On gluts

FullSizeRender 2With allotments, come gluts.  It doesn’t matter how well you plan your rotation or how large the family is; there will always be times when you have too much; too much to eat, too much to give away, just too much to damn well cope with.  Some things are more prone to this gluttishness than others – runner beans have a mission to run amock, tomatoes conspire in a simultaneous, overwhelming rush of ripening, apples scold you with their lemming like windfalling.  Their fertility becomes a chore, a curse.   There are of course, other gluts that are never onerous.  I never heard anyone complain that they had “too many cherries”, or that they were “over run with greengages”.  And even when over abundance forces you to turn all WI and start pickling and preserving, a three year old jar of raspberry jam is always a delight to discover, whereas a jar of green tomato chutney half its age, never fails to ruin anyone’s day.

So what’s the Sicilian connection here?  Aubergines. Melanzane. That’s what.

Aubergines are buggers in Birmingham.  They are, admittedly, way outside their comfort zone.  So much so, that the only way I guarantee success is to grow grafted plants, prewarned about their life 52 degrees north.  Some years they work, some years they languish and succumb to black moulds and some years they go into overdrive.  2019 was one such year.  If I knew why, I’d be the horticultural love child of Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh. 

But, I’ve no idea why this year turned out so well. The summer has been decidedly lack-lustre; mostly rain, wind and greyness, with short-lived bursts of yah-boo-sucks extreme heat to remind us what summer could be, should be like. They’re in the same tunnel as some decidedly forlorn tomato plants, more inclined to produce stunted greenery than to reproduce.  Similarly, chillies have reluctantly, begrudgingly thrown out a few desultory pops of heat, but more as a two fingered insult than as a call of nature.

But, for whatever reason, the under-cover aubergines, got their feet under the table and decided to fruit, continue fruiting, and then carry on some more. 

They’re proper aubergines too – all unforgiving stalk spines and corky ingrown blips that shelter woodlice.  They don’t have that glossy, pantone perfection of the supermarket.  More, the look of something stitched together by Sid Phillips in Toy Story.  But, hey, once they’ve been despatched, chopped, homogenised; they’re the best tasting aubergines in my postcode.

So it’s been a summer of caponata, of aubergines stuffed with mint and cheese, of parmigiana (whose idiot idea was it to make parmigiana for a summer party of 50?). And still they come.  The end is in sight, but a glut is a glut, and I’m about to be overwhelmed by Borlotti beans now jostling their way to the front of the harvest line.

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Two things then come to my rescue.  Oil and sandwiches. 

An aubergine sandwich is a thing of joy.  It’s also a thing of Palermo; a staple – taking fried steaks of aubergine, adding what ever you like;  cheese? basil? mortadella? tomato? anchovy?  If you want to go full Palermitan, add pannelle. But the aubergines are the creamy, almost meaty base that asks to be added to. Quick, cheap, wonderful.  On the other hand, an aubergine sandwich made with steaks that have been steeped in oil, infused with garlic, chilli or bay.  Well, that’s altogether a more wonderful thing.

Take your glut of aubergines then, slice them into generous 1cm thick steaks which you salt (as much to draw out water as imagined bitterness) and leave for at least an hour.  Then rinse and dry, then fry on griddle pan, scarcely oiled, to get “I did this, aren’t I cool” scorch lines, flip and repeat on the other side.  Take your cooked steaks, and start to pack a sealable jar with them, layering with the herbs or spices you’re using and topping up with olive oil as you go.  The flavours will do all the work here, so don’t use an expensive extra virgin grade, go for a cheaper, blended version. This is heresy as far as the Sicilian is concerned, but he’s not paying my olive oil bill!

As long as the aubergine is submerged below the oil, and the seal is airtight, these things will keep for months, languidly infusing.  In the middle of winter, when in need of a fast and easy lunch, you can slide a couple of these beauties from their slick, and add them to a Scooby Doo style sandwich, piled high on the best bread you have, or can make or can afford, with cheeses, meats, pickles, and enjoy as a virtuous, velveteen delicacy of your inexplicable green fingeredness.

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Favourites and more frying

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Artichokes encapsulate in their tight buds, the divergence of British and Sicilian food.  Here they are seldom seen, priced as a luxury but rarely treated with respect.  We are charged a fortune for an unopened flower, all too often a bashed and wilted version of its youthful self.  There’s a terribly chi chi store in Mayfair that likes to arrange them in vases, for which conceit you can add on an extra three quid.  And then when it comes to the cooking them, we seem to be impossibly wedded to boiling and effeteness, painstakingly dipping individual petals in hollandaise, until the precious heart has gone cold and clammy.

