Take an axe and a Squash….

I grow squashes, a lot of them.  Even though I know that I’ll end up giving most of them away.  Even though there isn’t room in the larder for the annual haul.  Even though I don’t really like them.  I grow them because they unfailingly instil a giddy school boy wonder in me.  How can nature be this bountiful? A plant that is joyously productive and whose fruit will sit for months on end without even blemishing.  I still have bags of steamed squash in the freezer from two years ago. Actually, make that three.  This plant is the botanical version of the Magic Porridge Pot


When growing, they need space, food, water and warmth – all in vast amounts. If they get these, they are rampant, obscenely so. This is another reason I grow them, because my allotment is way too big for me to cope with, I grow things that’ll obscure the weeds from the allotment police. And I’ve never been adverse to a bit of obscenity.

But, my God, whilst they may be stupidly fecund and pleasing on the allotment, they’re boring in the kitchen.  I know people who rhapsodise about their ‘nutty flavours’ that intensify with storage, their versatility, their betacarotenes.  But essentially, they are just orange starch.  This is, I’m sure, why they have such a mythic status in East Coast American culture, all those early Puritans must have known they were in God’s promised land when they discovered a food so prolific, so sustaining and yet so, so dull.  Take pumpkin pie: packed with sugar, spice, evaporated milk: throw enough flavour at anything orange and it’s bound to stick.  Or any recipe for soup that involves a squash; first add generous amounts of garlic/ginger/smoked paprika.  Squashes exist to carry flavour, not to impart it.  They are the Typhoid Mary of the vegetable patch, without the blessed relief of typhoid. 

However, there is one thing that I adore about them; often you need an axe to break into them.  And there are precious few things that you’re allowed to legally attack with an axe

So here I am with my mind all set on the blandness of squashes.  And then the Sicilian comes along and does his trick of taking a few ordinary ingredients and giving the damn things a culinary ascension.  It’s a risotto, that you eat in autumn and winter (or year round if you’ve got three-year old frozen squash), it’s delicious and simple and comforting and easy.  There are all sorts of recipes out there that add sage, or bacon, or mushrooms, or saffron, or chestnuts. It doesn’t need any of them, just rice, squash, onion, some white wine, stock and cheese. And it’s bloody brilliant!

Risotto for four

Around half a kilo of winter squash or pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded (hang on to the seeds – I’ll explain later) and grated (or you can use the same amount of presteamed).

300-400g risotto rice (depending on how healthy your appetites are)

One large onion, finely chopped (if you want you can add garlic too, but it’s not essential)

50g butter

About a third of a small smoked scamorza

Parmesan – amount is up to you – but around 25-50 grams 

A glug of white wine (not vermouth, the flavour is too overwhelming)

At least a litre of cooking liquid (the Sicilian prefers water, so as not to overwhelm the delicate squashiness of the dish, but you can use a veg stock if you prefer).

Start by melting half the butter in a deep frying pan and then add the rice. Stirring it so that all the grains are coated.  You then want to cook this so that the rice becomes slightly toasted; not like burnt toast – more like sugar puffs.  This is where you get the nuttiness into the risotto, believe me, not from the squash.When you’ve reached your desired level of toastiness, put the rice into a bowl, for the time being.

Lightly fry the onion (you don’t want to brown it) in the remainder of the butter before adding your squash.  Heat it through and then add the wine.  There will be a whoosh of boozy steam which will make you feel like you’re a proper cook.

This bit will take some time: essentially, you want to break down the individual cells of the squash, so that it becomes a smooth paste.  If you’re using steamed squash it’s much easier.  Keeping cooking and stirring the onions and squash until you get to that paste consistency – add a little stock if necessary, to keep it wet.

Once you’re there, add your toasted rice back into the pan and the grated scamorza, along with more stock – about a third of it at first.  Bring it up to a simmer, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking on the bottom.  When most of this first lot of stock has been absorbed by the swelling rice, gradually add more in dribs and drabs until the rice is cooked how you like it (I prefer a bit of bite).  You’re aiming for something the consistency of warm rice pudding – so don’t add all the remaining stock at once, as you may not need it.

Then turn off the heat,  get a big wedge of parmesan, grate enough to indicate that it’s about to go out of fashion and stir into your risotto, leave it to melt for a couple of minutes.  Add loads of black pepper. Serve

There is magic at work in this dish.  It is smooth, unctuous, subtle and comforting. It will make any day better.

