Monday, October 29, 2012

Fava Beans: Ancient Nutrition for Modern Times

A staple of Sicilian cooking, the humble fava bean has a colorful and controversial history dating back to the time of the Egyptian pharos and is mentioned in numerous Greek and Roman texts of antiquity.  Thought to have been brought to the Italian peninsula from the near east, fava beans are known as broad beans or horse beans in Anglo-speaking countries. Exceptionally nutritious, fava beans contain iron and essential minerals.  In addition, the presence of levo-dopa in fava beans is beneficial to brain function and in Italy is thought to help fight fatigue.
In his seminal book published in 1891, “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well,” famous Italian writer and food historian, Pellegrino Artusi, speaks at length about the fava bean.  Artusi tells us that fava beans were once used to commemorate the dead, a custom rooted in antiquity:

Fava blossoms from my garden.
fava beans were used as offerings to the Fates, Pluto and Persephone, and were well known for their use in ceremonial and superstitious rites. The ancient Egyptians abstained from eating them, and would neither plant nor touch them with their hand, and their priests would not even fix their gaze on these legumes for fear of conjuring up something vile.  Fava, especially the black variety, were considered funerary offerings, believed to contain the souls of the departed, and shaped like the doors of hell. 
 In the Lemural festivals, ancient Romans spat fava beans [in the house] while at the same time beating a copper vase, in order drive out any malevolent ancestral spirits and deities of the Underworld.
Festus [a roman provincial governor AD 59-62] tells us there's an unholy symbol hidden in the blossom of the fava bean, and the custom of making offerings of fava beans to the dead is one of the reasons, supposedly, that led Pythagoras to order his followers to avoid them. Another was to keep them from becoming entangled in affairs of state, since fava beans were used to cast ballots in elections.”

Ancient customs notwithstanding, fava beans are delicious and are used both fresh and dried in Sicilian cooking withpasta, or plain.  Plain fava are twice shelled (the outer skins and the skins of the individual beans removed), boiled about 10 to 15 minutes, plunged in cold water, and drained. They are seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and minced fresh mint to taste and served with an assortment of sheep cheeses, olives and crusty bread for a midmorning snack or appetizer.  

Join me next time as we explore delicious ways to incorporate fava beans in pasta dishes.  Until then…

Ciao a presto!  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Spaghetti alla Carrettiera--Sicilian Simplicity At Its Best

Pasta alla carrettiera against
a ceramic decorative cart.
A hallmark of “cucina povera” is the ability to transform easily available, simple ingredients into a scrumptious meal.  “Pasta alla carretiera”  or cart driver's pasta, illustrates this best.  This pasta received its name from cart drivers of bygone eras. Easy to make and transport by people whose job was to travel long distances by cart, this dish likely lent itself to roadside cooking.  An image comes to mind,  of a cart driver stopping at the side of the road, stooping over a makeshift fire as he cooks his pasta and prepares tomatoes and garlic for a simple but hearty meal.  Because the ingredients in this sauce are raw it is not only tasty, but extremely light and healthy.

A mortar and pestle
and braids of  garlic are essential
to my Sicilian kitchen
To make servings for 6 persons, begin by removing the seeds from about 3 pounds of ripe, raw heirloom tomatoes of your choice and coarsely chopping them.   Put them in an extra large mixing bowl.  Add a cup of your finest extra virgin olive oil. Follow with salt, and ground red peperoncino to taste, a generous handful of fresh Italian basil torn in pieces, and 3 medium cloves of garlic that have been ground with a wooden mortar and pestle.  (If you cannot digest raw garlic, I suggest you leave the cloves whole and take them out later—the flavor will remain but will not affect your digestion or breath!)

Heirloom tomatoes freshly picked from my garden.
Set the sauce aside for two or three hours allowing all the ingredients to amalgamate and the flavors to absorb.  When ready, cook 2 pounds of spaghetti al dente. Drain, and  toss together with the sauce while  the pasta is still piping hot. Serve immediately with abundant grated pecorino  sheep's milk cheese. 

Roasted whole fish is an excellent second course
paired with Pasta Alla Carrettiera
In Sicily this pasta is served with eggplant cut in rounds and sautéed in olive oil.  A delicious main entree typically paired with this pasta is fire roasted sardines or grilled whole fish.  While this food is modest, there is true happiness in these flavors and perhaps that is the reason that in my family this pasta is always prepared for festive occasions—garden meals, picnics by the sea; late night summer meals called “spaghettate di mezzanotte” or midnight spaghetti dinner!    