In Sicily, (and throughout Italy) on the other hand, they are ubiquitous from new year to easter (their season is earlier than our’s).  They are abundant and cheap, the markets pile them high and you buy carrier bags full of them for a few euros.  And there are different varieties and sizes; small elongated purple ones for braising, choke free varieties, swollen steel grey green spheres.  There is even a festival dedicated to artichokes in the village of Cerda, east of Palermo.  They are a delight of spring and central to the food of Easter festivities.

They are my favourite vegetable, unequivocally.  Even asparagus or freshly podded peas can’t compete.  Sweet and minerally, they also create a physical tingle on the tongue – almost as though temporarily anaesthetising it.  But equally, many people remain unimpressed.  The leaf tearing mundanity never compensated for by the merest mention of flesh from their bases, and then the itching powder nastiness of the choke that has to be dealt with before that stone cold heart.  This is why other recipes might convert, ones that don’t demand such investment of time for relatively little reward (if you don’t love artichokes as I do).

Unless you have the luck and finances to be able to shop at Borough Market, the only way most of us in Britain can guarantee enough artichokes to allow culinary frivolity is to grow our own.  As plants they can be ferociously temperamental weaklings, or verdant to the point of being rampantly intimidating.  When young, they can be mown down by slugs, drained of life by blackfly and succumb to trench foot in a cold and damp winter.  But, established clumps are an impressive thing, up to two metres of silvered, scrolling serrated leaves, topped with spiky, prehistoric flower buds, that, unpicked, explode into an imperial purple inflorescence of bee magnet. 

My experience has mostly been of the weaklings.  I have struggled to get them growing on the allotment.  It is exposed high on the side of a valley, and few make it through the winter.  I think the problem has been that I’ve been relying on bought, seed-raised plants.  Which I have discovered, are unreliable and widely variable in vigour and hardiness.  So, the best plan of action is to seek out a friendly fellow enthusiast who has a clump that has proven its worth in both longevity and productivity, and in the spring (March and April), take a cutting of the shoots that appear around the sides of the clump, leaf and root together.  These small clones will still need some love and devotion in their first year.  But good genes should kick in, and if raised in a fertile, sunny, well drained spot, kept free of strangling weeds, and protected with a winter mulch from the worst of the wet and cold, begin to reward in a couple of years with a reliable bounty of loveliness.

Back to the eating of them then.  This is a simple Roman, not Sicilian recipe.  It involves deep frying, which as you know I am very fond of, and salt (ditto).  The name is supposed to come from the time when Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a limited area of the city, and with space at a premium, fried their food on stoves. Artichokes were disdained by their Catholic neighbours, and so the dish, and its cooks conjoined. All a bit tenuous I know, but I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

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Carciofi alla guidia (Jewish artichokes)

Fill a fryer, or large, deep saucepan with oil 5-6cm deep and heat.  Olive is expensive, and this requires a profligate amount, so unless you’re determined to be authentic, a milder vegetable oil will be just fine, but make sure it’s clean, as old, well used oil can make the food taste bitter and burnt.

  

At this stage, you don’t want chip pan hot, so keep it on a low to medium heat.

Ideally, you want a variety of artichoke that is not spiny, and if all you have are very large and tough ones, they may need steaming beforehand, for maybe 10-15 minutes.

Leave the stem on your artichokes that they come with, taking off just a few millimetres at the base if they’re very dry.  You can also peel very large and stringy stems, just to make them a little more edible.  Trim off the very toughest outer petals and if they’re very prickly, take a sturdy knife and trim the tops off.  

Take your artichokes slide them into the oil.  If you get a ferocious and explosive sizzle, it’s too hot, so take them out and turn down the heat. The artichokes need to cook gently, poach almost, in their bath .  A steady stream of small bubbles is the desired effect, rather than Yellowstone hot spring.  This slow process penetrates through to the heart of the artichoke ensuring it’s cooked throughout.

After ten-fifteen minutes, remove them and let them cool and drain on kitchen paper.

Now it’s chip shop time.  Turn the heat up and open all the windows.

Take your cooled artichokes and splay the petals out to open up the flower.  If they contain an inedible choke, remove that now.  Turn them upside down, and press them down to flatten them out.

Wipe all the oil off your greasy hands, and generously season the splayed out bloom with salt, getting into all the nooks and crannies.

When the oil is hot enough (I have an old fashioned jam thermometer that handily has “Deep Fry” marked on it), return your artichokes to their doom.

This will only take a few minutes, between three and five.

The hotter, faster oil takes the cooked artichokes and turns them to a crisp thing that you can eat in its entirety, no faffing around breaking off individual petals, no overflowing bowls of detritus.  If you’re able to find, or grow them, I urge and implore you to try cooking them this way.

Cherries Forever!

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The cherries of July were tantalisingly slow to ripen.  This is the tree’s second year of cropping, after being rescued from the ‘dead and dying’ section of the garden centre.  It was neither, and now thrives in its new home, looking out over the leafy Rea Valley in the middle of Birmingham.  It thanks me for rescuing it with an annually increasing abundance of luxury.

The netting went on way back in April (as the local pigeons do not have the willpower to delay their gratification) and I’ve watched and worried as those small, green blobs, swamped by leaves, gradually swelled, and then suddenly reddened at the end of June; blushing, embarrassed by their weight gain.  Even then, I had to summon up more patience; lipstick scarlet deepened into a more luscious, 50s starlet crimson.  The wait was torture, I fretted in the small hours about determined birds and squirrels going on the rampage and stealing the lot.

But the day came.  I could wait no more.  In the middle of July, off came the nets, and out came the bowls as kilo after kilo of (I believe) the best cherries this side of Kent were stripped in one go to deliver the finest finger staining glut of the year.  We ate and ate cherries.  Warm and sweet from the tree they were without compare. I gave cherries to the neighbours.  I made jam. I made a quivering jelly. Still there were kilos of cherries.  This is where having a larder comes in handy, along with a network of Italians used to the joys and challenges of such abundance.  There is booze involved, and time, forgetfulness and, sometime in the future, the joy of rediscovered treasures.

This comes via a suggestion from Stefano of Italian Home Cooking, Carla Tomasi’s original adapted in Thane Prince’s Perfect Preserves.

700ml 40% vodka (that’s the stronger, more expensive stuff, but you’ll be left 50ml over for a couple of Vodka and tonics)

350g Perfectly ripe cherries

125g dried morello cherries

200g granulated sugar

Sterilise the container you’ll be using (kilner jars work, or any container that you can seal with an airtight lid).

Add all the ingredients to your container.

Shake it.

Put it somewhere dark and out of the way.

Forget about it for at least six weeks.

Now, add two generous tablespoons of maple syrup.

Shake it.

Your cherry vodka is now ready, but it will get better and better with age (although the cherries may bleed all their colour and begin to look like ghoulish pickled eyeballs straight out of Hammer Horror).  I recently found a two year old jar of figs that had had a similar treatment.  Two years ago, they were ‘ok’, but now, they induce rapture.  Sometimes, there is value and virtue in shoving things to the back of the shelf.

Drink the vodka as a liqueur, eat the cherries with ice cream, or in a grown ups’ trifle, but maybe, not til next year, or maybe even the next.

North & South

June 2019 is reminding me that I don’t live in Sicily.  I live in Birmingham.  High latitude, rain catching Birmingham.  This is turning into one of those summers where the temperature lingers around 20 degrees, and it rains, and it rains, and it rains.  This time last year we were about to leave for Alicudi and the embrace of Mediterranean heat: it was all geckos, seafood, swimming and unrelenting sun.  But even in Birmingham, the sun shone kindly, cherries ripened, oyster festivals were visited, grass withered.  But holidays and summer are delayed this year; instead there is rain and grey and depression. 

Britain offers some consolation in one of what the Sicilian calls ‘the northern fruit’; strawberries, bringing the first of the major battles with the local pigeons and squirrels.  Even in the gloom, still they ripen, needing only a few hints of blue sky to suddenly swell and blush to a deeply, sensual scarlet.

They are the most luxurious of fruits to grow. So extravagant in terms of space, maintenance and protection, offering a repayment of a fleeting two weeks of glut and gorging.  The downside of last year’s holiday in the sun meant that we missed the strawberries, they came and went in the time we were away.  I imagine they were incomparable last year, ripened to perfection by that mythically hot summer. 

