A Sicilian feast
I had the pleasure of having some friends over for dinner on Sunday afternoon. This included three professional chefs and one food writer, plus their partners, my boyfriend and my children. Two of the chefs and the writer are meat experts and the other chef is a pastry chef. I thought about all of these recipes I had been wanting to try, but then realized that I might mess up if I tried something new, offend them because it was mundane, or worse, what if I accidentally chose a recipe that I learned from them?
I decided the only thing I could do is to cook what I know-the food of my people. I grabbed my boyfriend, a fellow Sicilian, and we set off for Arthur Ave in the Bronx to get some of the freshest ingredients that I would use for my recipes.
When Sunday came, I greeted people with La Tavola Siciliana! This spread was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I really worked hard to create an impressive array of authentic appetizers.Here’s what I made:
Three days before, I started soaking the salt cod in water (or milk) and I changed the water twice a day. Saturday night, I drained the fish and put it in a heavy pot, covered it with water and let it simmer for an hour to get soft, yet firm. Then I let it cool and dry while I started on the onions I sauteed 2 chopped white and red onions until they became soft. I then added about 3/4 cup of black Sicilian olives (not kalamatas) and 1 6 or 7 ounce can of tomato paste. I stirred that for a while and then, using the empty paste can, I filled it three times with water and added it to the onions. I let that simmer while meanwhile I dredged the fish in flour and fried it in a pan until lightly browned on all sides. I added the fish to the onion mix and let the whole thing simmer for another 30-45 minutes, stirring now and again. I broke up the fish into small pieces with a wooden spoon so no one would get a huge mouthful. I added fresh oregano and parsley, but that dish was done and ready to wait overnight. Thoughts for next time-adding Pimenton?
How could I not make Caponata? I did and it was delish. My way is different than most-I do not use sugar or vinegar or raisins. I chop the eggplant into small cubes and let sit in a colander, sprinkled with salt, for about 1/2 hour or so.
When ready, I saute the eggplant in olive oil for a good long while, until really cooked through. This takes me around 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, in another large pot, I saute chopped onions, garlic and celery and let cook until soft. I add a can of chopped tomatoes, or I chop fresh ones if I have them. I let this all cook for a while then I add the eggplant, about 3/4 of a cup of chopped green olives and about 1/4-1/2 cup of capers, rinsed clean. I let this cook for another 15 minutes and adjust my salt, pepper, basil, oregano seasonings. I then usually toast some pignoli and fold in, but I had just toasted some almonds so I topped the Caponata with those instead.
On Arthur, I had bought some fresh ricotta cheese from Calandra’s Cheese so I put that out in a dish with just a drizzle of raw honey, salt and pepper. Of course I had to get a ball of fresh mozz from Casa della Mozzarella, a pinch of heaven on earth (I have to try my hand at making both of these cheeses).
Rather than just serving bread, I thought I’d serve panelle and let people spread the Bacalao, the fresh ricotta and/or the Caponata on it. This was so easy, I don’t know why I don’t do it more. On the streets of Palermo, and at Ferdinando’s in Brooklyn, they serve this sandwiched inside of bread. The possibilities are endless and what a great source of vegetarian protein!
I took 1 1/2 cups of chick pea flour and whisked it in a pan with 2 cups of water (I think I’ll try stock next time). You whisk steadily so there are no lumps, until it pulls away from the pan and is pretty thick and pasty. It’s almost like making quick cooking polenta. You then spread it while it’s hot into a pan to let it cool. Once cool. cut into squares and fry in olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and let it brown nicely but don’t burn it or it will dry out. You could throw some freshly chopped parsley on it when it is done.
In my family, no table is complete without the Olive Salad. It couldn’t be easier. I chop Sicilian green olives in half (make sure you remove the pits) and toss in a bowl with chopped celery stalks (with leaves) and sliced red onion. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice, salt, pepper and fresh oregano. Easy and delish!
I’m skipping the amazing breads, cheeses and dried sausages we had, because you can imagine what those look like and I didn’t prepare any of it, although it does make a table look that much more full. I served Grana Padano and Pecorino cheeses alongside a sweet and a hot dried sausage. I also served pickled artichokes, which I bought, but I could have easily made myself. To round it out, I served two kinds of anchovies-one in vinegar and one in oil, both delicious.
For the main course, I made Sauce. Not my classic tomato and meatball sauce, but this time I decided, given all of the other food, that I would just stick pork ribs, beef ribs and braciole into the sauce and let it simmer for hours. This would mean less work for me and less overkill on meat. I knew my friend Seamus was bringing Iberico Ribs for us all to try. So what I did was start with a normal sauce base-saute onions and garlic and added both kinds of ribs which I had browned separately. Then I added jars (or cans if you don’t jar your tomatoes) of chopped or crushed tomatoes, about a cup of red wine, 2 cups of chicken stock, until the sauce covered the ribs completely. I added crushed red pepper, salt and pepper and tons of basil and garlic and let simmer for a few hours. Meanwhile I made the braciole. I mixed in a bowl toasted pignoli, chopped garlic, onion, breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, fresh herbs and chopped kale. I sauteed this all until the crumbs were toasted and the kale was soft. I rolled this up inside the braciole meat and secured it with toothpicks. I browned this all over and stuck it in the sauce too. After about 5 hours, the sauce was done. When I served it, I had first made a batch of Severino rigatoni and tossed it in a bowl with the leftover fresh ricotta and the hot sauce. The meat was pulled out of the sauce and served separately on a big platter, Sunday style. Here’s a good recipe from Rach for Braciole and sauce, which is similar.
But first….those Iberico Ribs.
The Iberian Pig, which can only be found in Spain and Portugal, eats an acorn-only diet and roams free so the meat is absolutely met-in-your-mouth delicious! All we did was salt and pepper them and grill them over natural coals. Wow, amazing!
Once we polished those off, I served the sauce, which was delicious, but in a Sunday sauce kinda way. To be honest, I missed the meatballs. Never again. I don’t think the sauce was as good, and I love a good meatball (who doesn’t?). Of course I served this with Broccoli Rabe, sauteed with garlic and red pepper flakes.
To finish it off, I made a cherry pie and a lemon icebox pie. My friend Heather, a pastry chef, made an Almond Torte, which was off the hook! I had to serve Torroni, because what table would be complete without it (even though I think this is a Napoletano dessert). I am a sucker for this soft nougat.
Two notes on the pies-to experiment with the Cherry Pie I did a few things. First, I used half cherries and half blueberries. I added cinnamon, lemon zest and vanilla. I also added a few sprigs of fresh mint, chopped. It was really a good combo of flavors. If I had almond extract in the house, I would have tried that too.To learn how to make the Ice Box Pie, read a previous post of mine. It is so good. This time I brought the lemon juice down to just over a cup and I thought it was perfect.
As you can see, I took a break from my diet. However, much of what I put on the table was healthy. I think a balance is key-if you are going to serve lots of meats and cheeses, have tons of veggies, olives, nuts and other choices so people don’t feel they are just eating heavy food all day long. In the end, with the copious amounts of wine we drank, the meal was a success and I think I impressed even my professional friends as they were happy to have a seat at the table with great company. If one or two things were off, they didn’t complain, they seemed perfectly content to take the night off for once. Bravo!
Rosemary Maggiore is our Last Minute Lady. A single mom of two kids plus a full time job (she runs this website!) keep her busy and usually pushing things to the last minute. Somehow she manages to keep her cool and her sanity while she enjoys good food, wine, friends and most importantly, family.
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