Missing the Southern Italian flavours

May 19, 2019

During one of my very frequent trips to the fruit and vegetable market (I have my favourite stand at the Campo de’ Fiori market but I also frequent a market nearer to home, smaller but by no means less buzzy to be served my favourite vendor) with the shopping list in my hand (which helps me not to get carried away with the shopping) all of the sudden I saw those glorious, purple, firm and shiny aubergines of different shapes, size and colour. And I gravitated to them. I couldn’t resist. The shopping list helped me to remember to pick up everything that I wanted for the weekend and while I was still going through some ideas in my head I was already asking for a few aubergines to add to my basket. While walking home I was trying to figure out what use to make of them? To have them as a contorno or a part of antipasto? Just grilled and served with a good drizzle of olive oil, some sliced garlic and chopped parsley for extra flavour, all covered with a squeeze of fresh lemon? Amalfi lemon preferably, the lemon from the Amalfi Coast in the region of Campania of which aroma, colour, sweet taste and plump shape is just intoxicating.

In a couple of weeks time we are heading to Sicily for a holiday. We are really looking forward to this trip, as every year. We are going back to the same region of Sicilian Baroque in the south east of the island. I know, we have quite a few places that make a part of our yearly pilgrimages. Perhaps one would ask, why yet another return to the same region if you could see another one? Well, we like on some occasions to take our time to see a new place and slow down and if we are particularly taken by it, we will come back. Holidays are to be enjoyed and you can do that only when you are relaxed and most likely working out the “plan for the day” at breakfast or while soaking up the sun. And that is exactly the sun that makes you slow down. Why not to fallow its rhythm? Having said that, of course we have marked places to see and things we would like to do but more importantly what and where to eat in Sicily. No calorie counting here, but we never do anyway. That rule applies also to wine.

With me it is somehow the aubergine that has evoked the memories and longing for Sicily.
I decided to make caponata, a sweet and sour aubergine dish, a typical example of Sicilian cuisine. I love this heavenly medley of the ‘agro dolce’ sauce based on wine vinegar and sugar with deep fried aubergine pieces. And that is only to begin with. For caponata we need some celery stalks, sliced and then fried. You would add some good quality pitted olives and capers. Next in go the raisins (sultanas) and toasted pine nuts or almonds. All finished with a few slices of onion (I choose the red onion here) and a couple of tablespoons of plain tomato sauce (passata or tomato paste also work well). The aubergines play the main role but all together with the other ingredients the dish is elevated onto another level. The range and fantasy of Sicilian aubergine recipes is vast, quite overwhelming in fact. Probably caponata is the most elaborate version of this.

Personally I choose to grate a bit of bitter dark chocolate on top of the finished dish. This very baroque touch of chocolate fully completes it for me.

One of the fruits I always buy are lemons. Proudly staring at me in heaped quantities daily decorating every fruit and vegetable stand. I just love the look of them. On top of that, I use them almost every day. If I buy too many of them I display them on our dining table. You can decorate your table in so many ways. I tend to arrange what I’ve bought in a market on different plates in large quantities: apples, lemons, aubergines, tomatoes and so forth.

And it was exactly whilst I was looking at those glorious, sweet and plump lemons from the Amalfi Coast (Campania) lying on the dining table, I started to ponder over torta caprese al ciocolato bianco e limone, a variation of the traditional torta caprese. My ears pricked up immediately when Diana (my Italian tutor) and I were discussing the “perfect recipe” for the almond and chocolate cake (torta caprese) and its possible forms. I am always interested to hear about food, other people’s approach to it and preferences. There are so many angles, recipes, variations and there is always something new to taste and discover. Every source of information is of great importance to me, especially when spread by word of mouth. It feels more private that way, like a little secret that now I cant wait to share, exactly like my recipe for the lemon torta caprese. It is a cake that stays moist and fresh for a few days. It is really important to spend some time and buy good, sweet, plump and full of aroma lemons because that is exactly the level of sourness, sweetness or bitterness of their skin and flesh that will determine the end result.

On the Sorrento Peninsula and its coastline its famous sweet, juicy and perfumed lemons are cultivated on terraces that are stepping down towards the sea. From the lemon skin infused alcohol the limoncello is made but most importantly the lemons have become a main ingredient of many local delicacies.

There is a lemon cake that I’ve come across during our travels to Ravello while discovering the breath taking places and admiring the dramatic and surreal coastline. I am sure you’ve seen some pictures or visited this magical and mesmerising part of Italy already. Unfortunately I was not taking any pictures during those trips and I must apologise for the lack of visual content.

Not only the dough of the “dolce al limone” is mixed with lemon juice and its zest but once it is baked it is then drenched in a lemon syrup. The recipe comes from a book that I picked up during my first visit to the Costiera Amalfitana and I love it for its simplicity and precision. We all know that with a simple food with a focus on just a few ingredients and its flavours there is no way to escape. As ever, good ingredients and a bit of love while cooking are my ultimate recipe.

Whilst writing this post the idea of a heavenly creamy and summery risotto al limone came through my head. I made it the following day for lunch, served it on the plates I bought some time ago in Ravello and we devoured it. Recently the weather has been playing little games here in Rome but when the sun is out, you can definitely feel it.

I find lemon risotto perfect for lunch or dinner by an open window allowing the already warm early summer air to come through. Certain dishes just taste better only when the ambient temperature is going up. The lemons coming from different regions and part of the world are available in supermarkets or fruit and vegetable markets the whole year round but I can’t imagine us having risotto al limone for example or perhaps tagliolini al limone during any other period than now and for the next a few months to come.

For a long lunch or dinner in the next a few days I would probably serve a caprese salad to begin with. Such a simple plate of food and yet known all around the world. I truly believe that the success of this particular salad lies in the ingredients. Mature, sweet and dare I say “meaty” tomatoes, mozzarella or fior di latte, good olive oil, a pinch of salt and fresh basil leaves torn by hand. You can also find a variation with dry oregano sprinkled on top. I think it is good to try both versions and alternate in case you enjoy them both equally. There is no real recipe for the caprese salad but try not to cut the tomatoes nor mozzarella too thinly and make sure they are at room temperature when serving. If you find that the fior di latte or mozzarella loses too much whey when slicing, leave the slices in a colander for about 30 minutes before assembling the salad.

Another fabulous antipasto that we love is still a lukewarm seafood platter made of cooked octopus, clams, mussels, prawns or langoustines, grilled squid all finished with a drizzle of lemon juice and a good olive oil, sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley. To my mix of starters, since they are in season, I would also add a raw baby artichoke salad with shaved parmesan. What a treat.

For the primo piatto I would happily make spaghetti with clams or tagliolini al limone. Having said that, we liked the risotto al limone so much that I might be making it sooner than expected.

Perhaps as for the main course I would opt for the lemon and chicken Sicilian meatballs served with aubergines in tomato sauce, oregano and basil. Both dishes can be prepared in advance which will only improve their flavours and at the same time they are very comfortable and easy to serve while having guests.

For the dolce I am still in two minds but I can feel now that lemons will play the main part.