It is a sadness that strawberries have now become ubiquitous and eternal.  The strawberries of shops are a poor and tortured thing, to the extent that so many people have forgotten, or worse, never tasted, the intensity of a freshly picked, perfume leaking free range strawberry; its intense blood redness is the difference between oil paints and crayons.

The downsides; to achieve fourteen days of life affirmation they need space to sprawl, and nets to ward off rapacious birds and mammals.  But even nets will be stomped on and nibbled through, so accept that some will be lost. Slugs and snails adore them too, so here you must decide which preventative measure (if any) your conscience will allow.  The plants, although easy to look after, don’t like to be disturbed too often, which means your strawberry patch can turn into a weed patch the moment you turn your head, but weeds can also hide some of the fruit from eagle-eyed pigeons.

I asked the Sicilian how they use strawberries at home, because I could only think of Italian gelato, granita and a little tart of custard and glazed alpine strawberries. You see punnets of these alpine berries for sale there – tiny, intense things (so, typically Sicilian), they call them Fragoline di bosco; strawberries of the forest.  But he drew a blank.  I asked another friend from Milan, and one from Rome, with a Sicilian partner – they too came up with the triumvirate, along with a Roman standard of strawberries, lemon juice and sugar.  So perhaps then, when he calls them ‘a northern fruit’, he’s right, perhaps they thrive in our dampness, our scudding leaden skies and disappointment of British summers; they exist to guarantee us wan northerners some unqualified joy during their constrained window.  

Last year I tried to bring back some of those strawberries of the forest, knowing that I would have missed my own fat Brummie versions.  But they didn’t travel well.  A delayed flight and three hours in the car from Stansted, turned them to mush and mould.  They were a reminder that of all the crops, the strawberries are the worst to be away for, there will be no other chances until next year.  They were also a reminder to make the most of the glut, to capture its essence in jams and ices, so that a spoonful can whisk you back to a moment when you were squatting, with stained fingers, searching for the stab of red beneath green, and loading up bowl after bowl with your rewards.

Strawberry and Lemon Granita (for 8-ish)

Granita in Sicily and Granita in the UK are different creatures.  Both should be intensely flavoured – the essence of their ingredients.  In Sicily they are fleeting and transient, melting to chilly cordial before your eyes in the summer heat.  They are a shot of their parts, like a fruit espresso (or in the case of coffee granita, an actual espresso), refreshing and restorative.  In the UK, particular in this summer, they retain their form for longer, but rarely is there heat strong enough to demand granita. In the heat of Sicily granita invokes an emotional as well as a physical response.  Save it for sunny, warm days.  It is too easy to catch a chill in this country and anyway, it works so much better when the air is a little sticky and the sun too hot, and you’re not in a grey British summer.

500g ripe as you can Strawberries

200g Sugar

Juice of one lemon

75ml (or less of water)

Remove any leaves from the strawberries, halve and cook them in a splash of water.  Once they’ve disintegrated, liquidise them.

Bring the water to the boil, then add the sugar and stir until it’s all dissolved.

Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Push the liquidised fruit through a very fine sieve – fine enough to take the seeds out, and then stir your strawberries into the sugar and water.  Finally add the lemon juice and stir.

Taste it.  It should be Type 2 Diabetes sweet, as frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature

Now chill the mixture for a few hours and then put it in a freezer in whatever container you plan to store it in.

If you were to use an ice cream maker her, you’d get a smooth sorbet.  Granita should be gritty and crystalline.

So every hour or so, take the container out of the freezer and scratch it with a fork, to get your icy grit.  One frozen, it’ll keep indefinitely, but I try to make small batches for almost immediateIMG_5784

Once it’s ready, serve it in tiny glasses, the camper the better.

Beans (Broad/Fave) and a quick dinner

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The first week of June and we’re on the cusp of Broad Bean season (Fave in Italy).  Mine are late this year, and will be a few weeks yet.  When they come though, the sheer abundance of broad beans ensures that there’s always a surplus and always a freezer drawer dedicated to them.  After the initial gluttonous rush of sweet, tiny proto fave around midsummer, there’s a year long supply of fatter, starchier siblings kept on ice.  Each has their merit.  The youngsters for their joie de vivre, the oldens for their persistence and reliability.  Keep them too long in the frost, and they start to lose their green zing, battered into submission by prolonged cold, so I try to remember to root out any hangers on from the previous spring before the next generation arrives.  These tough things need to be derobed to make them more enjoyable – scald them in hot water and then plunge into cold, this makes them easy to squeeze free from their leather jackets.  In small quantities, this isn’t too onerous, with the added fun of being mildly indecent when rogue beans squirt jets of water at you as they’re popped out of their skins.

