June 2019 is reminding me that I don’t live in Sicily. I live in Birmingham. High latitude, rain catching Birmingham. This is turning into one of those summers where the temperature lingers around 20 degrees, and it rains, and it rains, and it rains. This time last year we were about to leave for Alicudi and the embrace of Mediterranean heat: it was all geckos, seafood, swimming and unrelenting sun. But even in Birmingham, the sun shone kindly, cherries ripened, oyster festivals were visited, grass withered. But holidays and summer are delayed this year; instead there is rain and grey and depression.
Britain offers some consolation in one of what the Sicilian calls ‘the northern fruit’; strawberries, bringing the first of the major battles with the local pigeons and squirrels. Even in the gloom, still they ripen, needing only a few hints of blue sky to suddenly swell and blush to a deeply, sensual scarlet.
They are the most luxurious of fruits to grow. So extravagant in terms of space, maintenance and protection, offering a repayment of a fleeting two weeks of glut and gorging. The downside of last year’s holiday in the sun meant that we missed the strawberries, they came and went in the time we were away. I imagine they were incomparable last year, ripened to perfection by that mythically hot summer.
It is a sadness that strawberries have now become ubiquitous and eternal. The strawberries of shops are a poor and tortured thing, to the extent that so many people have forgotten, or worse, never tasted, the intensity of a freshly picked, perfume leaking free range strawberry; its intense blood redness is the difference between oil paints and crayons.
The downsides; to achieve fourteen days of life affirmation they need space to sprawl, and nets to ward off rapacious birds and mammals. But even nets will be stomped on and nibbled through, so accept that some will be lost. Slugs and snails adore them too, so here you must decide which preventative measure (if any) your conscience will allow. The plants, although easy to look after, don’t like to be disturbed too often, which means your strawberry patch can turn into a weed patch the moment you turn your head, but weeds can also hide some of the fruit from eagle-eyed pigeons.
I asked the Sicilian how they use strawberries at home, because I could only think of Italian gelato, granita and a little tart of custard and glazed alpine strawberries. You see punnets of these alpine berries for sale there – tiny, intense things (so, typically Sicilian), they call them Fragoline di bosco; strawberries of the forest. But he drew a blank. I asked another friend from Milan, and one from Rome, with a Sicilian partner – they too came up with the triumvirate, along with a Roman standard of strawberries, lemon juice and sugar. So perhaps then, when he calls them ‘a northern fruit’, he’s right, perhaps they thrive in our dampness, our scudding leaden skies and disappointment of British summers; they exist to guarantee us wan northerners some unqualified joy during their constrained window.
Last year I tried to bring back some of those strawberries of the forest, knowing that I would have missed my own fat Brummie versions. But they didn’t travel well. A delayed flight and three hours in the car from Stansted, turned them to mush and mould. They were a reminder that of all the crops, the strawberries are the worst to be away for, there will be no other chances until next year. They were also a reminder to make the most of the glut, to capture its essence in jams and ices, so that a spoonful can whisk you back to a moment when you were squatting, with stained fingers, searching for the stab of red beneath green, and loading up bowl after bowl with your rewards.
Strawberry and Lemon Granita (for 8-ish)
Granita in Sicily and Granita in the UK are different creatures. Both should be intensely flavoured – the essence of their ingredients. In Sicily they are fleeting and transient, melting to chilly cordial before your eyes in the summer heat. They are a shot of their parts, like a fruit espresso (or in the case of coffee granita, an actual espresso), refreshing and restorative. In the UK, particular in this summer, they retain their form for longer, but rarely is there heat strong enough to demand granita. In the heat of Sicily granita invokes an emotional as well as a physical response. Save it for sunny, warm days. It is too easy to catch a chill in this country and anyway, it works so much better when the air is a little sticky and the sun too hot, and you’re not in a grey British summer.
500g ripe as you can Strawberries
Juice of one lemon
75ml (or less of water)
Remove any leaves from the strawberries, halve and cook them in a splash of water. Once they’ve disintegrated, liquidise them.
