My friend Tamara lives in Lazio, north of Rome, below the Monti di Cimini range which is full of hazelnut trees. We chat most weeks – she to improve her English, and me to improve my Italian (she is better and more confident than me). Perhaps, inevitably, we often talk about food – and she shares some of the very very localised versions of recipes specific to the area, m and even to her village.
Tozzetti is the name used in Lazio and Umbria for the twice baked (biscotto) biscuits that elsewhere in Italy are known as Cantucci (although Artusi calls them biscotti croccanti, or crunchy cookies). The recipes are all similar; flour, sugar, eggs, nuts, usually almonds, sometimes aniseed, sometimes candied fruit – you bake the loaf, allow to cool, and then slice and rebake, to completely dry the biscuits out, so they’ll keep for ever, ready to be dipped in Vin Santo, and enjoyed.
See here, then is Tamara’s recipe, specific to the region of Tuscia, within Lazio. It is the same, but different from other twice cooked biscotti recipes, the aniseed liqueur, yeast (which I’ve never seen before) and the thing that truly sets it apart, is the use of the Monti di Cimini hazelnuts, instead of almonds.
100ml of extra virgin olive oil
400 g of hazelnuts
800 g 00 flour
400 g caster sugar
200 ml milk
7g fast action yeast
10 tablespoons of Mistrà. (This is an Italian aniseed liqueur, I substituted Pastis, which is easier to come by)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of baking soda. (replace with Baking Ammonia if you can find it)
First toast the hazelnuts in the oven until they begin to brown, then rub them in a dry tea bowl to remove most of the brown skins
Beat the eggs and the sugar to a cream
Add the rest of the ingredients, except the hazelnuts, then the sifted flour with baking soda or ammonia.
Finally add the hazelnuts and mix well.
Form the dough into two rough loaves and place on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper and bake in a preheated oven at 180 °/Gas mark 6 until they are just golden.
Remove from the oven and wait for them to cool (ideally overnight), this is because otherwise they could crumble.
Once cooled, cut them crosswise, into slices of about 1cm thick (if the dough is still warm, the slices will crumble).
Put them back in the oven at 150 °/Gas Mark 2 to let them brown a little ( you’ll need to turn the slices to brown booth sides) . As soon as they are down, switch off the heat, but leave them in the oven, to cool, with the door ajar.
Stored in an airtight container, these will keep for two to three weeks, but if they go soft, just reheat them in the oven, to dry them out again.
Most of the Sicilian food that I cook and write about here is essentially Palermitan, or is ubiquitous to the whole of Sicily, and so is close to generic as you get on that often fractious island. I hardly know the east of Sicily – just from overnight stays as a tourist, sights out of hire car windows, a port to catch a ferry from. And Messina, at the furthest east, almost touching mainland Italy, I have never visited at all.
My only connection with that part of Sicily is via my friend Vincenzo, who somehow has a better English accent than most British people I know, and who allows me to practice my stumbling Italian on him in exchange for food.
This Christmas just gone, with no-one going anywhere, especially not back to Messina, Vincenzo was due to miss only his second Christmas with his family since he moved to the UK, 14 years ago. Whilst stoical, there was one aspect of those family reunions whose absence would be most keenly felt; the Christmas Eve pituni ritual! A gathering of all the women from the extended family, to assemble piles of savoury, deep fried semi circles of stuffed dough. Favourite fillings demanded, dreaded anchovies to be excluded in Vincenzo’s case.
‘Could I make him pituni?’
As you may have twigged, I like a challenge – so I said ‘sure’, knowing full well that scarole, the right cheese, even decent tomatoes, would be a tough find in Birmingham, in December. ‘Leave it with me’, I breezily replied, confident that in one of my 1.5 metres of Italian recipe books, there would be plenty written about such a strongly treasured part of Messina’s food culture.
Well how misplaced was that confidence? Nothing in Coria, nothing in Boni, not so much as whisper in Hazan. Artusi was silent, the nuns characteristically tight lipped. I found just one recipe, in the Mary Taylor Simeti’s incomparable Sicilian Food. I love this book, it’s definitely worth buying if you’re interested in Sicilian culture and food, but the recipes don’t always work out for me (the Chancellor’s Buttocks were far too lardy for my sometime vegetarian tastes), so I turned to the internet for additional advice.
