Now, first off, the word “Sicilian” is one you often see on menus these days. When I see it, I always cringe a little knowing that if I was in a restaurant that could be trusted to serve Sicilian food, they wouldn’t use the word on the menu. When I read what they’re offering as “Sicilian,” it often amounts to little more than a standard Italo-American red sauce dish of one kind or another, perhaps spiked with an extra share of herbs found in all Mediterranean cooking. Or maybe not even that honest, it might be some kind of “extreme” food that needed an exotic-sounding handle to sell it in lieu of any real merit. While Sicilians certainly cook with tomatoes, there’s nothing Sicilian about red sauce necessarily, or basil, or oregano…you get the picture. They’re using the word to evoke romance, violence, sex, guns, and fantastic outfits—just like when they use the word “hemi” in truck commercials (minus the romance, sex and fantastic outfits). Anyway, I love Sicilian food and I want to clear the air about what it is and how, despite being deprived of decent seafood and often of decent produce, you can cook it right here in Wisconsin.
What is Italian food?
The first thing I learned when I went away to culinary school was that there’s no such thing as Italian food—that’s if you’re asking someone born in Italy. To them, there’s certainly Bolognese cooking, Tuscan cooking, Ligurian cooking, Abruzzese cooking…all of which are very, very different and none of which in any way resemble what you might see on the menus of certain restaurants with the word “Garden” in the second half of the name. All those cuisines I just mentioned are from regions on the mainland of Italy. Sicily is an island—the largest island in the Mediterranean—with its own language. Its capital city, Palermo, is closer to Tunis and Tripoli than to Venice. So it has a very distinct cuisine shaped not only by the many invasions it has survived but also by the fertile soil and sea and the close brush with the rich perfumes of Arabic culture. My teachers in culinary school, who were sisters with family roots in Campagna, liked to say that Sicily left her mark on invaders more than the reverse, that those who came to conquer may have had more might but were ultimately seduced by this island and adopted the local culture rather than stamping it with their own. A romantic notion, maybe, but hey, this is still Italy we’re talking about…sort of.
So, what makes food Sicilian?
Well, with the rest of Italy, Sicilian cooks share an uncompromising passion for the building blocks of cuisine, for starting with the right raw materials. What is more fundamental to any of the cuisines of Italy than olive oil? Sicily produces and exports plenty of olive oil, and even if that oil is not ranked with the greatest Ligurian or Tuscan oils, it is still a good place to start when cooking Sicilian and can be had at a price much less dear. The Co-op doesn’t carry Sicilian olive oil (that can be had at Fraboni’s), but for a good substitute, we carry Colavita.
Another important element in Sicilian cooking is Pecorino cheese. “Pecora” is “sheep” in Italian and hard cheese made from sheep’s milk are a signature stamp of any cooking from an area where the land is not lush enough to support the massive appetites of cows. That describes a lot of the Mediterranean basin, and the citizens of much of this area tend to devote what agricultural riches they have to the production of vegetables rather than the raising of pasture animals. Sheep’s milk is much higher in protein than cow’s milk and pecorino cheese has a sharper and tangier flavor than its famous Northern cousin, Parmigiano-Reggiano. In the cooking of Southern Italy and Sicily, Pecorino occupies the same crucial role as does Parmigiano in the North. Pecorino Siciliano can be hard to come by, but you can use the ubiquitous Pecorino Romano to good effect or look for Pecorino Sardo—a beautifully complex and earthy cheese.
Every kind of citrus is grown in Sicily and the island is particularly famous for blood oranges, which we typically see for a brief season in the middle of winter (November to February usually covers availability of fruit grown in Texas and California). Sicilians use citrus and citrus zest liberally in their cooking, which, in combination with spices and sweet/savory mixes translated from the Arab world (cinnamon, raisins, pine nuts, saffron, couscous), brings a light and totally unique aspect to the cooking of this region.
