An exercise in lunacy

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Just to reiterate.  I am not Sicilian.  Or Italian.  I’m half British, half Irish, from the most mediocre of small towns in North Warwickshire.  The late and wonderful Terry Wogan used to joke about its mediocrity.  It is that mediocre. 

But the other half is Sicilian.  It’s complicated.  He lives in London, I in Birmingham.  He likes clubbing.  I like slippers and cocoa.  And although he is on a near permanent diet (all those decades of pasta start to catch up eventually), a passion we share is our food and the cooking of it.  When we got together, I can hand on heart say that I’d never encountered Sicilian food.  I think I had heard of Cannoli, perhaps Sicilian lemons were on the radar.  That’s it.

Here we are, getting on for four years later, and it seems that I’ve accidentally (and only partially) imbibed from some sort of Mediterranean fount of knowledge.  It hasn’t gifted me with even a basic grasp of the language, I still burst out in a heat rash within 24 hours of arrival in Palermo, and I’ll never get used to all the shouting that passes as conversation.  But now I can turn out a passable cassata, turn sardines into songbirds, and have just planted a mulberry tree in the hope of one day granita.

There should be limits though.  Birmingham is not Palermo, the flavours that I mimic can never be as strong, as strident, as Sicilian. They are faded facsimiles.

But I am stubborn.  Some things are too ridiculous not to try.  Too impossible.  Too of the South.

Astrattu is one of these things (a quick word here on the name.  Astrattu in Palermo, Estrattu or ‘strattu everywhere else – dialects, abbreviations, urban v rural.  Things I’m sure I’ll never get to the bottom of).

In August, as the tomato crop is taking over Sicily, and the summer is at its most stifling, the crimson abundance is transformed by time and that heat into a concentrated, turbo charged fraction of itself.  Boiled, sieved and salted, litres upon litres of pulped tomatoes are spread out on boards to bake in the sun.  Fingers create furrows that drain away leaking water, and gradually, the sloppy pulp thickens, darkens, stiffens.  The tomato sunburn turns iron oxide, knee scab red.  What was once liquid, spread over table after table, is now reduced to the corner of a single board, scraped up and squirrelled away to add intensity and umami from the smallest of additions.

Perhaps it is the essence of Sicily.  There is nothing quite like it.  Don’t even imagine that it resembles the puree you get in tubes.  It is scarcely even tomato anymore, it has had an apotheosis.  You can smell its power.  The brave spread it on toast for a hit of salt tang shudder.

So, obviously, wearing my stubbornness and pigheadedness like badges of honour, I chose to take this task, the one that demands at least three days of continuous and unrelenting heat, and make it Brummie.

The Sicilian’s usual mild amusement was replaced by out and out incredulity.  Having lived through four of our summers now, he is beginning to understand what drives British fatalism.  The idea of it hitting 40 degrees, of there even being three days of continuous sun, of being able to grow enough tomatoes, all was folly.  Everything was against me.  Crushing failure was certain.

But, I had a secret weapon.  I had my poly tunnel. 

The idea that I could achieve the impossible first dawned on me last year during that rare, glorious summer.  A friend was in charge of watering said tunnel whilst we were on holiday in Palermo, and regaled us with tales of nearly fainting from the heat inside, when we returned.  Admittedly she’s a red head, and wilts as soon as it gets above 25.  But it sparked my imagination.

And then, on cue, over an August bank holiday weekend, a plume of heat rose northward from Africa, bathing Birmingham in the kind of warmth that makes us break out our worst clothing and drink too much cider on a school night.

I started small.  Just two litres of tomatoes and a large wooden tray, balanced precariously on the arms of a camping chair.  Heath Robinson sprang to mind, not the slopes of Etna.  Wobbling like the chair, I began to doubt my sanity, as paste dribbled over the edges and a cloud passed over the sun.  I left for the day, expecting disaster in the morning, and a puddle of red spatter on the floor.

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But the next day, the Sunday, there was indeed movement, a definite trend towards a thickening, my finger furrows stayed put, and there was  clotting in places.  And so over the next 48 hours, it progressed.  Next up I could spread it like putty, and then it began to crack, like damp mud in hot sun.  Two litres finally became a smear, which bundled together was no bigger than a golf ball.  It had that metallic tang of fresh cuts and the best sun dried tomatoes.  Somehow, for 36 hours, the gods of Sicily had decamped to a poly tunnel in the suburbs of Birmingham.

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Will I ever make it again?  Unlikely.  You have to be ready at the drop of a weather forecast to attempt your astrattu, it’s cheap as chips in Palermo, and they don’t seem to have a problem with you sticking it in your hand luggage.  But, then again,  in a future, legendary summer, when the tomato crop is running away with itself and red headed friends are going giddy, maybe I will.  Because, now I know I can.

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.

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).