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).

Stuffed aubergines – more than a mouthful

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I initially called these Alessandro’s aubergines, although he demurs that they are not his, but Palermo’s, and called Milincianeddi ammuttunati – stuffed aubergines (the milincianeddi are the variety of small aubergines that you use). I like the translation better than the Italian, because my Palermitan is terrible and I can’t pronounce it, just too many damn syllables.

You can’t move for aubergines in Sicily,  they are so ubiquitous and diverse, that they make our single, cellophane wrapped supermarket offerings look nothing less than tragic.  The stalls of Ballarò and shelves of every supermarket are piled high with multiple varieties – each having their own suite of cooking methods and recipes.  You would only ever make parmagiana for instance with the big, purple generic variety we’re familiar with in the UK, but the giant, striped globe Tunisian variety would NEVER be used for parmigiana – these are for steaks.  And if you want to stuff your aubergines, then you go for the small, stretched plum like ones , the deep purple Milincianeddi.

Your stuffing is formed from a very Sicilian trio of mint, garlic and  Cacciacavello cheese.    I read somewhere that the job of stuffing the aubergines was usually carried out by the grandparents, as they had the time and the patience to sit in the corner, making small slits and inserting slivers of herbs and cheese.  Now I have no grandparents to perch in the corner of my kitchen (also, I’m perilously close to my own old age anyway), so this is a job I have to do myself. It’s not that onerous really, and it leaves your fingers smelling minty and garlicky.  Which I am fond of.

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So, in each small aubergine, you want to make maybe 10-12 small slits down, into which you slide a leaf of mint, a sliver of garlic and a piece of cheese.  You need to make sure that they are totally hidden, so that they don’t fall out when you start to cook (although as the cheese melts, it will often bubble out anyway)  The garlic and mint will infuse the impressionable aubergine flesh with their aromas, and the cheese will melt and merge into it, to sublime effect.

In deep olive oil, fry your aubergines, turning them to ensure they’re evenly browned and then when they’re coloured, remove from the oil and put them in an oven dish with enough passata to cover them. Cook them in a medium oven for 20-30 minutes, so that the flavours mingle into the sauce, and then, serve it up with crusty warm bread. The Sicilian prefers do this second stage of cooking on the hob, in a saucepan, but I think that oven baking is more gentle and allows the flavours to blend more evenly. There’s an added extra that you get some additional caramel flavours developing from the crust that forms.  The aubergines will have some bitterness from the frying, but the sweet mint and tomato sauce balance this out, whilst the silky, cooked aubergine will be beautifully enhanced by the garlic and enriched by the cheese.  

Chicory Risotto

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We’re in the gap; when all those root vegetables and brassicas of winter have finally run their course, but there’s precious little on the allotment to take their place.  This is the time of the larder and the freezer; lots of pulses, frozen beans, jars of last summer’s passata.  But, there is fresh vegetable relief in the form of chicory.  Surely one of the easiest crops on the allotment (apartment from their final couple of weeks of molly coddling)?  Even the pigeons leave it alone; sow it in late autumn, and it just grows, shrugs off the winter and sits, waiting to be harvested whilst all around is a blasted heath.

I say chicory; but that’s a word that encompasses a whole raft of salads; leafy greens of varying degrees of bitterness.  I wrote about puntarelle a few weeks ago; very Italian and virtually unknown in the UK.  Italy loves chicory, just as it loves bitterness – think Campari, Cynar and Aperol; in the UK, the embrace is less demonstrative, and we, ever in need of justification, have to make it more fancy than it needs to be, and less bitter than it should be.  So, we torture it, starving it of daylight whilst forcing it into growth, to create tight, pale shoots that are sweeter, tender and more delicate than they would be if allowed to take their own time in the growing.

And then you can make a fancy but anaemic salad, perhaps with some citrus or a raspberry vinegar dressing. It will be terribly UnBritish.  It’ll feel healthy, nobody will really enjoy it, and you will long for the spring famine to finish so that you can eat peas raw from the pod and buttered radishes.

Or you can embrace the Latin, celebrate the bitter, accept that it is only March, and that the peas and radishes will have to wait.  Make a risotto, a risotto that is breathtakingly good, with a punch of flavours that belies its simplicity.

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For Two

  • Two chicory heads
  • Stick of celery
  • One medium onion
  • One medium tomato
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • Butter
  • 50g risotto rice
  • Dry white vermouth
  • Vegetable Stock
  • Pecorino
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Salt & Pepper

Take your chicory heads, slice them in half and simmer it in salted water for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery, tomato and garlic very finely and then fry until soft (but not brown) in an indulgent amount of butter.

