” To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything ”, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.
Every time I go to Sicily I am simply astonished by it’s food and before leaving the island I am already thinking about what will I eat and try upon my return. The flavours are bold and intensive, just incredible, dare I say addictive. The flavours in mind here are not only the expression of how individual ingredients are put together on a plate but the exquisite flavour of the ingredients, tomatoes from Pachino (IGP), so sweet that you will not want to have any other, broccoli, almost growing everywhere, yellow and green lemons (not limes), oranges, olives, almonds to name but a few…
The Sicilian food, ”La cucina siciliana”, that we know today is a fruit of a very long process of transformation and the gastronomic influences of diverse cultures that approached the island in the past.
The first wave of people to invade Sicily were the Greeks, then the Romans, the Arabs (sweet and sour influences), the Normans and the Spanish. After that there were the French (bringing chefs from Paris and cooking the fashionable French food of that time) and the Austrians.
Sicilian cuisine is expressed in the baroque, baronial cooking of the Sicilian nobility on one part and the other in ”la cucina povera”, poor man’s food where you have to be clever and creative with the ingredients available, but above all the biggest influence on Sicilian food has been it’s territory, the land, the mountains and the sea.
Many cultures introduced their produce to the later Sicily, but ultimately it is the terroir that decides what can grow.
Sicilians prise fish and shellfish above meat. Tuna and swordfish (”Pesce spada alla Messinese” ,Swordfish Messina style) especially are a staple dish. Once available in abundance, sadly due to overfishing that is no longer the case.
Of course we can’t forget about prised red prawns (best eaten raw) coming from the cold waters of Southwestern Sicily.
The fact that there are ”thousands” of variations of the same recipe (and there are plenty of them) and of course each one of them is the best, it sparks off endless animated conversations about ingredients and the methods of execution. Due to the above, it is not an easy task to tell the story and introduce the recipes of such a complex and diverse island.
But like with everything, one has to start somewhere…and I only share here the dishes that I particularly like, that I make often at home or I am inspired by, creating ”my” own version of them.
I think that one can envy how Sicilians very harmoniously and skilfully put on the plate what comes from their land and sea. Almost as if wanting to say, what grows together goes well together, a perfect match.
Certain flavour combinations may initially, or at least during the first visit, seem a bit odd, but after immersion in the Sicilian food culture, these flavours will seem fantastic and extraordinary. Sicilians mix very well swordfish, sultanas, capers, breadcrumbs, wild fennel, sardines or tuna with Marsala wine in a pasta dish that I tried in the Island of Ortigia…and still can’t forget about it.
Throughout the whole period while oranges are in season I prepare an orange salad / insalata di arancie, which is a traditional Sicilian dish. I serve it either as a part of antipasto or a side dish, for me there is an unwritten rule that this salad can be served literally with everything.
Of course there are many variations of the orange salad, I usually add to the sliced or cubed ripe oranges: olives, thinly sliced red onion and occasionally sliced fennel. I always have in my cupboard a jar of very fragrant dry Sicilian oregano that I sprinkle on top of the salad. A generous glug of extra virgin olive oil makes the dish come together. When I serve it along Pantelleria-style salad (using very best capers from Pantelleria, olives, tomatoes, red onion and potatoes…) and grilled or baked fish…for us the meal turns into a feast.
While across the whole of Italy almonds (mandorle) are used in cakes, tarts, amaretti biscuits, almond paste, marzipan and Amaretto liqueur, in Sicily they are also used in savoury dishes, for example in ”pesto trapanese” (tomato and almond pesto) which subsequently can be added to meat, fish and pasta dishes.
We have fallen in love with this pesto. First, I roast the almonds, then gently grind them in a mortar with some garlic, peeled tomatoes (tomatoes have to be ripe and sweet ), then I add some fresh mint and of course olive oil.
A pasta dish, the first Sicilian dish I made even before exploring the island, is ” pasta alla Norma” with aubergines, tomatoes, salted ricotta and ”malfadine” type pasta as my personal choice. I adore aubergines ”melanzane”. Quite often I grill them and keep them under olive oil and serve them as a part of antipasto. For some they may be a bit troublesome because they tend to loose undesired water while cooking, frying or baking as a part of another dish. Once you remember to sprinkle aubergine pieces with some salt and leave them to drain for a couple of hours, all your problems should be solved.