As with imagined ailments, so with food you’re not sure of: never look on the Internet. My God! To say that people hold strong opinions on the subject of Pituni is like saying that Donald Trump’s hands are slightly on the small side. Anyone writing about food who is from Messina, or who has visited Messina, or has a relative from Messina, has the definitive recipe for what I thought was a ‘just’ street food. It must only be bought from this cafe, the dough must never contain yeast, the dough must always contain yeast. Include wine, don’t include wine. Without anchovies, it is inedible. But most importantly, ALL other versions are wrong.
I’m used to Italians forcefully expressing their opinions on food, but this was really taking the pituni. Keeping my northern European head down, I retreated to rethink my strategies.
My thoughts were that if Simeti, (an American who had almost accidentally landed in the midst of a Sicilian family) gave a recipe, she would have had it verified; the opprobrium that meets a misjudged recipe in Sicily can be too a strong risk to take.
Secondly I consulted Vincenzo, what did he actually want in them? ‘Oh you know, some cheese, some ham, some greens’.
‘So, it doesn’t have to be scarole’
“Or the proper cheese?’
‘Nooo! Any cheese – but you can use the cheese my mum sent, that’s what we use, Galbanino, I’ll bring some. BUT NO ANCHOVIES’
So, I made yeasty dough, as does Simeti, using semola rather than 00 flour, and substituted cime di rapa for failed Scarole, the cheese was not ‘authentic’ but it was completely true to one family’s tradition, chopped tomatoes and oodles of black pepper. We used a side plate to to make our circles, filled them, folded them, sealed them, and plunged them into hot, hot oil.
This is fun; dangerous, sometimes volcanic if the filling leaks out. The dough bubbles, the pituni are so buoyant they have to be held down, like the Duke of Clarence in his barrel of Malmsey.
Frying them individually, one assembling whilst the other watched the ferocious roiling oil, became exciting, raucous and entertaining; mixing up fillings, burning fingers and mouths as we were too impatient to let fresh pituni cool, eager to try the next combination and savour the sweet, bitter, crisp, melting combination.
They were delicious – the greens ever so slightly bitter, cheese sweet and stringy, tomatoes steamed from within. This was one of the most sociable things, one of the most enjoyable things I had ever cooked. I get why it is such an important tradition to Vincenzo’s family – scale it up to cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents. It must be an impressive, vocal, wonderful cacophony.
So, the recipe, that I made, that is in no way the definitive recipe, but is now my recipe. It is not the pituni you can buy in Messina, I’m sure, or the one Vincenzo’s family celebrate Christmas Eve with. It is probably not close to Simeti’s version, and I know that there are some that would refuse to even allow me to call it pituni. But, it is pituni in spirit – because it brought people together, talking, eating, laughing and cooking. And in that sense, it is the perfect recipe.
For the dough
1 teaspoon dried yeast
280 ml of lukewarm water
500g semola flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Dissolve the yeast in the water, and leave somewhere warm until a foam floats on the surface
Add all the other ingredients into bowl, and gradually add the water – you may not need it all.
I mix and knead the dough in my food mixer, using the dough hook for ten minutes.
Once the doughs smooth, stretchy and soft, put it into an oiled plastic bag and put it in the fridge overnight. This slow rising and pricing makes for a more flavoursome final dough.
The next day, take the dough out of the fridge, and let it come up to room temperature a few hours before you’re ready to start cooking.
For the Filling
(You can use your own imagination here; Simeti suggests anchovies, scarole and Tuma or primo sale cheese, but also an onion and caper filling, which didn’t work for me).
A good sized bunch of Cime di Rapa chopped roughly.
Diced cheese (we used Italian Galbanino – which is bland and sweet, but melts beautifully into pure white stringiness – the closest I could think to describe it, it Babybel)
Tomatoes; skinned, deseeded and chopped.
A lot, I mean, an awful lot, of freshly ground black pepper.
Vegetable oil for deep frying.
When you’re ready to cook, you’ll need at least two pairs of hands; one to assemble and one to cook.
Take some of the dough and roll it out as thin as you can (2-3mm). As this has been proving, the dough will be stretchy and springy and resist being told told what to do, but persevere. Too thick, and you’ll have raw dough on the inside.