Bring the water to the boil, then add the sugar and stir until it’s all dissolved.
Take off the heat and leave to cool.
Push the liquidised fruit through a very fine sieve – fine enough to take the seeds out, and then stir your strawberries into the sugar and water. Finally add the lemon juice and stir.
Taste it. It should be Type 2 Diabetes sweet, as frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature
Now chill the mixture for a few hours and then put it in a freezer in whatever container you plan to store it in.
If you were to use an ice cream maker her, you’d get a smooth sorbet. Granita should be gritty and crystalline.
So every hour or so, take the container out of the freezer and scratch it with a fork, to get your icy grit. One frozen, it’ll keep indefinitely, but I try to make small batches for almost immediate
Once it’s ready, serve it in tiny glasses, the camper the better.
There are some recipes that I’ve been tip toeing around, because of their complexity, because of my ignorance; there’s the fear of being branded a cultural appropriater, the knowledge that I’ll get them wrong, but without a reference point to know just how wrong I got it.
So it is with Pasta al Forno. This is not a formalised recipe, like Pasta alla Norma. But then, it is THE recipe. A simple name, ‘baked pasta’, belies a complex, time consuming holy grail of dishes. YouTube it and there are more Nonna’s out there making Pasta al Forno, than are imaginable. It is a dish for Sundays, for celebration, a dish of a diaspora, for welcoming home the Prodigal Son. But more than anything it is the domesticity of Italian cooking distilled. It is sacrosanct. I’m terrified of this dish. Because I am not Italian, to attempt this feels fraudulent almost.
But it had to be done. I tried. And because I’m not Italian, because I don’t have to play by the rules if I don’t know them all, I tinkered, just a little. Don’t tell the Sicilian.
If you want a lumpen show stopper, something to bring a cheer from the family that will stretch far enough to satisfy the hungriest of teenagers, this is it. It is aubergines, ubiquitous to Sicily breadcrumbs, ragù, pasta (of course), more aubergines, cheese, ham, peas (if you like), layered and assembled into something that is satisfyingly homely, maternal and unpretentious despite the effort and detail that goes into it. You can try to prettify and gentrify but you will fail, and in so doing you will fail to grasp the point of it, as a celebration of abundance, togetherness and sharing. Only a fool would make this without guests or family to share it with, you’d be eating it for days.
This though is the Palermitan version, or my Palermitan’s version, with added Milanese input.
Of course, there is pasta al forno, and then there is the proper pasta al forno, as made in Palermo. For starters, there is only one acceptable pasta, anelletti (think spaghetti hoops), most other versions are far less dictatorial. It was described to me as a ‘leftovers, whatever is in the fridge’ dish, with no real recipe. I was then told exactly what those leftovers should be.
So, I’m not going to give recipe of weights and volumes here, as the scale of this thing should shift to match the size of your personal domestic set up.
To begin then, start your ragù, ideally the day before you’re making your bake. (I tend to make ragù in cauldron sized batches that I freeze into meal sized portions – it saves a lot of time and washing up).
Ragù is a complex business. One that I sometimes feel I have no place or right to start getting involved with. There are essays and debates and probably wars raging over what constitutes the proper ragù. The intricacies and complications that have been wound around this sauce are endless. Perhaps, one day, I’ll write something about these; sticking my head above a parapet for the inevitable onslaught. But for now, my ragù is a meat sauce – beef or beef and pork mince, with a soffritto of carrots, onion and celery, passata (plus the same volume of water), white wine, garlic, a bay leaf, simmered for hours – as many as you have (as long as it’s above 3). If it gets too thick, add more water. I add an anchovy, one of those salted, oily slivers from a tin. It dissolves and wallops up the umami. I also add a 50p sized blob of astrattu, the unique salted tomato concentrate created by the sun on the roofs of people’s homes in Sicily. This is unlike anything you’ll have come across outside of Sicily. It isn’t just tomato paste. It is something other. You know how a really good sun dried tomato can taste like sweet marmite? Exaggerate and embellish that thought. This is obviously not an option unless you’re visiting Sicily (although maybe there are places you can find it here that I’ve not discovered yet), so don’t get too hung up on this addition.