Oh, and remember those seeds….

Wash any pulp off them and then soak for a few hours in a brine as strong as the Dead Sea.

Drain, throw them into a baking tray and scatter with sea salt.  Dry roast them in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes.  These make a brilliant snack with a martini (more of which another time).  Treat them like a mini-pistachio.


Pasta coi tenerumi

This is, in the words of the great Laurie Colwin, ‘a snap’. Which means it’s easy to make and tastes sublime. If you haven’t read her, read her.

Tenerumi are the leaves from a particular variety of summer squash, the Tomboncino, a big old rambling thing that produces comedic, elongated fruit,   Along with this Carry On veg, it also produces an awful lot of leaves, which taste great.   Just four ingredients and seasoning go into this dish; no stock, no herbs, but my Lord it’s good!

The only difficulty about this soup is getting your hands on the tenerumi.  So I grow my own plants, which makes it a proper seasonal dish, and all the better for that.  Treat them like a courgette on steroids, and you cannot go wrong.


In Palermo you eat this in high summer, when you can buy carrier bags of the leaves in Ballero and it’s 40 degrees outside.  Because what you need when it’s 40 degrees outside is a steaming bowl of hot soup and pasta.  In Birmingham, it’s more likely to be September and more clement when you get to pick your leaves, but it’s still good, none the less. The Sicilian also adds a load of tabasco for added heat, but that’s purely optional.  


One carrier bag of squash shoots.


6 large tomatoes (skinned and chopped)

100g of spaghetti

Take the shoots and strip off the leaves, then coarsely chop them (you don’t want any stems, but any baby squashes can go into the pot).  Set aside.

Take two or three cloves of garlic and add to a frying pan with some cold olive oil.  Heat this up until the garlic starts to brown and then add six large, skinned and chopped tomatoes, add some water to thin them down and then cook back down to a coarse paste (about 10 minutes).

Get two-three litres of water boiling, add plenty of salt and then add your tenerumi.  After a few minutes, add half the tomato paste and the spaghetti broken up into short (2-3cm) pieces.  As ever, the pasta shouldn’t be over cooked – the packet usually overestimates, so try knocking a minute of the timing.  Just before serving, add the remainder of the tomatoes and a glug of olive oil

Eat greedily (you will want seconds).

Fumetto di Pesce

fantastic stock for a mesmerising fish stew…..

Fish stews have a bad rap.  Overly romanticised and complicated – good old Elizabeth David goes as far as saying there’s no point even making a bouillabaisse outside of the mediterranean.  Well, maybe back in the 50s, that was the case, but I think that you can be a little less risk averse these days.  Boullaibaise is, of course, the show off in the room, but the principles of a good fish stew are the same (whatever you call it): get the stock right, give it time, choose the ingredients carefully, and get the best and freshest fish that you can.  In Italian, Fumetto is the stock that is the base of your fish stew. It also means a comic book, I’ve no idea why the word has two such disparate meanings – if you can enlighten me, you’d make me a happy man.

A good fish stew is improved by variety  If your choice of fish is limited to farmed seabass and salmon, prevacupacked in a warehouse-slash-distribution centre, then you’re going to be a tad stuck.  But if you’ve access to a decent fishmonger, or better still, a fish market – then you’re in luck. Ideally, you want a mix of white, oily and fatty fish – and as a rough rule of thumb, a different variety for each person you’re cooking for – so six people, six types of fish (but don’t get too hung up on this).  The Bullring, in my hometown of Birmingham, has fantastic fish stalls, so I can usually take my pick from red and grey mullet, cod, bass, Conger eel, monkfish, mackerel, and a whole range of fish from less familiar seas.  The rule is though – check that your fish has been caught sustainably.  Have a look at the Marine Conservation Society’s website if you’re not sure

So, to the Fumetto

First tip – if you eat shellfish, particularly prawns or langoustines, then save the shells and heads and freeze them for the next time you’re making a stock.

Whatever fish you decide on, ask for the heads when the fishmonger cleans them for you.  Equally, any trimmings should be retained. Gruesome I know, but it’s all about the flavour.