Take a side plate as a template and cut a disc out of your rolled dough, placing a mix of the cheese, tomatoes and greens on one half (leaving a gap around the edge to allow you to seal the pituni.
Wet all round the edge with water, then fold in half and with your fingers, press the dough edges together to get a tight seal. If the pituni are not properly sealed, the steam and liquid from the filling will react explosively with the hot oil.
Have your oil heating, and doors and windows flung wide, and when the temperature has reached 190 degrees centigrade, add your first half moon. If you don’t have a thermometer, take a tiny ball of dough and drop it into to oil, if it fizzes and floats, the oil is hot enough.
Frying needs constant attention, the pituni balloon up as they expand, so will float on the surface of the hot oil; don’t be afraid to dunk them to ensure they’re fully cooked. When one side is golden brown, flip them over and repeat.
Drain onto kitchen paper, and continue with the next one.
Now, these are best eaten just at the moment when they’re still almost too hot to touch – but you can let them cool, and reheat them in the oven, if you want to be more formal, and less sociable in your consumption.
I could write about strange days, and new norms.But I don’t want to.All the conflictions of guilt, gratitude, anxiety for the future, loneliness, community;there is nothing special or unique about my lockdown life.Nothing that deserves to be heard before other, more urgent stories.And there is an edginess, a tetchiness about, with short fuses and misunderstandings abounding.Food seems frivolous to some, writing about it almost provocative.So, as ever, I am in two minds.
But within this, there is some continuity.This is a food blog, it has always been a food blog.Its context and content may have shifted over time, as they will continue to do.But the food component is presumably why people read it, why those of you who follow me, subscribed for the updates.
So, tentatively, I stick with it, and it remains mostly about my journey, discovering Sicilian, and more widely, Italian food, one that’ll keep me on my toes for a few decades yet.
I am hampered in this journey by my woeful, state schooled, British ineptitude at languages (only the rich need to speak another language in the UK).Try as I might, Italian doesn’t sink in,despite the hours of lessons and practice.My ear doesn’t hear words, or even intonations, only white noise.Every day I practice with an app that asks me to translate strange phrases like ‘the ant is in the sugar’ (la formica è nello zucchero, if you’re interested), but the moment I’m asked a question in Italian, the vocabulary and grammar all drain away.The plan was to go and spend some time there, do an intensive course, only hearing and speaking Italian, to break that caught-in-the-headlights panic.Obviously, this plan is now on hold indefinitely.So other routes must be taken.
A friendship of cooks has established between myself and the much more knowledgeable and productive Italianhomecooking, who shares his knowledge freely, willingly, funnily, sometimes sternly.Butit’s great.He’s very good at suggesting avenues to explore, books to be read (or not read), the dos and the don’ts of Italian food.So I turn to him often for suggestions, and most recently he (having been told the contents of my fridge) challenged me to make a tart of ricotta and cherries, but, and there is a catch, I had to find Pellegrino Artusi’s 19th century recipe for pastry, la pasta frolla, in Italian, translate it, and then make it as the case for my tart.
Pellegrino Artusi literally wrote the book on Italian food.Just a few years after unification, ‘Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well’, was the first publication that attempted to cover the diversity of this new nation’s food culture.This was 1871, and my Italian is not even up to 2020 standards, let alone 19th century ones.But I discoverthat he had three recipes for sweet pastry – two containing lard, all with illicit amounts of butter and sugar.There is some talk of not working the dough too much because of the risk of burning (I check, confused, but this is a saying, if not an actual thing), of using the knife, egg washing the crossed lattice on the finished tart.So I think I have it, it takes a while, and I learn a new word (tuorlo, for yolk), and I think I am ready to start my tart.
The pastry, even after chilling, is dangerously unwieldy, I have to use profligate amounts of flour to stop it sticking to everything, but I get there.My cake tin is lined, with an eggily golden case of impressively smooth pasta frolla (the secret is to use icing, not caster sugar).
Into it goes a batter of ricotta, sugar, eggs, and then, like a clafoutis, two big helpings of boozy cherries, hauled out of their embalming fluid.
It’s the first time I’ve cooked a sweet ricotta tart, so I’m very much guessing on the timings.I watched it hawk like – at the moment that there was a hint of golden, and the wobble of the eggy ricotta was about to set firm, I whisked it out of the oven, guessing it would continue to cook under its own steam for a few more minutes.
My tart, which would have been a crostata if I’d applied Artusi’s egg-washed lattice on top, was, I am happy to say, fantastic. Sweet, tangy, and, yes, tart from the resurrected cherries.The pasta frolla was perfection.I have never had much luck with sweet pastries, they’re always a bugger to work with, and don’t take well to blind baking, tending to slump into a sulky pastry car crash.But this was intact (supported by its ricotta interior), golden, crisp – as though someone else, not me, had made it.Old recipes needing translation, are not something I would usually embrace.There’s very little in Mrs Beeton that I would want to cook, and if I had to translate them first, I would have even little faith.But, it turns out, this Artusi knew his pasta frolla.This will be my go to tart pastry from now on.I’ve bought Science in the Kitchen based on this one recipe, although admittedly, the English translation…for now, let’s not carried away.
Ricotta and Cherry Tart (Torta di ricotta e ciliegia)
Artusi’s pasta frolla (the one without the lard)
250g plain white flour
125g cold butter
110g sugar (ideally icing)
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk.
Cut the butter into small cubes and work it quickly into the flour.Starting using a knife, then with your fingers.Is it just a British saying about the best pastry chefs having cold hands?
Mix in the sugar
Add the beaten egg and yolk, and with the knife again, mix everything together, before forming the dough into a ball.
Wrap this up and put the dough into the fridge for at least an hour – but next day is even better I’m told.
Turn the oven on, Gas Mark 4, 180 degrees C to preheat. (ok, on reflection, this is either too hot or the timing is too long. A gentler bake is required, that’ll set the filling but barely colour the pastry at all – best adapt for your own oven).
Ricotta and cherry filling.
2 medium eggs (large ones may make the mixture too sloppy, and if you want to make a lattice top, the cheese won’t be able to support the weight.
75g Cherries (ideally, preserved in alcohol of some description and drained), or you could poach fresh cherries, or use tinned ones.
Mix the sugar, eggs and ricotta to a smooth batter.
Assembling the tart.
Roll out three quarters of your chilled pastry dough on a very well floured surface.As soon as it starts to warm up, it will become sticky, so, the flour is essential.You want it to be roughly 3mm thick.
Use the pastry to line a 22cm Victoria sponge tin, that you’ve greased with some butter, then trim any overhang.
Put the tin on sturdy baking tray, and then pour in your ricotta batter, before scattering in your cherries.75g is a guideline, just keep going until the batter has filled the pastry case.
Now you have two choices:
bake it as is.A British tart with Italian touches
Use the remaining pastry, roll out then cut strips of 1-2 cms, but try to keep them all the same width.Then use these to form a criss cross pattern on topof your tart.Brush this with a beaten egg, and you now have a very Italianate Crostata.
Both versions go into the oven for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour (my newish oven I am learning is very casual about sticking to the Gas Mark it’s set to, so everything always takes longer than the recipe says).
When the wobble has almost stopped, your tart is done.
The first week of June and we’re on the cusp of Broad Bean season (Fave in Italy).Mine are late this year, and will be a few weeks yet.When they come though, the sheer abundance of broad beans ensures that there’s always a surplus and always a freezer drawer dedicated to them.After the initial gluttonous rush of sweet, tiny proto fave around midsummer, there’s a year long supply of fatter, starchier siblings kept on ice.Each has their merit.The youngsters for their joie de vivre, the oldens for their persistence and reliability.Keep them too long in the frost, and they start to lose their green zing, battered into submission by prolonged cold, so I try to remember to root out any hangers on from the previous spring before the next generation arrives.These tough things need to be derobed to make them more enjoyable – scald them in hot water and then plunge into cold, this makes them easy to squeeze free from their leather jackets.In small quantities, this isn’t too onerous, with the added fun of being mildly indecent when rogue beans squirt jets of water at you as they’re popped out of their skins.