My ragù is definitely not canon. The Sicilian I feel disapproves. But it’s mine, and I think it’s nigh on perfect.
Once your ragù has simmered its way to a suitably decadent richness, turn it off, cover it and let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours, where, like the best of soups, stews and curries, it will use this time for inner reflection and self improvement.
The next day you are ready to begin.
Slice two large aubergine thinly into steaks and fry both sides in deep, good olive oil until browned. You can pre salt these slices to draw out some of the water, but make sure to rinse and dry them before frying. While they’re cooking, oil a sprung cake tin, and coat the inside with breadcrumbs.
Drain the cooked aubergine slices and use them to line the tin, leaving any long edges hanging over the sides of the tin.
Chop a third aubergine into chunks and fry these until brown
Hard boil your eggs
Precook your pasta for half the time on the packet (3-4 mins usually). Anelletti is a bugger to find in the UK, so improvise – penne is fine, if not Palermitan, I use ditaloni, which is a short tube, still not Palermo style, but hey! Needs must!
Mix together the pasta and ragù, then layer this with the aubergine chunks, ham and cheese (I mix parmesan and mozarella, but caciocavallo, if you can get it, will add Sicilian authenticity), alternating until you fill the tin, and inserting hidden halves of boiled egg in a symmetrical ring.
Fold over any overhanging aubergine, scatter over more bread crumbs and bake in the oven for 40 minutes.
Best eaten the next day (making this a three day project), this is a rib sticker of a meal. Hearty and calorific, it takes no prisoners. But as it is delicious, fantastic, smothering, you will welcome, and embrace your captivity.
The clue here is the name. Wild. Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs. If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles. My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento. There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel.
But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall. Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring. Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food. Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities. And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential.
The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes. An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb. And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved. A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing. They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else. Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting. Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.
As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air. Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back. All energy is diverted to height and flowers. So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.
There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food. It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff. And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime. Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta. This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day. The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and tricky to eat. It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility. But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.
Pasta con le Sarde (for four)
Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)
Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)
25g Pine nuts (toasted)
25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)
25g Chopped almond flakes
75ml Olive oil
If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out. If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you
Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes. Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).
If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest. Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).
Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.
Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside. Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.
The freezer is on the blink. Scarcely a year old, and apparently it needs a new circuit board.
On the plus side, it’s so fiendishly modern that its insulation levels wouldn’t be out of place on the International Space Station. So nothing is rapidly defrosting, rather things are gradually just nudging their temperatures upwards every time I open the door. I have Schrödinger’s Freezer. I have to make lightning strikes in there, playing a 3D memory game as to what is in which drawer and snatching whatever is most vulnerable to the thaw.
I started with the fish, plural. I bulk buy frozen sardines, because, as I’ve said before, I bloody love them. So I had 20 sardines still board stiff, but too many and too good to risk losing to the whims of over complicated fridge electrics. I also wasn’t feeling particularly finicky , so no Sardine a beccafico for tea tonight.
But I remembered something else. Something gruesome, barbaric, straight from a crap horror film, but delicious. If you decide to make these, keep everyone out of the kitchen, and pray your guests don’t arrive early, as few people will be brave enough to try them, having seen the preamble.
Polpette di sarde
The Sicilian made these for one of his monumental feasts last year. They were a triumph, hoovered up with gusto, even though they’re a simple fish meat ball, fried until brown all over and then cooked again in a tomato sauce. I’m giving his recipe (that I’ve not seen in any book), which uses fewer ingredients (no raisins or pine nuts – which are often included). There’s also a north African version of these which is spicier.
You will need a sturdy food mill, a heavy, deep frying pan, a hefty knife, and to put aside any squeamishness you may be prone to.