And now you’re ready to begin…


Sweat some standard veg in a decent sized (anything over 5 litres) pot – chopped onions, celery, carrot in your oil of preference (if you’re going Mediterranean, then good extra virgin olive is the default). Don’t have the temperature too high (you don’t want the veg to colour), and keep a tight lid on things when you’re not stirring, the steam from the veg helps to soften and cook them.  After five or ten minutes of sweating, add your fish heads and prawn shells (if you have then).  Throw in a slug of booze – white wine or pastis are both good.  Ramp up the heat for a couple of minutes and add water – enough to fill the pot to within 5cm of the top and then leave to simmer as gently as possible, for as long as possible.  If the Sicilian is around, he’ll inevitably fish out the heads and strip them clean – they are, apparently, delicious.  I have yet to discover the verve to test this opinion!

I try to make this stock the day before, so as soon as you get back from the shops with the fish, get it on the go and stick your fish in the fridge.  Alternatively, you can have a premade stock in the freezer, and then replace it with a fresh batch made from this load of fish heads for the next time.

From fumetto to stew

When you’re ready to start the stew, get your Fumetto on the hob – a nice gentle boil and add a good pinch of saffron. Now you can add any vegetables you choose – potatoes, sliced fennel, anything that won’t break down into a mush, and leave to simmer until they’re almost cooked. There will be somewhere written down what vegetables must and must never be used,  but, as ever, go with what you like, not with what you’re told.

Meanwhile, prepare your fish.  Remove any scales that are still clinging on, clean and bone as required and then separate your fish according to their cooking time – oily and cartilaginous fish will take slightly longer to cook than white fish, such as cod.  Add the first fish, and then five minutes later add the white fish and any shellfish you’re including, as these will need to least cooking time.  At the last minute, throw in some chopped parsley and serve.  

I’m a big fan of serving this with a rouille, which is a French way.  A rouille is a garlic mayonnaise spiced with paprika,  the garlicky heat goes brilliantly with the delicate richness of the soup.  It’s easy if you’ve got a mixer, start with two egg yolks and then drizzle in olive oil on a high speed, add crushed garlic (it’s your call here as to how much) and half a teaspoon of paprika, salt and pepper.  You can dollop straight into the stew/soup or be more dainty and spread into over bread.  Again, the choice is yours.



It seems that, if you’ve calves of steel, the lungs to match and a can-do attitude reminiscent of a minor Waugh novel, then paradise can still be found. Your best bet in getting there is to ignore any  timetable that assures you there is a ferry from Palermo and to head for one of the smaller ports, for whom such trivialities as passengers are important.  The ferry from Palermo has a tendency to be cancelled a few hours before departure, which is unhelpful, because they wait until it is too late to make alternative arrangements.  It is even more unhelpful when you discover that it wasn’t cancelled, but ran as normal, only, presumably, unburdened of troublesome luggage-laden yahoos.  But this is Sicily, it kind of goes with the territory. Head instead for Millazo, or Messina.  Less glamorous, yes, but at least you stand a chance of getting to paradise.

And then you arrive.  An unprepossessing dock, part building site, part dock.  Sicily again – they’re enlarging the dock, however they’re at an impasse – to finish the work, more materials are needed, particular materials that need a bigger boat to deliver them.  But the boat cannot come because the dock is too small.   But it will be sorted, somehow, one day.

Now, get ready for the calves of steel.  Your house will be an idyll, with astonishing views from your terrace across to mainland Sicily, with Etna in the distance; turn your head just a few degrees, and the other Aeolian islands are strung out before you – Filicudi, Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, and Stromboli (if you squint), smouldering in the distance. It is a landscape of mythology.  This house will also be several hundred vertiginous steps up the side of the extinct volcano.  Yes, a donkey will take your luggage (ignore the time they give you though, remember, you’re in Sicily now), but you do have to do the climb, too. There is a shop in the harbour run by Carlo, a rare blue-eyed Italian in this part of the world.  He’s not going to beat Aldi or Lidl in the value for money stakes, but let’s face it, any man that stocks Cynar on an island of fifty inhabitants gets my vote.  There is a reason that he stocks water by the crate and prominently sells wine by the box.  Buy your groceries in bulk and let the donkey do the heavy work – believe me, once you’re in for the evening, set for a G&T – you will not be ‘nipping out to the shops’ if you’ve forgotten anything.  Even if it’s the T.

But once you’re ‘home’ get ready to unpack that can-do spirit.  With a two ring hob hidden away in an old bread oven, the game is on to turn the courgette that you were given by Simone on the way up into dinner, with some pasta perhaps, some parmesan, garlic and oil (olive of course).  You’ve never met Simone before, but it seems that courgette growers are the same the world over – always desperate to off load their courgettes onto total strangers.

Begin by frying a crushed, whole garlic clove.  Put it into the pan with cold oil and bring them up to heat.  Once it browns, take the clove out and put it aside.  Now fry your sliced courgette until both sides are the colour of the forearms of the guy who owns the donkey that brought your luggage up.  This will take a lot longer than you expect.  But that’s fine.  An orange full moon will be rising into the sky behind Etna, your amour will point out all the stars that form Scorpio, and you will have resorted to G&. Because you didn’t believe the bit about not wanting to nip to the shop for some more T.  As the household gecko emerges to snack on the moths drawn to the light above the dinner table on the terrace, it will all start to feel a bit Gerald Durrell, childhood dreams can come true.

Cook the pasta – the usual way, for less time than it says on the packet and with enough salt in the water to make your blood pressure rocket to the heights of Scorpio (it’s ok, all those steps have already made you fitter than when you arrived).  Drain, keep some of the cooking water back and throw the pasta and two or three of the courgette slices (mashed up) into the frying pan you cooked the courgette in.  Toss, to get the oil all the way through, add parmesan and dress with the courgette slices.  Eat, under aforementioned full moon, and be glad that you’ve moved on from the G& to the wine box you wisely invested in.

Tomorrow, you can bathe in the bluest waters you’ve seen, or climb to the summit of the extinct volcano, gathering wild capers and fennel along the way (should you be feeling particularly Saturday Guardian) and see more butterflies in two hours than you’ve seen in a decade in the UK, fat emerald lizards, furtive jet-black snakes that vanish as soon as you see them, moths like hummingbirds and perhaps a praying mantis skulking amongst the artemisia.  My 21st century phone told me that it was 118 storeys, my calves of less -than-steel, had a hissy fit, but my inner Famous 5, 12 years old alter ego was having the time of his life. 

For dinner,  you can eat seafood by the sea (raw prawns full of electric blue eggs, octopus, swordfish).  Or you can let the amour rustle something up with aubergines and pasta in the converted bread oven cum kitchen  Or pop down the hill to visit Simone (on Alicudi, people open up their homes as restaurants, and not in a pop-up kind of a way).  By now you’re waiting for the catch – surely there’s a catch?

And of course, there it is, niggling away somewhere, that upon your return, you’ll be hauled over the coals for something at work, the dogs will expect you to segue seamlessly back into their usual early morning walking routine, and the hedge you didn’t cut before you left will have grown rampantly.

So, have a return plan, and maybe next time, you’ll come back for longer – you’ll get up earlier so that you can buy fresh fish from the dock, be a bit fitter, so that you can climb the volcano without worrying that you might be the prime age for a heart attack, stock up on aperol, campari and cynar, as rewards for the climb, persuade a few more friends to join you, and for two or three weeks next year, you’ll relive the dream.

Watermelon not-jelly for hot summer days


Gelo di melone

I still get the shivers thinking about the food of my 70s British childhood.  Knowing now that the entire country (apart from Margot and Gerry Leadbetter) was skint,  doesn’t take the edge off some of the horrors that found their way out of our suburban kitchen and onto the dining room table.  None of this was helped either by my mother’s self-confessed inability to cook.  So there was lots of grilled liver, boiled mince and beef cuts that may as well have been cow hide.  Puddings at least offered some form of respite, mum could throw together a decent crumble or rice pudding, and there was always the rare decadence of a butterscotch angel delight.  Some days though, the fates would conspire against me, and pudding would be a milk jelly a lesson in how ruin a perfectly good thing

Milk jelly:


Jelly (any flavour), Milk (a pint)

Dissolve the jelly in some hot water.  Add milk.  Leave to set. Regret

So why start reminiscing about rogue puddings, when I’m supposed to be talking about a melon jelly?

Well, it’s because, when first described to me, I had a panic attack flash back to my childhood and visions of that bowl of cloudy blandness.  A wonderful jelly ruined by good intentions.

Gelo di melone is a set jelly made from watermelon. Its similarity to milk jelly ends there. For one, it’s not a jelly. There is no gelatine, the effect is obtained by cornflour.  It’s a cloudy blush red,  with added chocolate and pistachios.  It is delicate, grown-up, reserved for the hottest of hot days in July and August.   You can buy it in little plastic cups from Pasticceria Cappello on Via Colonna Rotta in Palermo, or you can make it yourself, which is probably easier for non-Palermitans.


One small watermelon (you’re aiming for around a litre of juice)

100g caster sugar

Cinnamon stick

75-100g cornflour

Jasmine flowers

Chopped pistachios

Chopped dark chocolate

Take your water melon, peel and blitz it. Don’t worry about the seeds, you sieve the pulp to get the juice.

Now add the sugar

If you’re feeling very romantic, you can make a chain of Jasmine flowers by threading them onto cotton and add them (or use a small hint of jasmine essence, if you’re feeling less prosaic).

Now add the cornflour, premixed into a paste with a little of the juice.  

Put the pan on the hob on a medium heat and start to cook – stirring, stirring, stirring.

Don’t stop stirring and don’t let anything stick to the bottom of the pan.

Alchemy happens – suddenly, in a few short seconds, the whole thing will condense into a thick, opaque,  sputtering, camp essence of pinkness.  

Cook for a little longer. Don’t stop stirring.

Decant into your chosen serving dishes (individual little glasses work well) and leave to cool.  

It’ll set slowly into a firm wobbly not-jelly.

Just before you serve it sprinkle chopped dark chocolate (it’s supposed to resemble the seeds that you sieved out earlier) and green pistachio nibs (because it’s Sicilian, and pistachios are ubiquitous).  No one you give this to is likely to have ever tasted anything like it in their lives, they will thank you profusely.

Snails as bar snacks


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.

Quinces, Cotognata and Gin

There’s a short period in the autumn, usually a few weeks in October,  when you can buy quinces in the UK.  I’ve never seen them in a supermarket, so you might have to hunt them out – or plant your own tree.  Before Farmers’ Markets caught on, I’d make an annual pilgrimage with a friend to the corner of a rural garden centre, where someone had thoughtfully planted one, and where it fruited reliably and with forgotten abundance.

And they’re a tricky thing.  Yes they come with a heady perfume that will fill the kitchen when you first get them home.  And they have that slighty disconcerting ‘fur’ which rubs off when you stroke them, a characteristic only found in British quinces apparently – coats to survive our notorious summers perhaps? But my God, they’re tough – hard as nails and prone to grittiness.

Perhaps this explains why they have fallen out of favour here.  There’s a lot of effort involved when it comes to quinces.

But, boy are they worth it.  There are recipes for poaching them and baking them – but perhaps the most famous and widespread use of them is for a form of thick set Jam – what we’d call Quince Cheese, here in the UK. In Spain its membrillo, France has its pate di coing and Sicily trumps the lot with its Cotognata.

The recipes are much the same wherever you go – equal weights of quinces to sugar, stewed and sieved and then cooked down with lemon juice to a scalding, burping, lava-like consistency the colour of an Anglo-Saxon garnet and so stuffed with pectin that the cooled paste sets into a hard jelly.


It’s a thing of joy – it keeps pretty much indefinitely and possesses a fantastic, palate-cleansing, perfumed tartness despite all the sugar. You can slice it and eat it with cheese, or cut it into lozenges and cover in sugar to create your own fruit pastilles. Yes, you can buy it, as with most things – but the process, giving over several hours to peeling, chopping, stewing and stirring, stirring – is surely part of the pleasure? The smell, the gradual chemistry unfolding as the colour intensifies to that deep pink-orangey-red, the commitment to not leave the cooker for a second in case it catches, the trophy burns as the mini volcanic eruptions spatter you with molten sugar.  These steps are as integral as the actual ingredients to the finished cheese/membrillo/cotognata.

So if you’re Sicilian how do you improve on this?  With added baroque of course.

In the backs of kitchen cupboards, often hijacked as ashtrays; or the flea market in Palermo down the hill from the Palatine, you can still find wonky, crudely formed, old molds – specifically for the making of cotognata.  When turned out, you discover that your quinces have been transformed into St Christopher, or the Sacred Heart, a nameless bishop or an angel in flight. It’s an idea of genius – and typical of Sicilian food, that you take something simple, mundane even, and elevate it with an almost effortless flourish.


And finally, the gin – an inherently British response to quinces.  I’ve been making this for years – so long that I can’t remember were I first saw the recipe.  I do remember that it was one of those years when the sloes failed, to the extent that people were writing to the papers looking for suggestions to fill the Sloe Gin void.  The process is identical.  Take your quince (chopped up, core, peel and all) add to gin, add sugar to taste (there’s no point giving an amount, as everyone is scattered along the line from syrup to near neat gin), leave it alone until at least Christmas, bar the occasional jiggle. Drink