As with everything, peak broad bean season here is several months after peak fava season in Sicily.They are the first of many delayed gratifications you’ll experience when trying to grow a Sicilian kitchen on the wrong island.Unless you’re outstandingly well located, organised, urban and sheltered, the broad beans won’t be making their first appearance this side of Canale della Manica until the latter half of May, at the earliest. The battle is now on. You will want to eat them at their smallest and sweetest before their skins turn tough and bitter.They will want to fatten, coarsen and brazen it out – fighting for the next generation.Catching them at their sweetest is one of the joys of vegetable garden in early summer, alongside with peas from the pod, your own woefully spoilt asparagus, and netted cherries thwarting the blackbirds.They marry perfectly with peas, oil, mint or fennel.There’s a lovely lunch of sharp cheese (salted ricotta perhaps), mixed in with mint, beans and peas to top toast.Posh beans on toast.
But I am digressing – there is much to write and say about the joys of the broad bean in the first flush of its youth, but not here. Not today.Maybe in a couple of weeks, when mine start to make an appearance.
Today is for that emptying the drawer period.The time that comes before.
This is a recipe that is an adaptation of a much grander (and more expensive) version, simple enough for a week night tea and good enough for showing off too.It is excellent for the time when you’re winding down last year’s stores in preparation for the fast approaching glut of new things.Despite this, it has an intensity of summer to it that belies the inelegant, back of the cupboard, bum in the air search for those need to be used up ingredients.Oily fish and tangy sweet acid tomato, fresh medicinal aniseed and the resolute health giving greenness of the beans.Four essential flavours that, for me, work perfectly.It’s a pasta dish, so don’t strive for impossible and instagram worthy beauty, rather pile it up, rolling with steam and dive eagerly in.
Tonno, finocchieto e fave
(For two, as a light meal)
One tin of tuna in olive oil
300 ml passata
2 tsp fennel seed
One bay leaf
Bunch wild fennel fronds
100g broad beans
2 cloves garlic
1 stick celery
150-200g Linguine (depending on appetites)
Start by chopping the onion and celery, as finely as you can, as though for a sofritto
Fry them with the fennel seeds (without colouring) in olive oil, and then add the garlic and bay leaf.
If you need to skin your broad beans, do this whilst your waiting for the vegetables to cook.
When they’re done, add the passata, plus the same amount of water, bring it up to a simmer, and then add your tuna, breaking it into loose chunks.The better the tuna, the chunkier it will remain.
Also add your broad beans, a handful for each person. You can keep this sauce cooking on the lowest of heats, reducing (but not even simmering) until you’re ready to serve, but watch that it doesn’t reduce too much.It needs to stay saucy.
Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat, getyour pasta water boiling and then salted.
Chop your wild fennel and add to the sauce.
Cook your linguine for 6-7 minutes and just before it’s done, turn the heat up under the sauce.
Drain the pasta, throw it into the sauce, with a splash of pasta water and mix everything with abandon until the pasta is coated with sticky, oily sauce and dotted through with vivid beans and chunks of tuna.
I initially called these Alessandro’s aubergines, although he demurs that they are not his, but Palermo’s, and called Milincianeddi ammuttunati – stuffed aubergines (the milincianeddi are the variety of small aubergines that you use). I like the translation better than the Italian, because my Palermitan is terrible and I can’t pronounce it, just too many damn syllables.
You can’t move for aubergines in Sicily,they are so ubiquitous and diverse, that they make our single, cellophane wrapped supermarket offerings look nothing less than tragic.The stalls of Ballarò and shelves of every supermarket are piled high with multiple varieties – each having their own suite of cooking methods and recipes.You would only ever make parmagiana for instance with the big, purple generic variety we’re familiar with in the UK, but the giant, striped globe Tunisian variety would NEVER be used for parmigiana – these are for steaks.And if you want to stuff your aubergines, then you go for the small, stretched plum like ones , the deep purple Milincianeddi.
Your stuffing is formed from a very Sicilian trio of mint, garlic andCacciacavello cheese.I read somewhere that the job of stuffing the aubergines was usually carried out by the grandparents, as they had the time and the patience to sit in the corner, making small slits and inserting slivers of herbs and cheese.Now I have no grandparents to perch in the corner of my kitchen (also, I’m perilously close to my own old age anyway), so this is a job I have to do myself. It’s not that onerous really, and it leaves your fingers smelling minty and garlicky.Which I am fond of.
