Friday, 28 September 2012

Eating my way through Sicily

One of the pleasures of foreign travel is being able to try different foods - if I'm honest, it's one of the main attractions, more interesting than lying on a beach for a week or two. I've been known to dash off for short breaks purely for the food, but longer trips really give you plenty of time to eat your way round a cuisine.

I've been to Italy many times, but not Sicily until now. I was itching to climb Etna but had to read up on the food culture before I flew out. No surprise to learn that pasta and pizza are as widespread in Sicily as the rest of the country, but there are lots of local specialities too.

I was based in the east, where fish dominates the menus, thanks to the thriving fishing industry and abundance of varieties. At Catania's massive outdoor fish market, a daily theatrical spectacle, I saw hundreds of fishy things I'd never seen before.

With so much fish on menus everywhere I ate very little meat. Stuffing and rolling fillets is a local speciality. The sarde a beccafico (sardines stuffed with pine nuts, capers, breadcrumbs and almonds) were delicious, as was the swordfish (involtino di pesce spada) stuffed with anchovies, garlic and salted ricotta (and an unexpected but very tasty side of deep-fried celery leaves).

Sampling the pasta all Norma was a given - a plate of pasta, tomatoes, fried aubergine slices and salted ricotta, named after the opera by Bellini, who happens to be Catania's most famous son. I also enjoyed this plate of pasta with tomato sauce, peas, fresh anchovies and fried breadcrumbs (which are another local tradition).
And this is what I call a proper rocket pizza.
The desserts also delighted. Annoyingly, my every attempt to try the cassata was thwarted - time and again I was told sorry, it's off the menu. But I did scoff a few cannoli - deep-fried rolled pastry shells (a bit like a brandy snap), stuffed with fresh, sweetened ricotta and candied fruits then dipped in crushed pistachios. And the semifreddo of pistachio, marsala-soaked sponge and soft meringue was amazing.
There were many more memorable meals, too many to post here. Naturally I came home with food - a large hunk of salted ricotta, a lump of coppa, a jar of pistachio cream, bottles of limoncello and fennel liqueur, and a basket of these beautiful marzipan fruits...
Lastly, I've just found this lovely blog on Sicilian food and I'm enjoying dipping into the recipes and learning even more about the food culture there.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Creamy spring greens

I'm back! I've been in Sicily in my blogging absence, stuffing my face with local specialities yet somehow losing 5 kilos in the process (probably because of all the hiking). I'll share some Sicilian foodie pics in another post but now, after days of of being waited on in trattorias, osterias and street cafés I'm back to cooking for myself.

The cold weather was a shock to my system on my return so I've already turned to warming winter dishes. Spring greens are one of my favourite vegetables - despite the name it's available most of the year and it's very versatile. This is one of my favourite ways to cook spring greens and happily takes centre space on the plate with a bit of protein on the side.

What you need: 
Spring greens - about 250g makes a generous portion for one
Half-fat crème fraiche - 2 heaped spoonfuls
Salt, pepper
Half a lemon

What to do: 
Wash the greens, shaking off the excess water in a colander, then slice them horizontally discarding the toughest part of the core. Melt a generous knob of butter in a heavy-based sauteuse or frying pan - as soon as it starts to froth add the greens and stir through until they are all coated. Season well with crushed sea salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then turn the heat down a touch and cook them for 10-15 minutes until they are tender.

Add the crème fraiche, stir it through and cook the greens for a few minutes longer. Finish with a spritz of the juice of half a lemon and plate up with the accompaniment of your choice.

Cook's tips:
If you can't find spring greens, some curly kale, a savoy cabbage or head of cavolo nero all make good substitutes. To slice a cabbage horizontally, first quarter it lengthways after washing, cut out the lower, thick section of core then shred across the leaves. For this dish aim for shreds that are about 1.5cm (1/2 inch) wide.

If you're not worried about your intake of saturated fats, single or double cream produce a more luxurious finish.

Cabbage and pork partner very well together - a pork chop, a couple of slices of black pudding or grilled belly pork, or some sausages all go well with this. If you don't eat meat, a couple of slices of grilled polenta are a good match.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Time for a takeaway

That's my way of saying I'm taking a short break.

I'll be back soon - I have some foodie plans in hand that need taking care of. They may involve pasta and lemons.

In the meantime, here's a Persian mutton stew with apricots and bulgur I made last week - I'll put the recipe up when normal service resumes.