by carefully opening the aluminum foil. The steam is very hot, so please be careful.)  This dish can be prepared on an outdoor grill as well.  

When it is cooked, carefully open the aluminum foil to release the steam.  Using a long spatula, transfer the fish onto a serving dish.  In Sicily the fish is brought to table whole for all to admire. But if you would like to bone the fish first, gently lift the top fillet and place it skin side down on a serving plate. Remove the bone--the central bones will lift easily- and place the other fillet skin side down on the serving dish. Garnish with fresh parsley and a thread of  olive oil if needed.

Buon appetito!

Ciao a presto!






Monday, November 7, 2011

The Saracens in Sicily: Retracing Sicily's Culinary Lineage


Cassata Siciliana,
a ricotta and marzipan cake, glazed with sugar and candied fruit
 typifies the gifts of the Saracens to Sicily's cuisine.
This one was purchased at Bar Enzo e Nino of Marsala.
 It is virtually impossible to have a discussion of Sicily's cuisine without taking into account its history and the many civilizations that left their cultural, architectural, linguistic and most importantly for us, gastronomic mark upon the territory and its people.  Among the most enduring influences are those traced to Sicily's Arab conquerors, to whom we owe much of the  framework of our cuisine as well as the introduction of many new foods and agricultural innovations.

Sicily's Arab conquerors are often referred to as Saracens, a Medieval name encompassing the Semitic people of the Middle East as well as Muslim Berbers from North Africa. At the time of the Arab invasions, roughly in the early 800's, Sicily was under the rule of the Byzantine empire.  The command of the Byzantine naval fleet in Sicily was entrusted to a local chieftain named Euphemius. A charismatic man, it appears Euphemius had political ambitions which ran counter to those of  the Byzantine empire.  Organizing a rebellion, he killed the local Byzantine governor of Sicily and fled to Siracusa, where he declared himself Emperor. 

King Michael II and his son Theophilos 
Knowing that the Byzantine Emperor Michael II would send armies to take back Sicily, Euphemius struck a deal the Emirs of North Africa. In exchange for his safety and their governorship of Sicily, the Saracens were asked to provide military backing to take Sicily and Malta from the Byzantine Empire. 10,000 Arab troops were already in Sicily when Euphemius was killed in the fighting in 827.

His death opened the doors to a new chapter in Sicily's history --The Emirate of Sicily--and the events that followed changed the course of Sicilian culture forever. Arab rule in Sicily took some 30 years to consolidate and was strongly resisted.   Yet despite its violent beginnings and the harsh economic, religious and cultural injunctions forced upon the people of Sicily, this period is generally viewed as a time of economic prosperity and innovation. Though they ruled Sicily for only about 200 years, the legacy of our Arab conquerors endures to the present.

Sicilian Oranges
were introduced to Sicily by the Saracens
Some of the most lasting contributions of our Arab ancestors are found in the foods of Sicily and include the introduction of the citrus tree--lemons and bitter oranges. (Sweet oranges  were introduced by Genovese and Portugese crusaders in the 15th century.) To this day the Italian word for oranges "arancia" or "portogallo"  ("partualli" in Sicilian dialect),  bears a striking resemblance to the Arabic words for orange "naranj" and "burtokal".  

Other important crops included cane sugar, which was harvested near Palermo.The technology to refine and process sugar was also introduced by our Arab fore bearers. The sugar industry in Sicily flourished  and managed to stay vital until the 17th century.  Sugar is an important part of our cuisine today. Anyone who has tasted or made Sicilian pastries knows one rule about the use of sugar--if you are going to use it, you must go for it! The paradox of a low-calorie dessert simply does not exist in the Sicilian lexicon, mentality or cuisine.

Sugar is used lavishly in pastries including the famous "Cassata Siciliana" a liqueur soaked  ricotta and marzipan cake, decorated with candied fruit  or"frutta candita;" or the almond confection called "cubbarda," made with sugar, honey, sesame seeds, toasted almonds and orange or lemon zest, or any number of other confections and sweets. Until recently many of the recipes for these delicacies were kept alive and closely guarded by convents and monasteries. As the nuns and monks aged and the religious institutions closed for lack of new members, their recipes were taken over by commercial pastry shops as is the case today in many parts of Sicily.

San Giovanni degli Eremeti,
once an Arab mosque, later a Norman church.
I have heard but not verified, that the city of Palermo
 may have had as many 400 mosques at one time!
Rice was also new to Sicily. Among the agricultural innovations brought by the Arabs was the construction of irrigation canals which facilitated the production of rice.  Today, rice is used in making "arancini" palm sized balls of rice, filled at the center with cheese or meat ragu, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. 

Other products introduced by the Arabs were spices such as saffron, cinnamon, and pepper, anise; vegetables such as eggplant and  artichoke; fruits such as watermelon, pomegranates, apricots, raisins and currants. In addition, a particular way of fishing tuna "la mattanza,"  also dates back to this time.  We will explore these foods with recipes and stories in subsequent blogs.  Until then,

Ciao a presto!