In northern Italy, in the pastry shops you will see very fine fresh fruit tarts. In Sicily, fresh ripe, juicy fruit which is often sold by a fruit vendor on the street in the heat of the summer, is eaten fresh simply as it is. Instead of using it for baking, the abundance of fruit is candied or made into marmalade and conserves, to eat throughout the year.
The most famous of Sicilian desserts and pastries across and beyond Italy are “cassata” (decorated like a piece of art ricotta cake) and “cannoli” (pastry tubes filled with fresh ricotta). In the very persistent heat on the island you would use fresh ricotta instead of pure cream and nutty biscuits that are made with oil, pure pork fat “strutto” (traditionally used for frying the cannoli tubes) instead of butter.
In pastry shops everything is highly decorated while playing with different colours: green, red, bright yellow and candied citrus peel as well as the icing and chocolate. The atmosphere is dense and thick from the essential oils released by pistachios and almonds.
While the savoury dishes are simple and representative of “la cucina povera” (poor man’s food), when it comes to cakes, pastries and desserts the Sicilians show off totally and go wild celebrating the baroque …Probably they have the sweetest tooth in the whole of Italy.
This classic combination of dark chocolate and oranges is just exquisite and perfectly matching the Sicilian flavours, especially when I add fresh ricotta to them. It is rich, baroque and absolutely fabulous eaten cold straight from the fridge…
June is here…and longed for summer has come…it almost seems to be the same sequence every year, first home grown strawberries that have always been an indication of the end of a school year (at least for me), the crops have grown showing their strength (giving high hopes for the bountiful harvest yet to come) releasing their particular recognisable smell and colours especially for those who have spent summers or at least some time in the countryside.
Every year I wait for one of my favourite summer soups: polish “botwinka” that calls for beetroots grown in a particular way in my mother’s orchard accompanied by heaps of fresh dill that I can’t have enough of….freshly picked from the garden and chopped with its smell so addictive like no other herb.
I look out for the first cherries that become darker and sweeter day by day while sunbathing in the sun…..which after having been collected will end up in a “cherry clafoutis”….a classic French soft cake, just perfect for summer and early autumn fruit: raspberries, apricots, plums…
But there is nothing wrong about the repetitive sequence of the seasons that have always dictated what we eat (at least in those parts of the world where the supermarkets are not providing the same produce the whole year round or when we make our own choice of eating seasonal food). Moreover, waiting for summer, its flavours and summertime dishes using the ingredients at their best has something mesmerising and romantic about it.
As much as I enjoy eating and making the very well known summer classic desserts, cakes and puddings that I grew up with, I remain open to new flavour propositions that I come across whilst travelling or just living abroad. They are not better or worse, they are just bit different to what I got used to and play an equally important part in our diets.
In the past, I only used fresh rosemary for making savoury dishes, but one day I decided to combine these earthy flavours with a apricot and frangipane (a creamy almond filling) tart. The flavours just complement each other, they are delicate and not overpowering plus the apricots become so tender but still hold their shape.
Cooking with red and white wine is not purely reserved to meat and fish dishes or even risotto. A mixture of wine with spices (like cinnamon or cloves ), sugar, fresh herbs and orange zest (for example) cooked with fresh fruit: plums, peaches or pears enriches the fruit giving it a particular and delicate flavour derived from the choice of spices and herbs used.
Fresh rosemary again plays an important part in one of the plum desserts that I actually love serving anytime. My personal choiceI are plums that are still firm in texture. Cooking or baking them while already soft will result in a mushy texture and subsequent loss of their shape. Here is my version of plums baked in white wine with rosemary, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, orange and lemon zest.
Plums release more flavour through the heating and the spices enhance their taste. The wine during the baking process will reduce and turn into a lovely dark coloured syrup that I sprinkle generously over the plums. But the full indulgence begins when I serve the plums with some whipped ricotta (or mascarpone cheese) with sugar.