Start by cleaning your sardines. You need to clip off the fins, scrub off any scales and take out the guts. Doing this under running, cold water makes the job mildly less revolting.
Then, take your knife, decapitate each sardine, flattening the remaining body out, so you can fillet out the back bone (These you can discard) Chop your fillet into two or three pieces and, steeling yourself, throw the whole lot, skin and all into your food mill. Get cranking. The kitchen horror story begins, as your fish are ground down and extruded as fine fish paste into the bowl below. This is as far removed from a ready meal as you’re ever likely to get, you will be not quite staring your dinner in the eye as it disappears down the grinder. At the end any of the tougher bones or fins you missed in the cleaning process should be left in your food mill, and you can start turning the fish paste into your polpette. In the UK, we’re very picky about the bits we will and won’t knowingly eat. But if you ever eat fish such as bream or bass with a Sicilian family you’ll see them picking out the eyes, finding the brain, chewing the whole head and spitting out the bones. It isn’t pretty, but these delicacies are good enough to permit the ditching of niceties. OK, so we haven’t gone this far with our meatballs, but there is sound reasoning behind this gothic almost all encompassing process.
The next bit is easy and less troubling.
Add bread (which you’ve soaked in water for ten minutes), beaten egg, garlic, parsley and grated pecorino, to the fish and mix everything thoroughly. The mix needs to be sticky enough to hold together when you form golf ball sized polpette, but not so damp that they stick to you hands. Most recipes will tell you to use breadcrumbs here, because they’re easier and people get breadcrumbs. You can weigh them, they’re orderly. But, they can turn your fish balls stiff, too congealed; by mixing in bread, squidging it with your hands, you avoid stodge. I don’t know why this works, but it does, it makes a big, big, difference.
Now heat up the olive oil and fry your balls when the oil sizzles if you drop a little of the mix into it. You want to brown them all over, so you’ll need to stand over them and turn as they cook. Don’t do this standing over the stove with a fag in your mouth; the other half’s mother would do. Ash does not improve the flavour.
Once they’re done, you can cool and store them in the fridge until you’re ready to cook your tomato sauce. (This also reduces the chances of horrified guests discovering your barbarism).
The sauce can be a simple home made passata, or you can make a more complex one by adding garlic, olive oil and basil. Although, despite this coming from a usually reliable recipe book, the Sicilian was visibly appalled at the idea of pairing basil with fish: “a Sicilian would never put basil with fish! And if they do they’re wrong”.
This is where you need trust your own taste. Being an oily fish. sardines pack a strong punch that’ll see off flavours that might overpower a less strident fish, but, I prefer the plain tomato version, it’s more in keeping with this simple version of the recipe. Plus, you have parsley in the polpette, so it’ll all get terribly confusing if you add basil.
Double up your passata with the same amount of water and then heat your sauce gently to a simmer, it doesn’t need to be ferociously boiling and sending little staining lava bombs of tomato all over your kitchen. Now add the polpette and cook them until they are heated through (30 minutes should be enough) and the sauce has reduced down to a sticky thickness.
Serve, perhaps with a few toasted pine nuts over the top for a bit of crunch. And have your ‘scarpetta’ ready, the ‘little shoe’ of bread to scoop up the sauce.
I was reading up on versions of this recipe (in Mary Taylor Simeti’s Sicilian Food) and apparently, it’s specific to Palermo. Elsewhere in Sicily, especially on the western side of the island, it’s more usual to make your polpette with tuna. So this would be a less gruesome version, using just steak meat, rather than all the bits that refuse to let you forget that this was once a living, swimming, silvery thing.
(makes 12 meatballs, allow two per person as a starter, or four as a main)
200-250g bread (crusts off and soaked in water for ten minutes)
Tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley
25g grated pecorino
1 egg (beaten)
1 crushed clove of garlic
Salt and pepper
25g pine nuts (browned in a dry frying pan)