Without a doubt, fish in Italy in general, and Sicily in particular, are hugely important and usually end up being the biggest stumbling blocks to the landlocked cook. Luckily, of the many kinds of seafood prevalent in Sicilian cooking, two that almost personify Sicilian cooking are relatively durable and usually available in fish markets here—fresh tuna and swordfish. Both of these fish are sturdy on the grill and adapt well to a wide variety of recipes. (While the Seafood Center doesn’t readily carry swordfish, they will happily special order it for you.) I won’t lead you on by telling you that good quality specimens this far from water can be had at a reasonable price—but I will tell you that commercial fishing is commonly ranked as the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., so shut up and pay; it’s worth it.
Aside from covering these standouts, a lot of the staple food in Sicily is shared by the rest of Italy—pasta, bread, wine and, always, a huge emphasis on excellent fresh produce. I have noticed a somewhat greater emphasis on legumes that are common on the other side of the Mediterranean, notably lentils and chickpeas, but these things are certainly used further North as well. One of the things that Sicilians use to great effect is chickpea flour—the backbone of the signature Sicilian street dish Panelle or Panisse to the Provenceaux. Basically, this is a chickpea fritter, so anyone who knows what falafel is can pretty well guess if they’d like it. Unlike falafel, though, this is not supposed to be one element of a sandwich—it’s eaten alone and as fresh as possible.
Now that you know what to use, let me give you a couple of recipes that I think exemplify the Sicilian approach. To be sure, all of Italy’s great cooks, in the home or otherwise, stress the importance of clean, fresh flavors, sophistication without sophistry, the freshest and highest quality ingredients and—this is important and not often explained in cookbooks—the principle that you should make, by hand, as much of what you use as you possibly can manage. I learned this working for Italian chefs when I learned to make mozzarella fresh each day, boil down bushel upon bushel of red bell peppers for the piquant paste used in salsiccie, and cook all sauces except the basic tomato sauce to order. My oldest and dearest friend, partly of Sicilian descent, explained it well when he was trying to explain his shock upon learning that his wife preferred Campbell’s tomato soup to his own. He said that in his house, anything you made yourself had to be better by definition than what you could buy in the grocery, with the possible exception of bread—which you would buy from a baker, anyway, not a grocery store. Anyway. When approaching Italian and Sicilian food, realize that you need to be willing to spend both time and money and also really work to get into the business of using your hands well. Hands are here to give pleasure through work, not to hold a steering wheel or type on a computer keyboard. Keep this in mind when cooking these recipes and enjoy yourself. Amoninni!
Grilled Swordfish with Blood Orange Sauce
- 4 6-ounce swordfish steaks
- 2 tsp. Sicilian extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black
- 3 blood oranges
- 1 lemon
- 2 tsp. dry vermouth
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 tsp. fresh basil, julienned
Directions: Preheat a gas or charcoal grill (or grill pan on your range) to medium-high heat. Rub the swordfish steaks with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and season lightly with fresh pepper but no salt. When the grill is hot, add the fish steaks. As soon as they go on, start to saute the shallot in the remainder of the olive oil (this can be done on the grill, if you are working outdoors). When the shallot is soft, add the vermouth and cook until dry, then add the juice and zest of the oranges and lemon. At this point, the fish should be ready to flip (for 1” thick steaks, cook 4 minutes on a side). Reduce the citrus juice until it is the consistency of a light syrup, then, just before the fish is done, add the basil—just enough to wilt it. Check the sauce for seasoning and pour over the freshly grilled fish. Serves 4. Goes well with a spinach salad and:
Sardegnan or Israeli Couscous with Fennel,
Raisins, and Pine Nuts
- 2 cups sardegnan (fregola) or Israeli couscous
- 2 tsp. Sicilian olive oil
- 1 medium to large bulb fennel
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/2 tsp. saffron
- 2 cups chicken stock
- Salt and pepper to taste
Directions: Trim the stalks from the fennel and split the bulb with a sharp knife. Take out the core carefully and wash the fennel well. With a chef’s knife or a vegetable peeler, cut the fennel into fine strips. Saute in the olive oil over medium-high heat until it has taken a little color, then reduce the heat and add the chicken stock and saffron. Bring to a simmer and add the raisins and couscous. Cover and reduce heat to low, then cook 12-15 minutes or until done (check the couscous). Stir in the pine nuts and check for seasoning. Garnish with fresh chopped italian parsley if desired.