Many years ago while spending an unforgettable summer holiday with a truly warm Italian household, I was introduced by a very dear and just wonderful person, Rita, to “Macedonia”.
A fruit dish thats success depends on the variety of the ingredients. There would always be apples, pears and bananas, as well as lemon and orange juice sweetened with a small amount of sugar to taste. To that base you can add all the seasonal fruit of your choice.
I sometimes add some fresh mint and whipped ricotta or mascarpone with a small amount of sugar to create a more decadent dessert that is just perfect for or taste.
According to some acclaimed food writers, peaches are the most beautiful and delicious of all fruits. Well, I will not disagree. I enjoy them mostly fresh, macerated in wine, added to “Macedonia” or used in cocktails.
There are very few cocktails that I enjoy drinking nowadays. They have to be simple, not overly complicated, well balanced and consist of good quality ingredients. When fresh fruit is used it should be ripe and naturally sweet, so there is no need for extra sugar and you can focus just on the flavour of the main ingredients. One of those cocktails, Bellini (that automatically means that peaches are used), is a wonderful example of a summer drink. A secret to a very good Bellini is the quality and choice of the peaches.
I would much rather wait and enjoy a Bellini using sweet, ripe and juicy peaches when they are in season which also adds to the romance of waiting for this simple yet delicious fresh summertime drink. The cocktail that was invented in Venice at Harry’s Bar in 1948 calls for fresh white peach (use yellow ones if white peaches are not available) flesh and Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine that is gaining in popularity and conquering the rest of Europe literally day by day. There are other “spumante, bollicine” (sparkling Italian wines) that can be used instead of Prosecco but I would avoid using champagne here. Prosecco is an easy, not very complex sparkling wine with a hint of sweetness that just perfectly matches the taste of a ripe white peach…
A few years ago we were on a road trip, as we very often are. With all the possible flight connections that could make our life easier, saving an enormous amount of time, whenever we can, we still choose to drive. I actually enjoy the road trips.
There is so much to see on the way and one is totally independent and self sufficient. Moreover, I tend to bring a lot with me back home, and I am not referring here to clothes or shoes. Theses days it is all about the food and unique produce that is hard to buy locally or take on a plane, not to mention the wine.
A moderate quantity of it will find its space in our car but anything over six cases we ship home. I also feel sorry for the car carrying so much weight on the return journey.
Well, we were heading to Switzerland from The South of France and we had to stop somewhere overnight. I chose a region that I had never been to before. I’ve heard of its grand red wines (Barolo, Barbaresco…and a couple of well known producers that are the main choice of London’s so called upmarket social scene) and the very much prized white truffle from the province of Alba.
At that time I didn’t know Italy that well (after a couple of years in Italy I am still discovering new places and learning constantly….but time works its magic….many things just make more sense and are easier to comprehend now) so I could not think of a better excuse to finally go to Piemonte.
It was almost the end of summer, warm, sunny and the vines of precious nebbiolo grapes almost at their prime getting ready for the harvest the following month.
By pure mistake (we wanted to arrive to our splendid agriturismo at a decent time) we took a convoluted country route. This time I was thanking the sat nav for it because the introduction to the area was just breath taking, with all the farms and architecture that takes you back in time to the film “1900” (Novecento, “Twentieth Century”), an Italian historical drama with its iconic cast of Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.
Since then Piemonte has become a place for a yearly pilgrimage, a couple of pilgrimages a year in fact.
The wine we buy is mainly shipped, it never seems to be enough. On the first night we ate on the beautiful terrace of our agriturismo. It was here that I was introduced to “tajarin” pasta with porcini (ceps) muschrooms and advised not to add Parmesan cheese so it will not get in the way of the glorious and earthy aroma of the mushrooms, cooked to absolute perfection.
“Tajarin” is a piemontese version of humble “tagliatelle” (made of simple ingredients: fine flour 00, water and some eggs), famous for an astonishingly high ratio of eggs (sometimes just yolks), which results in rich, decadent pasta. In the past, “tajarin” was often served with a sumputous ragu of offal from home-raised poultry and rabbits, which is so typical of “La cucina povera” (poor man’s food using the humble resources available). A more simple way of preparing it, not to be confused with lesser Piedmontese, “tajarin” is served with butter and sage (my small twist on it is to add toasted hazelnuts and just a touch of grated lemon zest), or with wonderful porcini (ceps) mushrooms or with the region’s legendarily prized white truffles from Alba.
