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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Dream of Sicily


We've been back from a two-week vacation in Sicily for over a week now, and at night, I still dream of the place. This has me wondering about the power of that mysterious connection between Man and Landscape... and of course, Woman and Clam Sauce. More on this in a moment.

The trip was the result of many years of pitching Sicily to my husband as a place worthy of a visit. People have asked, why there? Why Sicily? I can't really remember how or when my obsession started...maybe it was a shot of Taormina's ruins silhouetted against the sea in some Masterpiece Theatre epic? An article in the Travel section of the paper? My lifelong love of cannoli? All I know is that Sicily was out there, beckoning to me for a very long time. The pictures in my mind, fed by Godfather films, cookbook photos and prior trips to Italy were a seductive collage, featuring pasta sauces with anchovies, dusty, abandoned hill towns, ancient ruins, blood oranges, pastries, lusty wines, swordfish and, gelato, of course.

The reality was everything I'd dreamed of, and more.


I'll start with the fact that it's so very far away. Extremely far away, from San Francisco, and it felt like it took us forever to get there as we dragged ourselves from plane, to plane, to yet one more plane. Then, through a haze of pure exhaustion I caught my first glimpse of Sicily's mountains rising from the sea through the airplane window, and my heart started to race. In the coming weeks, this seemed to happen regularly.


We'd turn a corner, on a street or on a hiking path or a sidewalk, and I'd catch my breath...

A Baroque church wrapped in beautiful swirling, pulsing stone, rocky hillsides tumbling into the sea, or the most perfect little shrine to the Madonna, set into the side of a dingy building, lit with a few candles softly glowing in the twilight. Sicily is truly unlike any place I've ever been. A feast of contrasts for the senses and a distance from the ease and comforts of my every day life. I realized how scary and thrilling it is to step away from what is typically called your comfort zone, and plunge into a place buzzing in another language (thinking you know Italian doesn't mean anything here!), mystifying street signs, labrynthine markets selling fresh goat meat, tube socks and CDs and delightful daily habits one of which includes gelato at 5 pm every day.


Sigh. I feel myself getting weepy with emotion when I even begin to try to explain the place.

So, let me get to the food.

My main goal was to try to incorporate pasta con vongole (Pasta with Clam Sauce) into each day somehow, and this I accomplished with great success. My beloved pasta with clams was so simple and so elegant in its perfection each and every time I had it that it became a kind of joyful representation of what I loved most about the cooking in Sicily. The most perfect ingredients, simply prepared: olive oil, parsley and garlic, tossed with a tiny bit of chili and the tiniest, sweetest most beautiful clams you've ever tasted...all combined with perfectly cooked spaghetti. Unpretentious, unfussy perfection.


Another goal was to eat as many cannoli as I could get my hands on, because, well...if you love cannoli, THIS is the place to get your fill. The best part of my own, personal Cannolo-thon was the range -- each cannolo I ate was subtly different. One might have candied fruit in the ricotta, another... chocolate shavings. Some would have nothing but sweet, beautiful ricotta, garnished with a candied lemon peel and others dipped each end in chopped pistachio. ALL were delicious.

Another Sicilian favorite was a favorite at snack time in the afternoons: arancini. I've been a fan for years. Who's to argue with a deep fried ball of rice, stuffed with meat sauce and cheese? My friend, Peggy introduced me to them ages ago in Boston, where she and her husband lived in the North End. The two of us would go over to a little hole-in-the-wall cafeteria at lunchtime. I don't recall a sign or any indication of a dining establishment inside, just lots of loud voices and silverware clatter. We'd enter and go through the line, loading up on arancini with tomato sauce, dished out by older, Nonna-like ladies and I remember being hooked after my first bite. But Sicilian arancini?! Paired with an icy cold Moretti in a sweating bottle after tramping around ancient ruins all morning and we are talking about pure HEAVEN.



And The Gelato...

This category probably deserves a blog post of its own. Clearly, the Italians know what they are doing when it comes to ice cream. They are truly, without peer. Steve and I realized, relatively early on, that we needed to have our fix every day. So, we followed the example set by the locals in each and every town we visited. 5 pm? It's Gelato Time. Everywhere you looked cafes were full of people, adults and children, enjoying a cone. It made life, well...wonderful! My favorite flavor? Blood Orange. On the last day of the trip, in Catania, a town at the base of brooding Mt. Etna, we sat down in scruffy plaza in front of the local opera house and had our Daily Gelato. I'd gone from choosing mainly chocolate in the early days of the trip, to the citrus fruits in the second week. The blood orange was spectacular -- tart, sweet and perfumed with the very essence of orange. It was the one thing that last day that made me desperate not to leave.

The next morning as the plane banked around the smoking, dark hulk of Etna and headed back over the sea towards the Italian mainland, we both sighed...almost in unison.
We'll be going back.

Cooking Sicilian
So, the day after we returned, jet lag had us both awake at 2 a.m., then, at 3 a.m., and at 5 we decided to make coffee to help with the wait until our favorite local farmer's market opened. I gathered up the ingredients that made up another of my favorite pasta dishes while we were in Sicily: Pasta alla Norma. Now Jamie Oliver will tell you he doesn't know who 'ol' Norma' is, but he reckons she's a good ol' gal. I will tell you that the legendary pasta dish of tomatoes and eggplants originated in Catania (of the shabby plazas and mind-blowing blood orange gelato!), birthplace of the legendary opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini. It is named for his famed opera, Norma. All you really need to know is that this is a Sicilian classic of eggplant, tomatoes, basil mixed with ricotta salata, a dried version of ricotta that tastes not unlike feta. In a pinch, a really good Pecorino works well in place of the ricotta salata. (I could cry when I think about the incredible Pecorino we had everywhere in Sicily.) It's an easy dish to throw together with either fresh, or canned tomatoes, and the flavor is...transporting.


Pasta alla Norma
(adapted from Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italy)
serves 4
1 large, firm eggplant
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 pinch red chili flakes
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
large bunch of fresh basil, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
1 28 oz can of plum tomatoes, roughly chopped or 3-4 large fresh tomatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lb. dried spaghetti
6 oz. ricotta salata or freshly grated pecorino

Quarter the eggplant lengthwise trim the seedy, fluffy centers and remove. Then, cut the eggplants across the length into finger-sized pieces. Heat olive oil in a large non-stick pan over medium high heat and fry up the eggplant, making sure to coat all the eggplant pieces with oil...adding a little more oil if the pan looks dry. Sprinkle with dried oregano and fry eggplant until golden on all sides. Sprinkle the fried eggplant with chili flakes, and then add garlic, basil stems to the pan (and, if needed another splash of olive oil!).

Give everything a good stir and then add the vinegar and tomatoes. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, then taste and season with salt and pepper.

Tear up the basil leaves and stir half into the sauce.

Cook your pasta in boiling salted water. When pasta is al dente, reserve a small cup of pasta water, drain the spaghetti and add to the sauce, sprinkling a few tablespoons of pasta water to loosen the sauce. Put pan back over low heat, stir and adjust seasoning.



Plate sauce and pasta and garnish with crumbled cheese, remaining basil leaves, and drizzle of your best olive oil.

Buon appetito!