Until next time, buon appetito and ….
Ciao a presto!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Vermicelli a la Siracusana: Eggplant Pasta Siracusa style

Melanzane from my garden
Sicily, like California, has definite seasons, but they flow into each other with subtlety and one must know what to look for to fully appreciate them: a change in the mood of the sea; the scent of autumn in the air; the dwindling fruits of summer’s bountiful garden—all these foretell autumnal change and a settling into a new season. 
Ink on paper by Andrea Sciortino
Cucina Che Vai Natura Che Trovi
As I write this, my garden bears the tell-tale signs of winter’s inevitable approach. Tomato and other plants, generously harvested in summer, are now reducing their yield. One plant that is still bearing heavily, however, is eggplant.  As it is among my favorite vegetables, I planted many varieties this year in addition to the classic Italian eggplant variety. The following recipe pays homage to this Sicilian favorite.
This  recipe came to me from a most amazing book I discovered some 20 years ago in the gift shop at the Greek temple of Segesta. I return to the gift shop every year to see if perchance they have reprinted it, but alas it is gone. The book is called: Cucina Che Vai, Natura Che Trovi, a meticulously researched gem of a book that gathers a dozen or so traditional rustic recipes, hand-written in Sicilian dialect, on what appears to be butcher paper! The Sicilian translations by professor Stefano Vilardo and original ink on paper sketches by Andrea Sciortino that accompany each recipe, along with the recipes themselves, are priceless.
Pasta  a la Siracusana
prepared with  bounty from my garden
 This particular recipe, vermicelli a la Siracusana, pays homage to the culinary patrimony of Siracusa, one of the most important of the large cities of Sicily's eastern coast, famous among other things as the early colonial base of Greek King Dionisio, known as “The Tyrant.”

My husband Michael enjoying lunch!
Sauté two large whole garlic cloves, in half a cup of olive oil and add two anchovy filets, allowing them to dissolve.  Remove the garlic and add one eggplant that has been cubed, salted, allowed to “sweat,” and rinsed. Sauté the eggplant until it is golden but still firm.  Add 3 ripe, coarsely chopped tomatoes and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Add one large yellow or red bell pepper that has been very finely sliced. Also add 4 ounces of black Sicilian oil-cured olives, pitted and coarsely chopped; a generous handful of salt-packed capers that have been well rinsed; salt, ground red peperoncino, and 4 or 5 leaves of fresh sweet basil.  Allow the sauce to cook for about 20 minutes.    

When done, mix the sauce with about one pound of vermicelli pasta that has been cooked “al dente.”  Serve immediately with a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese which is excellent with this dish.  Enjoy and buon appetito!
A presto!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fichi D'India: A Quintessential Sicilian Fruit

"Lo Stagnone Californiano" Oil on Canvass, Rosetta Sciacca 2012

The  fico d’India” or India Fig, is the quintessential symbol of Sicily. A new world fruit, it originates from Mexico and is thought to have been brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. Transported on ships, it was known to prevent scurvy, which is not suprising given its rich vitamin C content.  The prickly pear plant or cactus is seen throughout Sicily, and likely is abundant there because it thrives in sandy, arid soil and hot climates.  In Sicily it is consumed mainly raw as fruit.   I am not aware of historic recipes that utilize the cooked fruit, although one can readily find preserves of various types, juices and liqueurs made of the fruit.
There are two essential things to know about this sweet and exotic fruit: how to handle it and what to expect when eating it. Handle the fruit and the cactus plant with great care as they have fine thorns that easily pierce the skin and are hard to remove. When picking prickly pears off  the cactus plant, always use gloves and place it in a bucket of cold water. The thorns will fall off in water in a matter of minutes, but if you are meticulous, as I am, about not getting thorns on your fingers, you may want to keeps your gloves on and scrub the unpeeled fruit with a brush while it is soaking.

Peel the fruit by slicing off the ends (I use a fork to do this), make a slit down the center, then peel the two sides back to expose the colorful fruit. A prickly pear is refreshing and sweet to the taste, but filled with hard little seeds, which you learn to ignore as a minor inconvenience.  When making jam I like to leave a few seeds in because the look is more authentically like fichi d’India!  Because of the abundance of prickly pear this year, I made jam by cooking equal parts fichi d’india that have been passed though a food mill to remove the seeds,  and sugar, along with the juice of one lemon, following traditional canning instructions. The results were quite delicious.
Always serve fichi d’India cold or chilled. My mother likes to put the unpeeled fruit in basket outside in the patio overnight and eat them in the morning while they are still slightly chilled.

In Sicily the prickly pear image is seen on ceramic plates, sculptures and other decorative arts and is viewed as archetypally Sicilian.  I have chosen to paint them in my work entitled "Lo Stagnone Californiano" an oil on canvass,  posted above.

Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Well-Kept Sicilian Secret: Pasta With "Tenerumi"

Pasta with “cucuzza and tenerumi” is a Sicilian culinary secret well worth discovering.  Tenerumi,” loosely translated as “tenders,” are the young shoots at the tip of the cucuzza squash stalk. These are tender, delicious, and dont require much preparation. While the tenerumi may include a small leaf or two, usually we do not eat the squash leaves as they are considered too tough. The shoots may have long tendrils, which I generally snip off with scissors.

To make  pasta with cucuzza and tenerumi,  you will need a cucuzza squash weighing about 1½ pounds;  5  or more “tenerumi” shoots; a medium red onion finely sliced; a generous handful of freshly picked Italian flat-leaf parsley; 2 cups of  fresh tomato puree, which can be made by boiling  about 1½lbs  tomatoes in abundant water until the skins begin to crack open, then draining and passing them through a food mill;  4 cup olive oil;  salt and Italian red peperoncino to taste, and one pound of cavatelli pasta.

Cavatelli from Assenti Pasta San Diego
Bring to a boil a stock pot filled with water.  Wash, peel, quarter, and chop the cucuzza into large chunks. Wash the tenerumi shoots and add them along with the cucuzza to the boiling water.  Cook at medium to high heat for about 30 minutes or until the cucuzza pierces easily with a fork.  When ready, add the cavatelli and cook with the cucuzza until pasta is al dente. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Add olive oil to a large sauté pan. Sauté the onion until it is translucent but not browned. Add two cups of tomato puree and cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, adjusting the salt and adding ground or whole peperoncino to taste.   Add the drained cucuzza, tenerumi and pasta to the sauce and toss well over high heat.  Adjust the seasonings and remove from heat, sprinkle with parsley and serve piping hot.  We do not generally serve cheese with this dish. 

A grateful Michael kisses Zia Dora!
This recipe was given to me by my aunt, Dora DeVita. Married to my father’s eldest brother Francesco, the exquisiteness of her kitchen is matched only by her lovely blue eyes. Part of her special fascination centers on her vast knowledge of long forgotten cooking practices and recipes. Her preparation of even common dishes often includes spices and ingredients reminiscent of Sicily’s Saracen past, such as chickpeas, artichoke leaves, dates, pistachios and other delicious and unexpected flavors. My favorite pasta with tenerumi is eaten at her table.

Buon apetito and ciao a presto!


Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Classic Recipe for Cucuzza Squash


Cucuzza and vegetables in a Giovanni DeSimone ceramic dish

In my region of Sicily, a popular preparation for cucuzza  squash is known as  ghiotta di cucuzza” which I loosely translate as a kind of  cucuzza stew.  This mouth-watering dish is easy to make, filling, economical and, according to all the grandmothers of Sicily, quite good for you.  Cucuzza squash (also known as Zucchino Rampicante) is available now in many parts of the United States, but if you have a green thumb and lots of space you may want to try your hand at growing it.  If growing your own, it is quite tempting to allow the squash to get large before harvesting, as it can reach staggering proportions sometimes larger than a baseball bat. For cooking purposes, however, it is best to harvest it while it is still somewhat small and tender, before it gets too large and goes to seed.
Start by taking a whole cucuzza squash, about 1½ pounds; wash, peel and quarter it and then chop it into large chunks and place it in cold water while you continue preparations. (If you do not have cucuzza, you can substitute zucchini or opi squash.) If your cucuzza is harvested while it is still young, you will not have to worry about seeds. If your cucuzza has gown large on the stalk, you may want to half it first and scrape the seeds before proceeding.

You will need a large red onion halved and sliced coarsely; one or two raw medium tomatoes of any variety chopped coarsely; one or two large baking potatoes peeled, quartered and chopped into large chunks and placed in cold water while continuing preparations; about ⅓ cup olive oil, along with a generous handful of freshly picked basil, salt and a small, whole Italian red chili pepper, called peperoncino to be removed later. 
In a wide heavy-bottom pot, heat the olive oil and begin to sauté the onions to release their flavor. When they are limp and translucent but not browned, add the potatoes, cucuzza, tomatoes, peperoncino;  stir well and continue sautéing. Cover the pot and allow it to simmer at low to medium heat, stirring often. The cucuzza will release water and the consistency will become that of a dense soup. Should it become a bit dry, just a half glass or so of water.  Continue cooking for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the cucuzza and potatoes are tender to the fork. Remove the peperoncino and adjust the salt.   Turn off the heat, and add the fresh whole basil leaves. I always reserve some whole basil leaves with which to garnish the bowls. This dish is eaten with crusty country-style bread and we do not add cheese to it.