I don’t think it is appropriate to use the term: “Italian cooking”. Instead, “the cooking of Italy” and of its regions seems to me to a better definition of the true Italian food culture.
At first I would look at the fact that Italy’s sovereign states (having no common language, sharing few cultural traditions with practically entirely distinct styles of cooking) were only united in 1861.
The contrast of Italian regional food is further sharpened by the two dominant aspects of the landscape, the mountains and the sea, and of course the climate which plays a very important role.
At the footsteps of the Alps lies Italy’s major plain, which spreads from Venice (Adriatic coast) westwards towards Lombardy and into Piedmont. This is the dairy zone of Italy where the fat used for cooking is butter and the staple cereals are rice for risotto and cornmeal for polenta. Piedmont, isolated by mountain ranges in North West Italy, has developed a strong regional identity that is reflected in continued use of its own dialect and a unique local cuisine, cuisine unlike any other Italian region. It is rich, it relies on lard and butter rather than olives that don’t grow well in this climate. Although having said that, these ingredients bring silky texture and hearty aromas. Local meats, game and root vegetables are cooked on a low heat for a long time, slowly developing and releasing flavours as well as giving deliciously rich, tasty character to the food of Piedmont.
The cuisine is simple, tasty and its flavours stand out simply because the ingredients are delicious and of prime quality, they are sincere and uncomplicated.
It is said that Piedmont is best enjoyed during the autumn months, when the forests are at their most colourful and a heavy fog starts to settle over the land. I think the scenery is wonderful all year round, and in spring, just couple of weeks ago… I did not miss the haze.
The region is known for being the home of one of the most antique and precious cattle breeds called “la piemontese”. The meat is tender, soft and delicate. You eat it slowly and gently cooked in red wine from the region, or as a part of “bollito misto” (a platter of boiled meats where you can find such cuts as tongue, served with a green sauce called “salsa verde”).
In Northern Italy veal is readily available and in Piemonte a portion of raw beef tartar prepared with a knife with some shaved parmesan or egg yolk is a staple dish. Having said that, we can’t forget the famous “vitello tonnato”, thinly sliced cooked veal with a tuna sauce, and that is a different dish to the one of a similar sounding name “vitello tonnè” (where tuna plays no part).
After my latest trip to the region, I decided to make a lesser known version of veal rolls where you use an egg as a part of the filling , Veal rolls with ham and eggs / Involtini di vitella. The recipe is loosely adapted from a book which renews the respect for tradition and memories of the tastes of another time.
The region is prized for its cheeses many with the DOP denomination like castelmagno which I use for risotto with red wine (I usually use Barolo but also Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto), gorgonzola (where Piedmont shares its denomination with Lombardy), robiola and toma piemontese. To the red wine risotto I also add toasted hazelnuts from Piedmont (IGP) with their very refined, persistent taste and crispy flesh.
Piemonte has not only stolen my stomach but of all wine regions has also stolen my heart.
In the meantime our wine collection has been growing…. I am contemplating life while enjoying this red liquid of Gods and thinking that the wines of Piedmont will need a new space on Hai mangiato…..I am reassured of that fact after having another bite of a cookie (made with the addition of corn flour), another spoon of ”zabaione with the addition of Moscato dessert wine” and everything is brought together by a glass of chilled Moascato dessert wine, from Piedmont of course.
Upon our arrival on a late January morning, Rome welcomed us with a wonderful, clear blue sky, strong sun ( something that we were not used to while living in UK or Poland) that was gently warming us up and calling to find a pair of sun glasses tucked somewhere deep in the bottom of our suitcases.
I love winter, and that crisp dry cold, the type of weather that makes you almost wish that it would last for ever.
