Frying Tonight!

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Why would you cook street food at home?

I don’t mean the street food of a thousand dank food festivals; waffles covered in artery clogging cream and salted caramel, or the piece of meat so pulled that it is all but impossible to answer ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’  I mean the stuff that world over, has been created to be eaten on the hoof, as a ready meal to take to work, and above all, to be cooked in the open air, or at the very least, in a non-domestic setting.  Remember the childhood stigma suffered by the kid that lived above the chippy?  Street food is pungent and clingy.

Homesickness and loss are two reasons to cook it at home, because ‘real’ street food is inherently bound to its place of origin, it can both define and be defined by this.  It is the taste of childhood, normality, home. It reeks of identity.  More pragmatically though, you need open windows, a stiff through breeze,  and the extractor fan to be working at full pelt, without those three preconditions being met, then there is no reason good enough to justify breaking out the deep fat fryer to make Arancine, no matter how wistful your Sicilian other half has become.

Arancine (female) if you’re from Palermo, arancini (male) if you’re from Catania.  And it’s ‘arancheeneh’, NOT ‘arancheeneee’, which I still say every time, to the exasperation of the resident Sicilian and the amusement of my more tolerant Italian teacher (although her patience runs out over my inability to roll my ‘r’s).  For me, the feminine ‘Arancine’ seems right, as they’re supposed to look like oranges (Arance), hence, little oranges (arancine).  Forgive the Italian 101.  This seems to me like common sense, and I’m loyal to my Palermitan.

These are piping hot balls of deep fried rice, surrounding a parcel of (traditionally) either ragù, with peas, or mozzarella and ham.  Dainty, they are not.  The rice has a familiar taste, incongruously rice pudding like (perhaps this is why so many British friends wrinkle their noses at the mention of arancine).  There’s a cafe/bar attached to the Teatro Biondo in Palermo, just round the corner from the tourist hot spot of Quattro Canti. There, you can buy arancine the size of baby’s head, for breakfast.  They sit alongside an alternate riotous excess of cannoli, Genovasi, brioche, countless fruit tarts, marzipan fruits, gelato, more gelato. That Sicilians are not all the size of a house, is astounding.

But the best I have so far eaten was in a tiny backstreet place in Taormina, the cliche of an Italian hill town, with added Etna and Grecian ampitheatre.  Its east coast position places it firmly in the Catania school when it comes to the name, and therefore, you buy ‘Arancini’.  These were through the monumental arch, past the church, past the tourists and past all the street sellers of belts, whirling fluorescent toys, and hair braids.  You had to duck past a fancier restaurant where Americans were sipping monstrously expensive Spritz from branded balloon glasses.  I loved Taormina, I loved all its overt tourist fleecing brashness.  I loved that the Duomo has a black Madonna, painted by God Himself, and wrapped in millennia of silver.  And then, these arancini.

 

The bar is basic, and busy, it reminded me of the chip shop round the corner at home, where queues form early and, in a flight of true Brummie romanticism, are longest on Valentine’s Day.  Similarly, at the cafe in Taormina you queue and you wait under a glaring fluorescent light; there’s a chest high glass display cabinet, which also acts as the counter where you place your order.  I half remember that in there were other offerings, (although none as grand as those in the theatre cafe in Palermo).  But we were here for our little oranges, recommended as the best by Marco, the friend who we were staying with down the hill in less glitzy, less rapacious Naxos.

These arancini need to be assembled and fried to order; the sticky, cold risotto rice, stained gold by saffron, is moulded into a palm shaped cup to hold the filling (we had one ragù and one mozzarella).  Then the rice is formed over to encase its hidden depths.  And this being the east coast, the shape is that of a rounded cone, rather than the sphere of Palermo.  Finally, your dinner is dipped in egg yolk, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried in olive oil until the colour of toasted coconut tobacco (I’m showing my age).

The whole thing only takes ten minutes, so you grab a stool in the alley outside, awaiting your turn, with a beer.  Mostly Italians, or rather, mostly Sicilians, are at the few other tables and stools, or sitting on steps and in doorways.  There’s a homeless guy with his hopeful dog in tow.  They’re looking for the rare tourists who’ve gone off-Baedekar and stumbled down here to bite off more than they can chew. Or, more realistically, for the more charitable locals who know them by name and will perhaps buy them both an arancino and him a beer.  This is in no way an idyll, but it is more human and humane than the coach tour feel of the main streets.  The smell is of hot oil and humidity, there are discarded Styrofoam cartons and empty plastic tumblers of dying froth, waiting to be cleared by an overworked, although largely absent teenager.  The street is wet, but it hasn’t rained in weeks.

