Visiting the motherland-La Bella Sicilia
As many of you know, I am Sicilian-American, What I don’t talk about much is the fact that my boyfriend of three and a half years, is also Sicilian-American. It took me 38 years to find him, but when I did, it just made sense. You know how people say, “you just know” when you meet the love of your life? That’s how I felt when I met him and ever since. Sure we’ve had our ups and downs, but we always make it through because the love is there underneath it all.
This past week he surprised me and I still can’t believe it is true. We traveled to Sicily to visit his mother’s family, who happens to live near my father’s home town (which explains many things about our relationship). His family lives in a bucolic, tiny town, un paese to be exact, which is a small village in the countryside. It was the classic story you hear about when people from America go to visit their relatives from their native town-we were greeted by three women who came out of the house wearing aprons and open arms. They welcomed us in to a big “pranzo” or lunch, which in this town is still the most important meal of the day.
They made a classic meal the first day-Pasta al Forno, which I had never had prepared this way. It was very rustic and hearty. Il forno means the oven, so this is literally a baked pasta dish, but from this town, there is only one way to make it-with ground beef, peas, little circular pasta, ham, cheese and tomato sauce. Some people add cubed eggplant as well. It was delicious.
Pasta al Forno
After a large square of this I was ready for a nap, but out came the meat course, which was breaded veal and chicken cutlets, followed by a green salad and then the ultimate-homemade cannoli. The cannoli shells were so light, crispy and airy that I kept begging for the recipe, but to tell you the truth, I am not sure they know the recipe. They just make the cannoli by memory! Another interesting thing to note is that they do not fill their cannoli with ricotta cheese, but instead they make a sweet cream filling which is completely different, but very good. I thought about buying a cannoli rod to learn to make them myself but when I asked where to buy one, one of the women pointed out the window to a field of reeds. She said the metal rods you buy in a store are no good, so she made her own by whittling a reed from outside and drying it out.
My boyfriend in the middle, with his cousins on either side.
Since lunch is so big, the dinner that night was a simple Sicilian pizza, square as you could guess, but made with a sweet sauce, onions and grated pecorino cheese-no mozzarella. The dough was thick, but flaky, almost pastry-like. It was just enough to end the day and was served with whatever didn’t get devoured at lunch, and of course homemade wine.
The next day, I awoke to find one of the women beginning to prepare one of my favorite dishes, Pasta con le Sarde, or Pasta with Sardines. She was painstakingly cleaning and de-boning the sardines.
Eventually the dish was prepared with spaghetti, sardines, raisins, fennel fronds, pine nuts and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs that were sweetened with brown sugar. I noticed the raisins weren’t shriveled like I’m used to seeing, nor were they hard like currants, but instead they were tender, dried grapes. Yet another thing they made themselves.
Pasta con le Sarde
This dish was followed by homemade sausage (they raise their own pigs) and fruit.
That night, there was no mention of dinner. I was only instructed to come back to the main house for a party and to dress nicely. When I arrived, there was a table set up with a few desserts and as the night progressed, more and more cousins arrived, each bearing a tray of some handmade confection. This was our “going away party,” or so I was told. There was even a cake made with our photo atop. I was so touched by all of the efforts of these people we barely knew.
Lots of sweet confections were brought to the party, including a cake with a photo of us, which we are seen here cutting.
Of course the best part of the trip came next when I went outside to find my boyfriend and heard a brass marching band strolling up the driveway. They were playing classic Sicilian music and the whole party, about 30 people at least, were standing around, clapping and dancing. Little did I know they were really watching me, for they knew what was coming but I did not. My boyfriend rode in on a white donkey with a bouquet of roses. It then dawned on me what was happening and I started to cry. He jumped off the horse, got on his knees and asked me to marry him. I could not have asked for a more memorable proposal, one surrounded by family, friends and food.
The newly engaged couple
Pasta Con Le Sarde
by Mario Batali, courtesy of foodnetwork.com
- 2 pounds fennel bulbs, greens removed and reserved, bulb cut into sticks
- 3 pounds whole fresh sardines
- Semolina flour, for coating
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium onions, minced
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
- 3 tablespoons dried currants or raisins, soaked and drained
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 7 saffron strands or 1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron
- 1 pound dried bucatini
In a hot skillet, add olive oil and saute fennel until caramelized.
Remove the heads of the sardines and pull out the backbones and entrails. Select a few sardines, for garnish. Chop the rest of the sardines for the sauce, set aside. Season the sardines for garnish, to taste with salt and pepper, and coat them with the semolina flour. In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to smoke, cook each flour-coated sardine until a light golden brown, about 1 minute on each side. Using a slotted spoon, remove the sardines from the pan and set them aside to drain on a paper towel.
In the skillet with the caramelized fennel, add the onions, currants, tomatoes, pine nuts and saffron. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce briefly to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Add the reserved sardines and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sardines have broken into pieces and are thoroughly mixed into the sauce, about 10 to15 minutes. If the sauce appears too thick at this point, add a little of the pasta cooking water.
Bring 6 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a rolling boil. Add the bucatini and cook until tender but still al dente. Drain the cooked pasta into a large serving bowl, add 3/4 of the sauce and stir to combine. Top with the remaining sauce and the fried sardines. This pasta tastes best if allowed to sit for several minutes, soaking up the flavors of the sauce, before it is served. Keep the pasta covered during this waiting period, then garnish with reserved fennel fronds.
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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