Slowly lunch time was approaching and we were hungry, hungry for the flavours of Italy that are so varied across its regions. Twenty distinct regions with their own dialects, their unique dietary preferences and local recipes, developed through centuries of historical division and turmoil. The regions may be just few miles apart, but Italians will always insist that cooking from their region is superior to any other.
As we were not tourists anymore, I decided to use the kitchen immediately. It is not very hard here to find a local grocery store offering a wonderful selection of hams (cured or cooked), even greater choice of cheeses , grilled vegetables kept under olive oil (artichokes and aubergines being my favourite) and countless varieties of bread. A bottle of red wine from the local ‘cesanese’ grape and we were happy.
I have grown to actually love travelling across different parts of Italy, tasting different dishes, ways and methods of cooking as well as using seasonal ingredients, not to mention the wine. You can almost feel spoilt for choice.
Over the course of several of weeks I already had on my list a few Roman dishes that I was amazed and inspired by. It has been couple of years now and I still adore them and above all, I do enjoy making them and sharing them with others. So my choice of dishes to start my blog was an easy one. Plus, the fact that we had friends visiting was a perfect excuse and occasion for a feast!
“When in Rome….. do as the Romans do”.
To start the meal I made ”carciofi alla romana”, roman style artichokes.
When artichokes are in season (an artichoke is a vegetable that is not afraid of cold and in Rome I start buying them in autumn, through winter until the beginning of spring) they are on the menu of every restaurant serving local food. Initially I found them bit tricky to prepare. However, since practice makes perfect, peeling and cleaning them seems so easy now. Yes, there is a possibility of taking a short-cut and buying them already prepared at your local fruit and vegetable market. I find it rewarding preparing the artichokes by myself, plus I tend to cook almost the whole of the stalk. They carry so much flavour. Once the artichokes are ready they are stuffed with chopped fresh herbs and garlic. Traditionally ’mentuccia’ is used, a herb of the mint family that grows throughout central and southern Italy, but of course you can replace it with fresh mint. We have fallen in love with ‘carciofi alla romana’. Every so often I prepare the artichokes differently, however, we just love this blend of flavours with the slightly dominant fragrance of the artichokes. I can’t resist lifting the lid and smelling them while cooking….
As a mid course, “il primo” in Italian, we had pasta of course. I chose ”tonnarelli cacio e peppe”, tonnarelli type pasta with cheese and pepper.<
This plate of pasta is lesser known outside Italy, which is a shame, because it is absolutely fantastic and addictive. Its creamy sauce is obtained thanks to a rather generous portion of grated cheese: ‘Pecorino Romano’ (a hard sheep’s cheese). Every household and a restaurant will have they own, unique recipe. Very often ‘Parmesan’ cheese is added along with the ‘pecorino’ (which is a quite strong cheese) to soften and balance the taste of the sauce.
After pause between courses and chatting about various ways of preparing the “cacio e pepe” plate of pasta, there was the time for ”coda alla vaccinara” , an oxtail gently cooked (for a couple of hours) with few ingredients: loads of celery stalks (a key ingredient), tomato sauce, a piece of lard and white wine. You know it’s ready when you can easily peel the meat off the bone. It becomes so tender that it almost melts in your mouth. I particularly like this dish because it is a one those that is perfect when you have guests to entertain. Usually I prepare it a day in advance, no rush with the gentle cooking that this cut of meat needs. Apart from that it is a fabulous way of using a rather old fashioned cut and bringing it back to life.
Roman cuisine is based on simple and humble ingredients. Nobody has said it is light.
Despite the vicinity to the coast meat dominates the Roman diet.
You can’t call it a feast without a dessert.
We have passed the Jewish Quarter (Ghetto ) so many times before I finally discovered its biggest treasure, the home of “torta con ricotta e visciole”, a tart with ricotta cheese and sour cherries. This small corner bakery, not calling for too much attention , produces the best ricotta and sour cherries tart in Rome. What a wonderful and delicious example of Jewish – Roman food in the heart of the city. I have made many attempts and perfected the recipe for this tart and it is a success amongst our Roman friends. Of course I could have bought a ready made tart from the bakery “Boccione” and that would have been a wonderful treat for everybody too. But, since I made every course at home,I chose to serve my version of it. We loved it.