So, in each small aubergine, you want to make maybe 10-12 small slits down, into which you slide a leaf of mint, a sliver of garlic and a piece of cheese.You need to make sure that they are totally hidden, so that they don’t fall out when you start to cook (although as the cheese melts, it will often bubble out anyway)The garlic and mint will infuse the impressionable aubergine flesh with their aromas, and the cheese will melt and merge into it, to sublime effect.
In deep olive oil, fry your aubergines, turning them to ensure they’re evenly browned and then when they’re coloured, remove from the oil and put them in an oven dish with enough passata to cover them. Cook them in a medium oven for 20-30 minutes, so that the flavours mingle into the sauce, and then, serve it up with crusty warm bread. The Sicilian prefers do this second stage of cooking on the hob, in a saucepan, but I think that oven baking is more gentle and allows the flavours to blend more evenly. There’s an added extra that you get some additional caramel flavours developing from the crust that forms.The aubergines will have some bitterness from the frying, but the sweet mint and tomato sauce balance this out, whilst the silky, cooked aubergine will be beautifully enhanced by the garlic and enriched by the cheese.
We’re in the gap; when all those root vegetables and brassicas of winter have finally run their course, but there’s precious little on the allotment to take their place.This is the time of the larder and the freezer; lots of pulses, frozen beans, jars of last summer’s passata.But, there is fresh vegetable relief in the form of chicory.Surely one of the easiest crops on the allotment (apartment from their final couple of weeks of molly coddling)? Even the pigeons leave it alone; sow it in late autumn, and it just grows, shrugs off the winter and sits, waiting to be harvested whilst all around is a blasted heath.
I say chicory; but that’s a word that encompasses a whole raft of salads; leafy greens of varying degrees of bitterness.I wrote about puntarelle a few weeks ago; very Italian and virtually unknown in the UK.Italy loves chicory, just as it loves bitterness – think Campari, Cynar and Aperol; in the UK, the embrace is less demonstrative, and we, ever in need of justification, have to make it more fancy than it needs to be, and less bitter than it should be.So, we torture it, starving it of daylight whilst forcing it into growth, to create tight, pale shoots that are sweeter, tender and more delicate than they would be if allowed to take their own time in the growing.
And then you can make a fancy but anaemic salad, perhaps with some citrus or a raspberry vinegar dressing. It will be terribly UnBritish.It’ll feel healthy, nobody will really enjoy it, and you will long for the spring famine to finish so that you can eat peas raw from the pod and buttered radishes.
Or you can embrace the Latin, celebrate the bitter, accept that it is only March, and that the peas and radishes will have to wait.Make a risotto, a risotto that is breathtakingly good, with a punch of flavours that belies its simplicity.
Two chicory heads
Stick of celery
One medium onion
One medium tomato
Two cloves of garlic
50g risotto rice
Dry white vermouth
Salt & Pepper
Take your chicory heads, slice them in half and simmer it in salted water for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery, tomato and garlic very finely and then fry until soft (but not brown) in an indulgent amount of butter.
Drain the chicory and slice it into thin strips (about 1cm across).
Turn up the heat and add these, and the rice to the onions and celery
Then add a slug of the vermouth and let it boil off (Vermouth is better than white wine in this recipe as it gives a herby tang that complements the chicory).
Now add vegetable stock, about 50ml at a time, you don’t need to obsessively hover over the pan, but check it every two or three minutes to make sure the rice isn’t sticking and to add more stock if it needs it.After about ten minutes, taste the rice.I like a bit of bite, some people prefer more of a rice pudding texture.Go with what you prefer.
Finally, add salt and pepper as you see fit, then dish it out with a generous topping of fresh chopped parsley and grated pecorino.It’ll be piping hot and salty, the chicory will impart a very gentle mustiness, like the smell of cooked cabbage, but beyond delicious.
So, there, chicory risotto.Infinitely better than any ill-conceived salad for a blustery March day.