With your fingers you break open your ball of scalding, sticky rice to an eruption of musty saffron; the filling is viscous and dangerous, but even in the dark, suffocating, summer evening heat of Sicily, the whole thing demands urgent attention. The suddenly discovered ragù, simmered and honed for hours, smacks you in the face.  It is outrageously confident, shouting ‘I am meat! I am peas! I am sauce!  Eat me!’  In contrast the mozzarella version is, if not more demur, then more subtle, sinful in its richness, smokily infused by the ham – the Fenella Fielding of arancini.  Cold beer in hand to sooth a burnt mouth, inadequate, Lilliputian napkins half catching the leaking oil and oozing cheese, these are a thing to be eaten greedily and shamelessly.  There is gluttony here. This is street food.

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Snails as bar snacks

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The first time I learnt how to cook snails, it was purely theoretical. I was in my early 20s, in Provence, in June. Everywhere you looked in the sun dried landscape, the bleached shells of snails clung to stems of desiccated weeds, looking totally incongruous to a northern European eye.  I was used to snails which roamed with gay abandon for most of the year, unconcerned by our weak Summer sun, sliming at will, rain or shine, plundering the best efforts of every suburban gardener.  But here, in this small village outside Aix, these snails seem to have been caught unawares by spring –  forced to hunker down in situ and wait for far off autumn.  This lack of foresight, apparently, made them easy pickings – literally.  So, first, catch your snail, that, let’s face it, is the easy part.

Now comes the prep.  The problem with foraged food, is that you’ve no idea where it’s been, or what it’s been eating.  It would be so much easier if snails only snacked on choice herbs – delicate thymes and fennel perhaps? But they’re not so obliging, so they need a purge.  You take your gathered snails and dump them into the sink.  Fill the sink with water, and leave overnight.  This trick has two outcomes.  When you come back to the kitchen in the morning – the first task is to look in the sink, and remove any dead snails.  A bit like shellfish, if they don’t make it through the ‘are they alive’ test, then you don’t want to be eating them.

Next, gather all the living snails.  Their dunking will have cleansed them of any undesirable leftovers, and they’ll have proved their vigour by helpfully escaping all over the kitchen – up the walls, on the ceiling – you name it.  Now, I can’t help feeling that this method is fundamentally flawed.  But the French matriarch who passed on her snail-based wisdom was adamant that this process was the only way.  So who was I to argue?

And then onto the escargot – cooked in butter and garlic – your snails are transformed into the infamous delicacy of a thousand caricatures.  And here’s the thing. They’re not much of a delicacy, more an oversized chunk of garlicky protein.  I’ve had them from a jar; in a fancy restaurant in Lilles; freshly prepared near Poitiers, and I just don’t get escargot.  They’re not unpleasant, but then neither are they a thing of wonder unleashing some sort of Proustian rapture

But then I discovered snails again, in Sicily.  Here they are very much a humble food, served in summer – a bar snack to be eaten with cold beer.  Or you can buy nets of them at the market, to take home and prepare yourself.

These southern, Mediterranean snails are an entirely different kettle of fish.  Much like a lot of Sicilians, these snails are tiny, the size of winkles, rather than the great lumpen molluscs associated with escargot.  But they have that same sun-bleached look of those long ago Provencal ones.

Prepping has its similarities too, but with a far more practical modus operandi.  Big pot, filled with water and with a rim of salt just above the surface.  Dunk the snails, which, being sensible creatures will attempt to climb out of the water, to avoid death by drowning.  However, when they encounter the salt, they are forced to retreat to a watery demise.  And the benefit of this method is that they die with their heads and necks extended, making eating much easier.

And the preparation is easy too: white wine, whole garlic cloves, parsley and then steam them in this liquor for a few minutes.  Or you can go to one of those street vendors in a rough part of Palermo where they cook up a vat of the things around arpertivo.  And then buy beer from the bar opposite and eat messily and noisily – sucking the little gems out of the shell, with their juices.  They are sweet and moist and slip down a treat.  You’ll be surrounded by mildly terrifying old men, possessing teeth in various states of decay.  The conversation will routinely be drowned out by vespas whizzing past.  And as is the norm in Sicily, most of the talk will be of the place you had the best snails, where you’re going to get the next snails, and what to have for dinner tonight, tomorrow and next week.