Summer decadence

Summer decadence post title

Sicily is filled with many culinary delicacies throughout the year, but it seems to outdo itself for the summer holidays when everyone is out to have a good time and forget their diets. There are the usual pastries and the cliché gelati but two particular summer favourites which simply must not be missed by any visitor to the island.

The first is the simple granita, an iced drink offered in a variety of flavours including lemon, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, almond, berry, peach etc. (the choice is limitless, depending on the imagination of your local café bar owner.) To be clear this isn’t merely shaved ice flavoured with artificial syrups, they are made from fresh seasonal fruit and ingredients.

       

 

The most irresistible temptation for a summer breakfast is packed with tonnes of, ‘ruin your diet,’ calories but, ‘really who the hell cares about that’ taste. A coffee granita, for caffeine lovers, is the ultimate iced coffee. It must be consumed with a thick layer of fresh cream and a giant sweet bread briosche to dip into it as you mix the cream into this exquisite creation.
For those who aren’t a fan of coffee try strawberry with fresh cream, when you mix the two together, it is like eating strawberries and cream. Or if you have something against fresh cream and sweet bread try ordering lemon and strawberry swirled together for a refreshing summertime drink.

 

Secondly but by no means inferior to the granita is an ice cream filled sweet bread. Yes, my friends you heard it right, a mega serving of ice cream inside a bread roll for a hamburger with a difference.
Not for the faint-hearted, a brioche con gelato is a regular meal substitute. Don’t, for example, have it after a big continental breakfast or a typical several course Italian meal because you will end up feeling very ill.
It may seem like a strange thing to eat but believe me, you will be tempted by a filling of two or more of your favourite ice creams, which will be complemented by the texture of the extra soft pastry as you devour it.
Try it, and you’ll understand what I mean.

 

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Smoky roasted Artichokes

SicilianArtichokes

The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.

White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.

Artichokes

Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold. 

The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.

Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, that  he decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.

Un fiore Siciliano

Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.

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It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.

Artichokes2

The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect. 

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Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour. 

I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.

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Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti

An expat Christmas or Death by Cenone

An expat Christmas #COSItaly

Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s yes the big meals are Christmas Eve and New Years Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for another year.

The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony. Attending my first vigilia celebration I was reminded of an ancient Roman or Renaissance court banquet, where the food is excessive and the wine overflowing.

A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetizers like bruscetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats, then a selection of pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fussili prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavored with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menue varies depending in which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigilia  must be celebrated only with seafood, wherein the menu is revised but in these trying times of economic crisis this tends be over looked.

A normal menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccala or cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.

Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelized fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like liquor drenched dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!

Finally there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.

For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.

Italians consume all of this and more. It is a well-known fact during this time of crisis Italian’s may have cut back on buying gifts yet not so on their food spending for these special occasions. The Cenone is sacred and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!

The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.

Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.

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Sicilian Tomatoes, Benedica

Sicilian Tomatoes

The fertility of Sicily’s volcanic soil is well-known and thanks to the Sicilian habit of having a vegetable garden I’ve never been without fresh fruits and vegetables to prepare throughout the year, from eggplants, capsicums, chili peppers, basil and tomatoes in the summer to peas, potatoes, pumpkins and broad beans in the winter. There is always something fresh to sample in the Southern kitchen.

This year the seasons were quite late and the heat lasted well into October so we had a late yet bumper harvest of tomatoes, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It means we are still collecting fresh tomatoes for a salads and enjoying fresh pasta sauce, now in early November but to be honest we are a little tired of these darn tomatoes.

We made enough tomato preserve and bottled sauce to last two years, from peeled whole tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, we even roasted them as a side to barbecued meat and filled every-single glass bottle, jar and container we had in the house the last lot went into plastic water bottles and frozen in the freezer as we had no where else to put it.

Like most people of Italian descent I grew up peeling, boiling and bottled tomato sauce every summer and everyone has their own time-tested method and recipe.

In my part of Sicily it’s simple just wash, cut and clean the tomatoes, boil them up in suggestive cauldrons,

Sicilian cauldron

pass them through giant juicing machines which separates the pulp from the skin,

Tomato juicer

the clean bottles are filled and boiled to preserve the flavor of the summer.

Tomato sauce

There is nothing like the colour and taste of Sicilian tomatoes…

Fresh Tomato sauce

Bless them … Benedica!

 

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How to peel a fico d’india

Sicilian Prickly Pears

The exotic prickly pear (fico d’india) is a delicacy in Sicily and thrives around the entire island. Known also as the Barbary fig (opuntia ficus-indica) it is a species of cactus cultivated throughout the world in arid and semiarid areas and is thought to be native to Mexico.

It is best to taste them after the first rains as the plant soaks up the water immediately which fattens the fruit beneath a tough prickly exterior.