In a blog that is mainly about Italian food, this is going to sound very dumb, but this is arecipe that is really very, very Italian.And I mean that in a culturally alien, lost in translation way.I don’t say this to discourage you, but I think it stems from the fact that we only really grow pumpkins to carve in the UK.Other than that, and Covent Garden soups, we don’t really know what to do with them, they’ve just never quite caught on here.Then there is the weather against us.Winter squashes are, by definition, at their best, in the winter.Their flavour deepens with storage and they store well after their autumn harvestSo the best time to be eating them is in the post Christmas lull, which is not perhaps the best time to be eating cold starchy salads in dingy Britain.Also, who has fresh mint growing in the garden in February?Finally, the mint, the vinegar, the sugar.What the hell?I just didn’t have enough life-experience to grasp what was happening the first time I tried this.
Perhaps I should try selling this better.For a start, there is deep frying involved and anything deep fried is, it goes without saying, good.
The first time I made this unsupervised, I made the stupid mistake of trying to shallow fry my squash, which just doesn’t cut the mustard.They didn’t brown, they didn’t crisp up; they just soaked up the oil and turned to mush.I gained new wisdom from the Sicilian: “basically, whenever I say ‘fry something’, I really mean ‘deep fry it’”
So assuming you have fried your squash in profligate depths of olive oil, you will have a plate of golden brown crescent moons of oily squash draining on kitchen paper.
Now, arrange them in a tray and douse with red wine vinegar, before adding chopped mint, salt, sugar and pepper.It’s hard to give absolute quantities, as each squash, is different, absorbing more oil, needing less sugar, and the mintiness of mint can never be guaranteed if you’re buying it from a supermarket.Keep tweeking, and don’t be concerned about sticking to hard and fast proportions.
Leave the sweet and sour and herbs to interact for a few hours, even 24 hours, and then eat as an antipasti, with bread (of course, as no Sicilian meal is complete without, at least, the option of bread) to soak up the juices.It works well with other preserved or pickled vegetables.I like it with artichoke hearts and cold, oily sweet peppers.
Maybe the first time you try this, you’ll be as perplexed as I was – a savoury dish that is sweet, buttangy and minty.But stick with it, work with the pairings, consider the bread to choose; have the patience to let it infuse for a day.You’ll become extremely fond of this dish, it will become a thing you look forward to making in the dark depths of February,
And if, in February – this cold dish from a hot foreign island seems just too alien, warm it through in the oven – the heat makes it more northern, more acceptable to a Saxon taste.There are versions that add chilli flakes for extra heat and another Sicilian version that is baked in the oven with onions. I have been known (when the Sicilian isn’t around) to add anchovies. All of these are good, and further justify the growing of rampant winter squashes if you have the inclination and the space.
Zucca in agradolce
One winter squash, peeled, deseeded and sliced into crescents 1-2cm thick.
2-3 cloves of bruised garlic.
Enough olive oil to cover your sliced squash in a deep frying pan.
Red wine vinegar (50-100ml)*
Salt and pepper.
*quantities will vary according to the size and absorbency of the squash, and your own tastes.
First put the cold oil and garlic in your big, heavy, deep frying pan.
Turn the heat on, and brown the garlic, then remove it from the oil (hang onto it though).
Fry the squash slices, in batches, in the oil, growing on both sides. Don’t put too many in at once, as this cools the oil, which stops the squash from browning and they’ll start to disintegrate.
As they cook, drain them on kitchen paper, then arrange them in a serving dish.Sprinkle over the saved browned garlic, chopped mint, vinegar, salt and pepper.Cover and leave to steep in the fridge for as long as you can.
Serve at room temperature or warm through – as you prefer.
It seems that, if you’ve calves of steel, the lungs to match and a can-do attitude reminiscent of a minor Waugh novel, then paradise can still be found. Your best bet in getting there is to ignore anytimetable that assures you there is a ferry from Palermo and to head for one of the smaller ports, for whom such trivialities as passengers are important.The ferry from Palermo has a tendency to be cancelled a few hours before departure, which is unhelpful, because they wait until it is too late to make alternative arrangements.It is even more unhelpful when you discover that it wasn’t cancelled, but ran as normal, only, presumably, unburdened of troublesome luggage-laden yahoos.But this is Sicily, it kind of goes with the territory. Head instead for Millazo, or Messina.Less glamorous, yes, but at least you stand a chance of getting to paradise.
And then you arrive.An unprepossessing dock, part building site, part dock.Sicily again – they’re enlarging the dock, however they’re at an impasse – to finish the work, more materials are needed, particular materials that need a bigger boat to deliver them.But the boat cannot come because the dock is too small. But it will be sorted, somehow, one day.
