The Tastes of Summer in Sicily
On the Mediterranean island of Sicily, the sun "shines relentlessly, beating down almost every day of the year, but especially from mid-March through September," writes the Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza di Mazzarino in her book, The Flavors of Sicily: Stories, Traditions and Recipes for Warm-Weather Cooking. That should sound familiar to many Californians. So should her description of the effects of the Sicilian sun, a "powerful natural force which blesses everything that grows with intense flavor," producing an "abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables seldom seen elsewhere."
In fact, a similar abundance of fruits and vegetables is seen in California farmers markets this time of year. The book covers the sunny season, one month at a time, featuring 114 seasonal recipes and an informative collection of Lanzas reminiscences about finding, preparing and eating food in Sicily.
Founder of the World of Regaleali, a cooking school on her familys estate and winery, Lanzas Sicilian roots run deep. She was born outside of Palermo, an old city where she was first introduced to the islands flavorful bounty at the bazaar-like street markets, where "vendors still cry their wares. The vegetable man, the fishmonger, the cheese seller, all sing out like raucous birds, calling you to their stands. The music and the words of these songs date back to a time before time," she writes.
The simple, Sicilian country cooking that she favors is an improvisational cuisine based on the philosophy of using whatever happens to be on hand that day. Lanza recalls a cold soup that she whipped up from items acquired at street stalls: a baked eggplant, an onion, a roast pepper and some boiled potatoes. "I pureed them together with ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, broth and wine," she writes. "A heavy hand with seasoning at the end--cold soup often needs it--and Ecco! Sicilian vichyssoise."
This innovative spirit is also reflected in the islands specialty, pesto. "I must have asked a dozen women how they make pesto," Lanza writes. "No two replies were the same--although each one swore hers was the authentic recipe." Everyone agreed on one rule of thumb: Let the pesto stand for a day so the flavors can blend and develop. But as for what should go in pesto, only garlic and olive oil were common to every version. Beyond that, the recipes for authentic Sicilian pesto called for everything from tomatoes, parsley, basil and oregano to ground hot pepper, broth, almonds and black olives.
Lanzas own pesto recipe calls for two cups mixed herbs, two cloves garlic, four small ripe tomatoes, 1/3 cup olive oil, one teaspoon sugar, and salt and ground hot pepper to taste. Combine all in a food processor and run until roughly chopped.
One of Lanzas recipes with the most distinguished of Mediterranean pedigrees actually hails from Spain, although it has a Sicilian touch. It is a recipe for gazpacho that Lanzas father-in-law found in Seville and brought back to Sicily for his young wife, a Spanish countess named Conchita Ramirez de Villa Urrutia. The recipe was interpreted by the familys Sicilian chef, but it was carefully vetted by the "contessa," who "had no clue at where or what a kitchen was, though she did like to eat and was fussy about her food."
pounds ripe tomatoes
1. Cut up the tomatoes and puree in a food processor. Working in batches if necessary, add the onion, basil and bread crumbs and puree until smooth.
2. Transfer the tomato mixture to a fine-mesh plastic strainer. Using a wooden spoon, push the puree through the sieve. At the end, make a fist and scrub as much through as you can.
3. Season with the salt and sugar. Slowly stir in the oil, adding as much as you like. A Sicilian would like a lot. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Refrigerate for at least one day or up to one week.
4. Just before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning. Add vinegar to taste. Put some ice cubes in the soup if you like. Decorate with whole basil leaves and serve. Pass the vegetables and croutons.
If its Wednesday, it must be the "charming" market in "bewitching" Saint-Remy. If its Thursday, it must be the "elegantly provisioned" market in the "enchanting" town of Aix-en-Provence. So goes Markets of Provence: A Culinary Tour of Southern France, by Northern Californians Dixon and Ruthanne Long. Taking a traveler through a weeks worth of markets in Provence--the fabled agrarian province on the sunny Mediterranean coast of France--this breezy travelogue is short on details about farmers and their crops. So the portrait of one days featured market town tends to blur into the next. And the book includes a scanty sampling of just 21 recipes.
However, the book, which includes a listing of several dozen Provence markets in addition to the seven featured ones, definitely plants the seeds of a thought--which the beautiful photographs bring to full bloom--that a tour of the south of France wouldnt be complete without a tour of the regions street markets.
Here is a Provencal treatment of one summertime farmers market favorite.
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the tops off the tomatoes, turn them upside down and remove the seeds and pulp with your fingers. Lightly salt the insides and place them, cut-side down, on a wire rack for about 20 minutes to drain.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together the garlic, parsley, chopped anchovies, bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Moisten with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
3. Arrange the tomatoes in a shallow baking or gratin dish. Gently press the mixture into the tomatoes, drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and bake for 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are very soft and the tops are browned.
Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef