Parmigiana, and official birthdays.

This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona.  Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style.  Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours.  So despite demurring and equivocating,  I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.

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My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham.  The entrances are out of the way and hidden.  You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids.  These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space.  They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation.  There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas.  There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds.  And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias.  Most importantly though, aside from all this controlled and shambolic verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety. 

I decided to do the food.  I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas.  I thought it a no brainer.  Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was the small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.  

But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day.  Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores.  Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).

It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event.  I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.

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If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma)  If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take.  You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.

It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots.  It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides.  Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella  When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.

Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day.  When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that  you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.

Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).

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There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts.  Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity.  It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,.  The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose.  Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.

  • 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
  • Olive oil (be generous)
  • 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
  • Fresh basil
  • 100g Parmesan, grated
  • Black pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 litre passata
  • Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).

Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices.  They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture.  You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.

Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown.  Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.

Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking. 

Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan,  black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything.  Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.

Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.

Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)

Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally.  And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.

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Pasta alla Trapanese

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Summer is struggling.  There are rumours that it will make a break for it later this week and hit 30 degrees.  But today is ‘muggy’ (try saying that with a Brummie accent, the Sicilian finds it comedy gold), windy, cloudy.  A good day to dry your washing, but definitely not a day that could pass for Mediterranean.  That said, it is good enough to eat outside.  Later we are cooking rabbit, marinated in herbs, wine and oil for six hours before the barbecue. But lunch is simpler, as little cooking as possible.  I leave him to it whilst I take the spaniels out.  

Although it’s nearly August, the allotment tomatoes are slow this year, still green and embryonic but the basil is going great guns.  So this is a mix of bought (tomatoes, almonds, parmesan, olive oil) and homegrown (albeit a small contribution from the basil and some garlic). 

This isn’t a pesto, bashed and tormented to destruction, but the ingredients that you would use to make pesto Trapanese (named after its supposed home town of Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast); the flavours are all there, but more distinct and less gritty.  It is not as overwhelming as the jars of basil pesto most of us are more familiar with in the UK, I prefer it.  This is the favourite summer dish of Giovanna, Ale’s cousin, who’s pleas to Eat! Eat! give this blog its name.  He has memories of her making this continuously throughout the Sicilian summer.  So, what for me was a first encounter, was for him a summer norm, familial, so we’re back to that dichotomy of Sicily in Brum again.

We ate this for Sunday lunch with a cold beer and a watchful, expectant audience of spaniels, apparently uncaring that it was vegetarian.  That it is good enough to fool the spaniels indicates just how exceptional it is.  Definitely a summer meal, imagine what it’ll be like when the homegrown tomatoes are ready!

Pasta alla Trapanse

Amounts aren’t set in stone, change them as you prefer – for oiliness, strength of basil or saltiness from the parmesan.

For 4

50g flaked almonds

4 very ripe tomatoes 

1 clove of garlic

50g parmesan (grated)

25g fresh basil

Black pepper

4 tbsps Olive oil

400g dried penne or rigatoni

Put a large pan of water on to boil, and once it is, added enough salt to make it taste briney.

Whilst you’re waiting for this, chop your tomatoes into small 20p size chunks, mix with the olive oil, crushed garlic and a generous pinch of salt in bowl.  Leave them be for a while, as you get everything else ready, the oil and salt will do something to the tomatoes, making them taste stronger, richer, more of summer.

Dry fry your chopped almonds in a heavy frying pan until they are the brown of a Sicilian who has spent the day on the beach, but keep a beady eye on them, as this is perilously close to burning them.  Take them out of the pan as soon as they are done, to stop them cooking any further.

Roughly tear up your basil leaves

Once the water is ready and salted, add you pasta, and cook it for 6-7 minutes.  Check the packet, don’t pay too much attention to it though if it’s telling you 12 minutes.  Although we used Penne today, the Sicilian thinks Rigatoni is better, as it’s larger, and hides more of the ‘not pesto’ chunks inside to surprise and delight.

Once cooked, drain the pasta, then stir through the parmesan, oily tomatoes and basil, along with black pepper.  Serve with a generous crunch  of the toasted almonds over the top.

What starts as a steaming, mouth-scalding dish of pasta in sauce shifts to become a cooling pasta salad as you eat and chat and fend off spaniels,  like some sort of Willy Wonker meal that transforms as you chew.  Textures and flavours dance around each other and alter, the pasta stiffens, the oil is less strident, sweet tomatoes and crunchy almonds come to dominate after the first blast of hot fruity garlic.  If that hasn’t sold it to you, then the spaniels will have your plate.

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.