Now, get ready for the calves of steel.Your house will be an idyll, with astonishing views from your terrace across to mainland Sicily, with Etna in the distance; turn your head just a few degrees, and the other Aeolian islands are strung out before you – Filicudi, Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, and Stromboli (if you squint), smouldering in the distance. It is a landscape of mythology.This house will also be several hundred vertiginous steps up the side of the extinct volcano.Yes, a donkey will take your luggage (ignore the time they give you though, remember, you’re in Sicily now), but you do have to do the climb, too. There is a shop in the harbour run by Carlo, a rare blue-eyed Italian in this part of the world.He’s not going to beat Aldi or Lidl in the value for money stakes, but let’s face it, any man that stocks Cynar on an island of fifty inhabitants gets my vote.There is a reason that he stocks water by the crate and prominently sells wine by the box.Buy your groceries in bulk and let the donkey do the heavy work – believe me, once you’re in for the evening, set for a G&T – you will not be ‘nipping out to the shops’ if you’ve forgotten anything.Even if it’s the T.
But once you’re ‘home’ get ready to unpack that can-do spirit.With a two ring hob hidden away in an old bread oven, the game is on to turn the courgette that you were given by Simone on the way up into dinner, with some pasta perhaps, some parmesan, garlic and oil (olive of course).You’ve never met Simone before, but it seems that courgette growers are the same the world over – always desperate to off load their courgettes onto total strangers.
Begin by frying a crushed, whole garlic clove.Put it into the pan with cold oil and bring them up to heat.Once it browns, take the clove out and put it aside.Now fry your sliced courgette until both sides are the colour of the forearms of the guy who owns the donkey that brought your luggage up.This will take a lot longer than you expect.But that’s fine.An orange full moon will be rising into the sky behind Etna, your amour will point out all the stars that form Scorpio, and you will have resorted to G&. Because you didn’t believe the bit about not wanting to nip to the shop for some more T.As the household gecko emerges to snack on the moths drawn to the light above the dinner table on the terrace, it will all start to feel a bit Gerald Durrell, childhood dreams can come true.
Cook the pasta – the usual way, for less time than it says on the packet and with enough salt in the water to make your blood pressure rocket to the heights of Scorpio (it’s ok, all those steps have already made you fitter than when you arrived).Drain, keep some of the cooking water back and throw the pasta and two or three of the courgette slices (mashed up) into the frying pan you cooked the courgette in.Toss, to get the oil all the way through, add parmesan and dress with the courgette slices.Eat, under aforementioned full moon, and be glad that you’ve moved on from the G& to the wine box you wisely invested in.
Tomorrow, you can bathe in the bluest waters you’ve seen, or climb to the summit of the extinct volcano, gathering wild capers and fennel along the way (should you be feeling particularly Saturday Guardian) and see more butterflies in two hours than you’ve seen in a decade in the UK, fat emerald lizards, furtive jet-black snakes that vanish as soon as you see them, moths like hummingbirds and perhaps a praying mantis skulking amongst the artemisia.My 21st century phone told me that it was 118 storeys, my calves of less -than-steel, had a hissy fit, but my inner Famous 5, 12 years old alter ego was having the time of his life.
For dinner,you can eat seafood by the sea (raw prawns full of electric blue eggs, octopus, swordfish).Or you can let the amour rustle something up with aubergines and pasta in the converted bread oven cum kitchenOr pop down the hill to visit Simone (on Alicudi, people open up their homes as restaurants, and not in a pop-up kind of a way).By now you’re waiting for the catch – surely there’s a catch?
And of course, there it is, niggling away somewhere, that upon your return, you’ll be hauled over the coals for something at work, the dogs will expect you to segue seamlessly back into their usual early morning walking routine, and the hedge you didn’t cut before you left will have grown rampantly.
So, have a return plan, and maybe next time, you’ll come back for longer – you’ll get up earlier so that you can buy fresh fish from the dock, be a bit fitter, so that you can climb the volcano without worrying that you might be the prime age for a heart attack, stock up on aperol, campari and cynar, as rewards for the climb, persuade a few more friends to join you, and for two or three weeks next year, you’ll relive the dream.