As with everything, peak broad bean season here is several months after peak fava season in Sicily.  They are the first of many delayed gratifications you’ll experience when trying to grow a Sicilian kitchen on the wrong island.  Unless you’re outstandingly well located, organised, urban and sheltered, the broad beans won’t be making their first appearance this side of Canale della Manica until the latter half of May, at the earliest. The battle is now on. You will want to eat them at their smallest and sweetest before their skins turn tough and bitter.  They will want to fatten, coarsen and brazen it out – fighting for the next generation.  Catching them at their sweetest is one of the joys of vegetable garden in early summer, alongside with peas from the pod, your own woefully spoilt asparagus, and netted cherries thwarting the blackbirds.  They marry perfectly with peas, oil, mint or fennel.  There’s a lovely lunch of sharp cheese (salted ricotta perhaps), mixed in with mint, beans and peas to top toast.  Posh beans on toast.

But I am digressing – there is much to write and say about the joys of the broad bean in the first flush of its youth, but not here. Not today.  Maybe in a couple of weeks, when mine start to make an appearance.

Today is for that emptying the drawer period.  The time that comes before.

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This is a recipe that is an adaptation of a much grander (and more expensive) version, simple enough for a week night tea and good enough for showing off too.  It is excellent for the time when you’re winding down last year’s stores in preparation for the fast approaching glut of new things.  Despite this, it has an intensity of summer to it that belies the inelegant, back of the cupboard, bum in the air search for those need to be used up ingredients.  Oily fish and tangy sweet acid tomato, fresh medicinal aniseed and the resolute health giving greenness of the beans.  Four essential flavours that, for me, work perfectly.  It’s a pasta dish, so don’t strive for impossible and instagram worthy beauty, rather pile it up, rolling with steam and dive eagerly in.

Tonno, finocchieto e fave

(For two, as a light meal)

One tin of tuna in olive oil

300 ml passata

2 tsp fennel seed

One bay leaf

Bunch wild fennel fronds

100g broad beans

2 cloves garlic

1 Onion

1 stick celery

150-200g Linguine (depending on appetites)

Start by chopping the onion and celery, as finely as you can, as though for a sofritto

Fry them with the fennel seeds (without colouring) in olive oil, and then add the garlic and bay leaf.

If you need to skin your broad beans, do this whilst your waiting for the vegetables to cook.

When they’re done, add the passata, plus the same amount of water, bring it up to a simmer, and then add your tuna, breaking it into loose chunks.  The better the tuna, the chunkier it will remain.  

Also add your broad beans, a handful for each person. You can keep this sauce cooking on the lowest of heats, reducing (but not even simmering) until you’re ready to serve, but watch that it doesn’t reduce too much.  It needs to stay saucy.

Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat, get  your pasta water boiling and then salted.  

Chop your wild fennel and add to the sauce.

Cook your linguine for 6-7 minutes and just before it’s done, turn the heat up under the sauce.

Drain the pasta, throw it into the sauce, with a splash of pasta water and mix everything with abandon until the pasta is coated with sticky, oily sauce and dotted through with vivid beans and chunks of tuna.

Eat (it goes very well with a bone dry cider).

Discovering Frittelle

 

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A random patch of white flowered borage has appeared in the middle of a path on the allotment.  Somehow it grew through the winter, whilst I wasn’t paying attention, and I’ve let it stay put. It’s easy enough to step over, and it and I have more pressing, more pernicious pop ups to deal with.

Like so many randomly self-placed plants, it is abundantly happy in its chosen path hogging position.  So much so, that now, before even the end of May, it is covered in flowers which are doing their best come hither looks for every bee in Moseley.  And not just the domesticated honeybees that live at the heart of the allotments, but countless feral, less biddable bees of varying sizes, shimmers and fuzzyness.  Bees make me happy.  Another reason the patch can stay.  I shall always be a tree hugging hippy at heart.