My mother, who like her mother is very health conscious in her cooking, always makes this dish “in bianco,” an Italian phrase indicating that all the ingredients have been added raw, without first sautéing. The  results are slightly different and I personally enjoy both versions.  When cooking this dish “in bianco,” mix all the ingredients together in a pot with a small amount of water and allow to cook until tender.  I like to add the olive oil raw toward the end of cooking for added flavor and health benefits.  My mother also adds home-made pasta, which she cuts in short, irregular shapes and adds to the soup toward the end of cooking. My favorite pasta for this dish is a cut of pasta known as “strozzapreti” or “priest strangler”!   I suggest that if you are using freshly made pasta, add it directly to the soup a few minutes before cooking is complete, as it requires very little cooking time.  If using dried pasta, cook it separately, drain and mix together with the cucuzza when it has finished cooking, stir and serve.  

 Buon apetito and ciao a presto!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cucuzza Siciliana… Comfort Food Sicilian Style

My son Carlo harvesting cucuzze!
 The great Louis Prima said it best:

My Cucuzza
Cucuzza bella
She's my pizza pie with lotsa mozzarella
With Cucuzza
I wanta be
'cause Cucuzza is so crazy over me
Cucuzza grows in Italy
They love it on the farm
It's something like zucchini
Flavoured with Italian charm
I call my girl Cucuzza
'cause she's sweet as she can be
She loves to hear me say

"Cucuzza please babotcha me"

 This modest variety of squash, certainly not the most prized in Sicily, is a true Sicilian comfort food. Sophia Loren was once quoted as saying that the classic Neapolitan pasta e fagioli, brought tears to her eyes. I consider cucuzza in the same category. To smell it cooking, is to smell the fragrance of a loving home and it always brings me back to childhood. Despite being inexpensive and often fed to farm animals like geese and duck, cucuzza enjoys a particularly high regard among Sicilians. (One hears stories of geese being fed too much cucuzza and tipping over!) Anecdotes about the health benefits of cucuzza abound. My grandmothers always told me that eating cucuzza cleansed the stomach, eased the digestion, cleared up the skin and took care of just about any other ailment one might have. I have never questioned this wisdom.

 In a recent trip to Sicily, my father’s eldest brother, Francesco, a man of regal bearing now in his 80’s who is close to the land, and with whom I have always shared an interest in gardening, gave me some of his prized cucuzza seeds to bring back to California.
Back in Southern California, my cucuzza seeds thrived and in no time at all had overrun my garden and some of the surrounding canyon!  Practically overnight I had squash the size of baseball bats hanging throughout my garden and burgeoning squash leaves worthy of any Grimm’s fairy tale, scaling their way skyward up the canyon.  My uncle’s advice was to leave one cucuzza unpicked, allowing it to go to seed, then to harvest the seeds for the next planting season which I have done.
Cucuzza is prepared in several ways. In our area of Sicily, a dish that has a consistency between a soup and a stew is called a “ghiotta,” which is a popular preparation of cucuzza, utilizing onion, potato, tomato and basil. Another classic preparation is pasta with cucuzza and “tenerumi”.  Tenerumi refers to the tender shoots or tips of the cucuzza stalk, not the leaves as is often thought.  They are cut and if necessary can be peeled a bit at the stem. Pasta with cucuzza and tenerumi is truly one of the delights of Sicily and I highly recommend you try it if traveling there or if you happen to grow your own.  Join me next time as we learn to make these recipes.     
Until then,    
Ciao a presto!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bentornati! Welcome back!

Welcome to SicilyCuisine! It’s great to be back!
Lo Stagnone Painted Tile ArteCeramica,Marsala
My journey these past few months has been one of creative discovery, with time spent amid the pleasures of my life—family, cooking, gardening, traveling, writing and painting, all of which I will be sharing with you. Carl Gustav Jung once said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”   And so I have taken time to play and now happily share with you the fruits of my recreation.
Our summer garden in San Diego is still thriving at this late date, providing us with a bounty of vegetables including tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, to name a few, along with a new addition this year of a Sicilian squash variety called “cucuzza”.  Ask any Sicilian what cucuzza is.  I’ll have more on that later, including some delicious recipes for its preparation.    The Lagoon in San Diego, as well as the lagoon of my home town of Marsala, Lo Stagnone,  continue to inspire my art and I will be sharing my photographs and my own oil paintings for you to enjoy.
My Californian Lagoon

I’m looking forward to exploring with you the colors, tastes, aromas and sights of Sicily  in the days to come.  Bentornati

Ciao a presto!