Drain the chicory and slice it into thin strips (about 1cm across).

Turn up the heat and add these, and the rice to the onions and celery

Then add a slug of the vermouth and let it boil off (Vermouth is better than white wine in this recipe as it gives a herby tang that complements the chicory).

Now add vegetable stock, about 50ml at a time, you don’t need to obsessively hover over the pan, but check it every two or three minutes to make sure the rice isn’t sticking and to add more stock if it needs it.  After about ten minutes, taste the rice.  I like a bit of bite, some people prefer more of a rice pudding texture.  Go with what you prefer.

Finally, add salt and pepper as you see fit, then dish it out with a generous topping of fresh chopped parsley and grated pecorino.  It’ll be piping hot and salty, the chicory will impart a very gentle mustiness, like the smell of cooked cabbage, but beyond delicious.  

So, there, chicory risotto.  Infinitely better than any ill-conceived salad for a blustery March day.

Sweet & Sour Pumpkin

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In a blog that is mainly about Italian food, this is going to sound very dumb, but this is a  recipe that is really very, very Italian.  And I mean that in a culturally alien, lost in translation way.  I don’t say this to discourage you, but I think it stems from the fact that we only really grow pumpkins to carve in the UK.  Other than that, and Covent Garden soups, we don’t really know what to do with them, they’ve just never quite caught on here.  Then there is the weather against us.  Winter squashes are, by definition, at their best, in the winter.  Their flavour deepens with storage and they store well after their autumn harvest  So the best time to be eating them is in the post Christmas lull, which is not perhaps the best time to be eating cold starchy salads in dingy Britain.  Also, who has fresh mint growing in the garden in February?  Finally, the mint, the vinegar, the sugar.  What the hell?  I just didn’t have enough life-experience to grasp what was happening the first time I tried this. 

Perhaps I should try selling this better.  For a start, there is deep frying involved and anything deep fried is, it goes without saying, good.

The first time I made this unsupervised, I made the stupid mistake of trying to shallow fry my squash, which just doesn’t cut the mustard.  They didn’t brown, they didn’t crisp up; they just soaked up the oil and turned to mush.  I gained new wisdom from the Sicilian: “basically, whenever I say ‘fry something’, I really mean ‘deep fry it’”

So assuming you have fried your squash in profligate depths of olive oil, you will have a plate of golden brown crescent moons of oily squash draining on kitchen paper.

Now, arrange them in a tray and douse with red wine vinegar, before adding chopped mint, salt, sugar and pepper.  It’s hard to give absolute quantities, as each squash, is different, absorbing more oil, needing less sugar, and the mintiness of mint can never be guaranteed if you’re buying it from a supermarket.  Keep tweeking, and don’t be concerned about sticking to hard and fast proportions.

Leave the sweet and sour and herbs to interact for a few hours, even 24 hours, and then eat as an antipasti, with bread (of course, as no Sicilian meal is complete without, at least, the option of bread) to soak up the juices.  It works well with other preserved or pickled vegetables.  I like it with artichoke hearts and cold, oily sweet peppers.

Maybe the first time you try this, you’ll be as perplexed as I was – a savoury dish that is sweet, but  tangy and minty.  But stick with it, work with the pairings, consider the bread to choose; have the patience to let it infuse for a day.  You’ll become extremely fond of this dish, it will become a thing you look forward to making in the dark depths of February,

And if, in February – this cold dish from a hot foreign island seems just too alien, warm it through in the oven – the heat makes it more northern, more acceptable to a Saxon taste.  There are versions that add chilli flakes for extra heat and another Sicilian version that is baked in the oven with onions. I have been known (when the Sicilian isn’t around) to add anchovies. All of these are good, and further justify the growing of rampant winter squashes if you have the inclination and the space.

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One winter squash, peeled, deseeded and sliced into crescents 1-2cm thick.

2-3 cloves of bruised garlic.

Enough olive oil to cover your sliced squash in a deep frying pan.

Fresh mint*

Red wine vinegar (50-100ml)*

Salt and pepper.

*quantities will vary according to the size and absorbency of the squash, and your own tastes.

First put the cold oil and garlic in your big, heavy, deep frying pan.

Turn the heat on, and brown the garlic, then remove it from the oil (hang onto it though).

Fry the squash slices, in batches, in the oil, growing on both sides.   Don’t put too many in at once, as this cools the oil, which stops the squash from browning and they’ll start to disintegrate.

As they cook, drain them on kitchen paper, then arrange them in a serving dish.  Sprinkle over the saved browned garlic, chopped mint, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Cover and leave to steep in the fridge for as long as you can.

Serve at room temperature or warm through – as you prefer.

AlicudiMatt

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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.