Borage is a herb.  I know that.  It says so in the herbs section of my RHS encyclopedia.  There are suggestions  for using its flowers as a garnish in a Pimms (it looks like drain water said a non Anglophile friend of the Sicilian’s) or be frozen in icecubes (11 on the scale of Camp 1 to 10).  Is that it?  I think this is stretching the definition of herb somewhat.  So, maybe, if it gets hot and I remember to pick some flowers, I’ll stretch a culinary use from my impromptu patch.  But otherwise I have no other plans for it.

The bees had other ideas though.  I was crouching in the soil, planting out borlotti beans next to the borage.  I snapped a quick video of the bees at work, pinged it to instagram and carried on with my Tom Good impersonation.  I am no influencer; my followers are mostly other food people, friends of mine or the Sicilian’s, a few writers and a vascillating personal trainer who manages to follow and unfollow at least three times a week. Perhaps he finds the pictures of Italian cakes and pasta simultaneously too distressing and tempting for his never ending carb free/paleo existence.  But amongst them is the wonderful Stefano, of ItalianHomeCooking, who jumps in with a suggestion for taking the leaves of my bee-friendly borage, dipping them in batter and deep frying them.  I’m learning that this deep frying thing is a wider art in Italy than in the UK perhaps.  There is a fondness and love of the process that goes way beyond our cod and chips, or mars bars (see arancine, Jewish artichokes, canolli and on and on)  But I was a virgin up until this point for the battered frittelle version of things.  Now I’m hooked.  I can feel a rush of deep frying approaching.  Stefano has suggested opening a frying joint – I am decidedly tempted.

When to eat frittelle?  Well, I ate the lot, in the kitchen, standing up at the counter. They were so good that burnt fingers and mouth were minor discomforts.  The batter of flour, soda water and seasoning is effortless – seconds in the making.  The leaves of the borage, which seem so unpromising, clad in stiff, skin pricking hairs not suggested delicacy or digestibility.  But the marriage of leaves, coated in batter, fried in hot, hot olive oil until golden…just another of those Italian marriage of simplicity. It’s a way of getting some of your five a day whilst cocking a snoot to  healthy eating.  The leaves lose all their unfriendliness and faint inside the crispy cheesy batter into almost a paste of green freshness.  Despite the parmesan, the flavours are not strong so much as physical sensations; the crunch, the melt, the heat, the desire for more.

I think the rule goes that if you can batter it, you can frittelle it.  I’m a novice here though, so a lot more experimentation and frying is needed.  I shall be forced to undergo more burnt fingers, more stand up in the kitchen dinners. The prospect of this does not, however, distress me.

 

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Frittelle di Borragine

12- 16 medium sized borage leaves (make sure they’re clean, and from the edible borage plant, not one of it’s inedible cousins)

100g 00 flour

25g Grated parmesan

Fresh black pepper

100-125 ml Soda water

Olive oil

MIx flour, cheese and ground pepper with the soda water to create the batter, it should be a thick – strong enough to cling to the leaves, without running off.  Don’t add all the water at once, it’s easier to thin a batter down than to thicken it up.  Whisk until there are no lumps.  If you have a soda fountain, this adds to the fun and theatre, which makes these great for inquisitive young cooks

Heat your oil to deep frying temperature in large high sided saucepan or a deep fryer if you have one.

Dip the individual leaves into the batter and then fry, a few at a time, until cliched golden brown.

Drain onto kitchen roll, and eat them piping hot, ideally outside, with cold beer.

There are all sorts of different recipes out there – that add anchovies, or mozzarella, or use beer instead of water.  But I think starting simple and then building up the complexity is the way for me to go – discovering an extravagant menu of frittelle as I go.

Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines

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The clue here is the name.  Wild.  Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs.  If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles.  My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento.  There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel. 

But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall.  Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring.  Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food.  Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities.  And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential. 

The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes.  An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb.  And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved.  A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing.  They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else.  Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting.  Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.  

As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep  tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air.  Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back.  All energy is diverted to height and flowers.  So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.

There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food.  It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff.  And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime.  Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta.  This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day.  The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and  tricky to eat.  It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility.  But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.

Pasta con le Sarde (for four)

Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)

Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)

25g Pine nuts (toasted)

25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)

25g Chopped almond flakes

75ml Olive oil

Breadcrumbs

4 Anchovies

450g Bucatini

Saffron

Onion

Garlic.

If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out.  If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you

Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes.  Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).

If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest.  Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).

Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.

Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside.  Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.

Continue reading “Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines”