What’s so special about Sicily anyway?

Is it the food? Is it the people? Is it the culture? Is it the history? Yes it is all of these things in that wonderful interaction of the slow way of Sicilian life where little old nonas (grandmothers) sit outside their front door of the house they have lived in for 50 years; where the older men gather in the afternoon to play bocce in the town square; where the traditional ways of cooking are passed on from family to family; where the art of making cheeses and salamis is passed from one generation to the next.

With-Mens-Meeting-Group-Ragusa

So what is it about Sicilian food? In a word it’s the essence of each season. It’s the way that Sicilians select vegetables and fruit according to the time of the year, capturing the taste of Sicily, food bursting with flavour and freshness. It’s why the antipasti with seasonal capers is such a hit. It’s why the figs wrapped in prosciutto just melt in your mouth. And why the tomato sauce, made on local sun ripened tomatoes tastes so rich and looks so red.

Salina-antipastaNowhere else I know makes pistachio paste and pistachio gelato like the Sicilians. It is that taste sensation when you savor a spoonful on your tongue, roll your eyes and close them for a moment in a sense of longing.

 

 

 

 

 

Gelati-in-paperArguably, one of the best ever lunches in Sicily I’ve ever had was at L’oste Scuro in Acireale on the east coast between Catania and Taormina. It started with figs wrapped in smoked salmon, lemon leaves with swordfish cakes, thin slices of octopus in lemon and virgin olive oil, bite-size swordfish sausages, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies. For secondi, we feasted upon fragrant seafood risotto and the finest ravioli filled with seafood with a flavorsome pistachio sauce. With the sweet smooth texture of cassata came dessert wines from Masala followed by shots of the digestive, Jagermeister and excellent espresso to round off the meal.

Acireale,-piazza-del-duomo

Ah yes, now back to exploring that rich history and culture of this island with its Roman, Greek and Arabic history, where Baroque architecture interplays with Norman and Gothic architecture and where the 17th century Roman palazzo, Villa Romana del Casale, decorated throughout with amazing mosaics is listed as a World Heritage Site.

mosiac-floor-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking classes with a difference in Sicily

Sicily, like many parts of Europe has so many wonderful historic castles that have survived the ravages of invasion and weather for hundreds of years. You may have thought of visiting one or two of these stately castles when in Sicily, but did you ever imagine learning to cook under the guidance of the maestro in his own family owned castle in Randozza in Eastern Sicily?

The maestro Signor Scriviano showed us the art of making classic Sicilian dishes creating a menu of arrancini, caponata, handmade semolina pasta, beef involtini, zucchini fritters, fennel and melon salad and ricotta cassata.

Signor opened his kitchen in his historic castle to my tour guests and me and patiently showing us his artful way of preparing and cooking food using beautiful Italian olive oil, lots of garlic and wine.

Scrivano-rszThe piece de resistance of the night was to then dine in the formal dining room of the castle, where the last king of Sicily, King Ferdinand III had dined many years before. The elegance and wealth of bygone days was reflected in the chandeliers, gold-framed mirrors and tapestries artfully hung on the walls. It was a magical setting for such a fabulous taste of Sicily.

Dining-room-rszAnother cooking class with a difference that is one of my favourites when in Randazzo, is with one of the very special locals, Vincenzo, who is passionate about making pasta. Vincenzo has ingenious ways of hand-making a range of pasta shapes using forks and spoons from the cutlery draw. Who would have thought of doing that?

Making pasta shells and tubes is never quite as easy as it looks when Vincenzo is doing it. We had a few reruns of rolling and shaping the dough until some presentable pasta was accomplished.

We all agreed that Vincenzo’s ravioli stuffed with spinach and Parmesan was divine. The pasta just melted in your mouth. Enjoyed as always with a glass of Sicilian red wine.

With all that talk of pasta, here is one of my favourite pasta dishes to share with you.

Pasta with Pistachio and Prawns

Pasta-pistachio-prawns-rszPistachio Pesto Ingredients
Makes 3/4 cup of pesto
• 150g pistachio nuts
• 50g blanched almonds
• 1/4 cup parsley leaves, firmly packed
• 1 clove garlic
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• Salt
Dish Ingredients
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 clove garlic
• 300g fresh green prawns, peeled and cleaned and chopped into
• 4 tomatoes, peeled and seeded, diced
• 1/2 cup white wine
• Black pepper
• 1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts extra

Recipe Steps
Bring a large pot of salted water onto boil. Score the base of the tomatoes and plunge them into the water for 30 seconds or until the skin starts to peel away from the base.

Remove the tomatoes and place them into cold water. Peel off the skin and remove the seeds. Dice the flesh and set aside.

To make the pesto, blend the nuts together in a food processor with the garlic and parsley for that flash of green and slowly add in the oil until the desired consistency is reached. The pesto should not be too runny nor too dry. Season with salt and set aside.

Put the pasta in to boil as directed on the pack, when draining the pasta reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy based fry pan and add in the garlic, fry the garlic for a couple of minutes and then remove it as we want only the flavour of the garlic.

Add the prawns and fry for 30 seconds on each side without moving them around too much. You may need to fry them in batches to avoid them stewing. This should be a very quick sauce so that the prawns don’t overcook.

Add in the diced tomatoes and the white wine and simmer for 30 seconds, stir in a good 4 tablespoons of the pesto and add in a little of the pasta water to create a sauce, season with cracked pepper and toss in the drained pasta to cover.

Serve with extra pistachio nuts.

 

 

Italian Sausage, white bean and spinach soup

Sausage,-bean-and-spinach-soup

serves 2
Preparation Time 10 minutes
Cooking time 15 minutes

1 tablespoon olive oil
½ brown onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Sprig of rosemary or a good pinch of dried
250g beef sausages coarsely chopped ( choose lean sausages)
2 cups of chicken stock
400g tin of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 x 400g tin of diced tomatoes with herbs
150g baby spinach leaves

Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan and sweat off the onion, rosemary and garlic until softened. Add in the chopped sausages and cook for a further 4 minutes until the sausages start to brown. Pour in the chicken stock, cannellini beans and the diced tomatoes and stir. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add in the baby spinach just before serving.

 

Bruschetta with Parsley & Caper Salad

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Bruschetta with Parsley & Caper Salad
Makes 1 cup

This is a tasty filling that can be used as a dip, pate or stuffed under the skin of chicken before roasting for a bit of a twist. This also makes a great accompaniment to fish, lamb or beef when baking or barbecuing. Why not make up a batch and keep it in the fridge. The tomato and mint salsa is perfect for a bruschetta topping teamed with diced bocconcini or fresh mozzarella, feta or ricotta. The salsa is also perfect served on cooked pasta with shaved parmesan for a simple pasta sauce.

1 cup parsley leaves, chopped finely
8 tablespoon capers in brine, drained and chopped
½ tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 large hard-boiled egg, chopped finely
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoon virgin olive oil
2 large ripe tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
Small handful of mint leaves
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Crusty bread sliced and toasted

Combine the chopped parsley, capers and the boiled egg season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil, set aside this aside. You can keep is in the fridge for up to three days.

Combine the diced tomatoes with the mint and olive oil and salt and pepper. (you could also place the tomato and the mint in a food processor and pulse it until just chopped, then drizzle over the oil) Toast the breads and then top with the parsley and caper salad and then the tomato mix and serve.

Covaccine

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Covaccine
These are small thin style pizza breads that the Tuscan farmers use to make to test whether their wood fired ovens were hot enough to bake the bread. Unlike most other focaccias or pizze, no oil or salt is added to the bread until after baking. Covaccine is the Tuscan vernacular for Schiacciata a term used throughout Italy.

The Florentine schiacciata all’olio, known in Italian as focaccia, comes from the Latin focàcia, meaning cooked over the hearth. Composed of water, flour, rising agent and salt, many varieties around Italy exist. The Florentine one uses a godly amount of olive oil and large grain salt, and the best is cooked in a wood burning oven. It should be crispy but not hard, oily but not greasy. Clearly an art that can be perfected, or done badly.

Note: this salty treat is not to be confused with the carnival cake called Schiacciata alla fiorentina which is a sponge cake, usually filled with cream and topped with icing sugar.

500g fine semolina flour
3 cups plain flour
28g dry yeast
2 cups luke warm water
2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 220c.

Mix flours together and make a well in the centre, dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the water and the salt in the remaining cup. Pour the dissolved yeast in into the well and start mixing with a wooden spoon, incorporating some of the flour from the outside. When you have achieved a thick batter, add in the salted water and continue to mix, incorporating more flour keeping ¼ of flour aside.

Start kneading the dough bringing it together then break the dough up into 16 pieces and knead each piece for about 30 seconds giving it the shape of a ball. Cover the balls with a damp cloth and allow to rise for about 1 hour in a warm place.

When ready, roll out the bread to nothing less than ¼ of an inch thick, again cover and allow to rest for about another hour.

Lay the cavaccine on trays and bake for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Serve hot drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt.

Baked Asparagus with Parmesan & Balsamic

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Baked Asparagus with Parmesan & Balsamic
Serves 4

This is a delicious simple side dish, suited to accompany any meal. You can use any sort of caramelized balsamic vinegar now available in supermarkets and good delicatessens.

2 bunches of asparagus, sliced in half length ways
A good drizzle of olive oil
Salt and pepper
Lira’h Strawberry Balsamic vinegar
Some good shavings of hard pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220c.

Lay the sliced asparagus onto a tray and bake for 10 minutes. Remove and place onto a platter, drizzle over the balsamic.

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle over the shavings of pecorino. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Mixed Melon Salad with Prosciutto, Mint & Verjuice Dressing

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Mixed Melon Salad with Prosciutto, Mint & Verjuice Dressing
Serves 4

A little twist on the traditional slices of melon wrapped with prosciutto. This is a perfect salad for barbecues, summer nights and when juicy sweet melons are ins season, you can use a selection of different melons for flavour, colour and texture.

½ rockmelon, deseeded and peeled
½ honey dew melon, deseeded and peeled
10 slices of prosciutto – get this sliced fresh and thinly from the deli
Good handful of mint
1 tsp of fresh thyme, leaves picked
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon of Verjuice
Salt and pepper

Dice up the melons and toss with the picked mint leaves, thyme and torn prosciutto.

Combine the olive oil with the verjuice and season with salt and pepper. Pour this over the salad just before serving.

Serve with grilled or barbecued fish or chicken or with torn buffalo mozzarella.

Cold Roast Chicken with Fennel & Lemon

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Cold Roast Chicken with Fennel & Lemon
Serves 4

Hot or cold this is a delicious recipe. The marinade works well with fish, chicken, pork and vegetables and can be made up ahead of time.

4 x 200g chicken breasts
2 tsp fennel seeds
Zest of 2 lemon and flesh of ½ lemon
2 clove garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper
Good handful of parsley leaves

Place the chicken breasts into a bowl. Dry roast the fennel seeds and roughly crush them in a mortar and pestle, add this to the chicken. In a food processor blend together the garlic, olive oil, lemon flesh and the parsley leaves until paste like, season well with salt and pepper. Pour this onto the chicken and allow to marinate over night.

Preheat the oven to 190c, place the chicken into a baking dish or lined tray and cover with the marinade. Roast for 18 minutes, remove the chicken and cover with foil for 8 -10 minutes. This will keep the chicken nice and moist. Allow to cool in the fridge then slice and serve hot or place the wrapped chicken in the fridge and serve cold.

Zucchini Tart

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Zucchini Tart
Serves 6-8

Rustic in style and bold in flavor, this is one of those great throw together dishes for when you don’t have much in the cupboard. Using good quality bread will make a difference to the flavour, you can also make this with gluten free bread making it suitable for anyone.

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the pan
4 thick slices good Italian bread, crusts removed
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated good quality parmesan cheese
500g desiree potatoes, peeled and sliced as thinly as possible
500g baby zucchini, sliced as thinly as possible
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoon dried oregano (use fresh if you have it)

Preheat the oven to 200c.

Grease a 35cm roasting pan with olive oil. Soak the bread in the milk for 5 minutes. Crumble well with your hands to form a paste. Combine the eggs and the parmesan to the bread mixture and set aside to soften. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy based fry pan and cook the potatoes and zucchini until slightly softened.

Prepare a baking dish or tray by greasing it with olive oil and pour in 1/3 of the bread and egg mixture. Layer over the vegetables seasoning each layer with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. Continue with the layering finishing with a layer of vegetables and the seasoning.

Bake in the preheated oven 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the top is golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Spinach & Parmigianino Pie from Lucca

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Spinach & Parmigianino Pie from Lucca
Serves 4-6

This is a recipe from my cook book “My Taste of Sicily” and although it is here in the pages of Tuscan cooking you can find variations of this all over Italy and even in Spain for that matter. I love the béchamel through the pie as it helps give it more body and substance. If you don’t want to make your own dough you can always just use store bought short crust.

For the dough:
2 ¾ cups plain flour
½ tsp salt
¼ cup plus 1 tblsp butter
1 tblsp olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
¼ – ½ cup warm water

For the mixture:
70 g of butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tblsp chopped parsley
500 g of fresh whole milk
100 g of white flour
1 kg of well washed and blanched fresh spinach (I use silverbeet)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
6 eggs
2 tblsp pine nuts
150 g of grated Parmesan cheese
Good pinch of salt to taste
1 pinch of nutmeg

Pre heat the oven 200c.

Sift the flour and place it into a food processor with the salt , butter and oil and lemon zest and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Drizzle in enough warm water until the dough just comes together. Take the dough out and knead for a few minutes to achieve a smooth dough. Allow to rest while preparing the filling.

Blanch the spinach and when cool enough, squeeze out the excess liquid. Cut the spinach horizontally and vertically, in order to prevent the stems from remaining whole and fraying. Melt the butter into a saucepan, add in the garlic and parsley and fry for a few minutes, add in the flour and whisk in the cold milk to prevent lumps from forming. Cook on low heat and continuously stirring the mixture. When the mixture is sufficiently creamy and thick, take it off the heat. Make sure it does not boil.

Mix and blend well the spinach, eggs, cheese, nutmeg, salt and the sauce. Roll out 2/3 of the dough into a thin sheet and brush with melted butter a baking dish or tray about 23cm. Lay the pastry down and pour in the filling, brush the edges of the pie with water and top with the rolled out pastry. Press the edges of the pie together and prick the centre of the dough with a fork, brush the top with melted butter and bake in hot oven for 40 – 50 minutes. Serve hot or cold.