But how do you get to the fruit? Good question.

Up to the prickly pears

First you climb up here.

Detail of those prickly pears

Then you pick one of those oval-shaped spiky balls with a special contraption which is a steel cup fastened to a broom handle. You put the fruit in the cup and snap them off at their base. And with some good gloves try your hand at peeling them.

Warning peeling these little beasts is not for the faint hearted if you get a splinter they hurt like hell and are real buggers to get out.

With your prickly pear fastened into the end of a fork the challenge awaits …

Fico 1

On a flat surface with the fork firmly holding the fruit you cut almost all the way through on the ends.

Peeling Ficho d'india

Making a slit down the middle beside where you have the fork you can push the skin back with the knife and fork.

Fico nearly peeled

They are best served fresh so allow them to cool in the fridge.

Their taste? They are filled with hard little pips but the soft flesh is quite refreshing and sweet like a melon. There are many varieties the red ones are the most vibrant but there are also orange, green and so-called ‘white’ ones which are a golden colour.

Red fichi

I’ve seen fico d’india ice cream, sorbet and even liquor so the fruit seems quite versatile. The taste is pleasant but I’d really love if someone could take out the pips for me please! Sicilian’s don’t seem to be bothered by them swallowing them without a second thought.

Also don’t go eating too many of them as they have the sneaky habit of making people painfully constipated. My husband is always telling me about the time my father in law (bless his soul) ate ten fichi d’india and ended up in hospital. So go easy on those fichi!

Buon Appetito

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Fall in Sicily

Autumn in Sicily

The beginning of Autumn in Sicily can be abrupt. The gradual changes from one season to the next are now a thing of the past, there are no more slightly shortening days or time for the leaves to go from greens, yellows, warm rusty reds or browns, now the fall begins with heavy rains and cool nights, whenever the gods decide.

One day you are sunbathing on the beach and the next you are pulling on your cardigan and sheltering under an umbrella. The first rains are capricious, sometimes drizzling, then pelting, blurring the mountains and threatening with ash coloured clouds and distant thunder drones, initially succumbing to the afternoon sun and the Scirocco.

The heavy breath of the Scirocco is a lethargic exhale held in cupped hands, a stifling African wind which saps energy, tickling the skin without any relief or pleasure.

This corrupted zephyr, fed by ancient Aeolus the keeper of the winds, ravages the land and utters its curse without any mercy. In the summer it whips up the thermometer, in September it teases as it ushers in the rains, in the winter it tries to deceive people into shedding their skins too soon. First, there is the flotsam and jetsam of the winds and then the storm begins.

 

Autumn

October in Sicily means many things to the Sicilian’s table from fruits like fichi d’india, hazelnuts, mushrooms and grapes. Late ripening in this years season also means a tardy gathering of tomatoes, eggplants (aubergines), capsicums, chilli peppers and other summer fairs.

The insanity of August is easily washed away as Sicily gets back into its daily routine, children go back to school, freshly bronzed public servants are well and truly lazing in their offices and the everyday grind begins.

A new season is always a new beginning, it changes the sensations and assures as we are moving forward despite our want to stand still.

Autumn is like sipping a fine Nero d’Avola, smooth and deeply satisfying with a warm and fruity aftertaste that makes you wish more.

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Pasta Passion: Orechiette

 

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The humble Orecchiette

Sicilian’s are particularly passionate about their pasta, without a plate of pasta a day they are simply lost. Italian’s are infamous for going on holidays overseas and complaining about the food when they can’t find pasta cooked to a perfection, for them good food means al dente pasta dishes. Al dente being slightly crunchy under the tooth, that is not over cooked that it becomes too soft.

 

Nobody has ever told them there is other types of food, perhaps someone did but they were too busy stuffing pasta into their mouths to listen.

 

Before coming to live in Sicily I was used to eating pasta maybe once a week, which is often enough thank you very much. Now that I find myself living with so many Italian’s I find myself cooking pasta everyday and if I am at someones house this means eating it too! Needless to say I am sick of pasta, but there is really no way of getting out of this pasta passion!

 

I try to take make the best out of a dull situation and hunt down different forms of pasta and exciting new recipes, to move away from spaghetti and penne with tomato sauce!

 

This week I have introduced everyone in my extended Sicilian family to the fun of the humble orechiette, funny little cap shaped mushrooms heads that get their name for resembling little ear shapes.

 

I saw a lovely recipe on the television with gorgonzola cheese and crushed pistachio crumbs that I fell in love with. Since no one here eats gorgonzola I compromised and did them with a fresh cream sauce punctuated with little crunchy pieces of slightly fried cured ham (not a new recipe, the pasta was the new entry.)

 

It was a hit and I was saved from being totally utterly disgusted by another meal of pasta!

 

Sign off unwilling expat 2014