Tastes of Sicily: Learning to cook like a Catanian
After exploring Catania’s fabulous fresh produce in its markets, it was time to learn how to put it to use. We headed up into the foothills of Mount Etna to meet Monica Consoli, our guide through the delicious world of Sicilian cookery. Monica is the daughter of cookbook author Eleanora Consoli and our class took place in Eleanora’s lovely 18th century villa. Over drinks under the lemon trees in the garden, Monica explained how waves of invaders over the years brought new ingredients and cooking techniques to Sicily, but the Sicilian national identity always stayed strong. And one of the ways it’s displayed is through its food. You won’t find any national dishes, but instead there are lots of local specialities, from every part of the island. The cuisine today mixes old peasant dishes – the cucina povera – with more elaborate dishes brought over by French chefs who worked for Sicilian noblemen. A big focus throughout though is on using fresh and seasonal produce – which Monica described as “eating with the sun”.
Traditionally lunch is the largest meal of the day in Sicily, usually with a first course, main course, side dishes and dessert. Which is what was on the menu for us – though Monica kindly adapted some of the dishes for me as I can’t eat gluten. She started off by making Polpette alla Siciliana – Sicilian-style meatballs. Ours were made using veal mince, though you can also use minced chicken or beef. Monica kneaded the mince together with breadcrumbs (gluten-free in my case), and explained these were historically used to bulk out dishes when money was tight and meat was expensive. They’re still used in a lot of dishes, but it’s often more for taste than economic reasons today as they help soak up the flavours.
Next she added a beaten egg, lemon zest, chopped parsley and grated caciocavallo cheese. We’d spotted the caciocavallo earlier in the market – it has a strange shape, a bit like an old Greek urn, with two cheeses tied together. But if you can’t get it back home then you can also use Parmesan. To finish off, the mixture was rolled into balls and wrapped up in lemon leaves picked from the garden. Ours were cooked in a pan on the hob but you can grill or bake them too, or cook them in marsala or wine. Or even use them in the tasty-sounding spitini, where they’re cooked on skewers along with croutons and cubes of cheese.
Our next dish was Pasta all Norma – named after an opera by local boy Vincenzo Bellini – and as you can tell from the name it’s usually made with pasta, but Monica came up with a special rice version for me. The heart of this dish is the tomato sauce. Apparently every woman in Italy, and especially so in Sicily, thinks their recipe for tomato sauce is the best. Monica’s version used ripe tomatoes blanched in hot water then peeled. They were finely chopped and cooked until soft with olive oil, chopped garlic and a handful of fresh basil. Tomatoes are a huge part of the cuisine here, but when the Spanish invaders first brought them to Sicily the locals just used them to decorate the plate to start with.
The rice to go with it was cooked pilaf style, which Monica explained helps keep the grains firm. The key is to use a deep frying pan and fry the rice in oil before covering it with water and simmering until it’s absorbed – but make sure not to stir it. When the water’s absorbed you mix it with a fork and end up with a creamy rice which still has the grains intact. The rice is then mixed with the tomato sauce and topped with slices of deep-fried aubergine. Aubergine can sometimes get a bit oily, so Monica gave us a tip to keep it crisp – slice the aubergine lengthways not across as that means you’re going with the fibres and not across, so it won’t soak up as much oil. Then to finish off the dish it’s sprinkled with grated cheese and basil leaves.
Next were the side dishes, starting with Peperonata Agrodolce – sweet and sour peppers. Monica told us how sweet and sour dishes, made using a combination of sugar and vinegar, were originally introduced by Arab invaders. The Sicilians used them to help preserve food in the days before refrigeration. So it meant you had a source of fresh vegetables in the winter or on long sea voyages. And these dishes still taste better if you make them the day before. Chopped peppers are sauteed with onion, then you add sugar, vinegar and fresh herbs and cook it down using a low heat. You can also add things like raisins, capers or pine nuts.
Now for me, vinegar is something you buy from a shop and I have no idea what even goes into it. But Monica brought out a bottle of her own homemade version and gave us a lesson in how it was made. You start with a broad bean in a glass jar, fill it with wine and leave it for a month until a layer of gelatine forms on the bottom of the jar. This is the ‘mother’ of the gelatine, and women pass it on through generations or to friends, similar to the starter used for making bread – Monica’s came from her mother who got it from her mother. She described it beautifully as “like making eternity”. Just remember to top the jar up with wine and the odd broad bean every now and then, as “mother’s got to eat”!
Our other side dish was a simple Insalata di Pomodoro e Cipolla – tomato and onion salad. Though like so many simple dishes, there’s more to it that meets the eye. After finely chopping the onion it was soaked for half an hour to take out some of the bitterness, and the tomatoes were quartered. Then you add fresh basil, salt pepper and make sure “not to spare the olive oil”. Make sure you put some effort in though – according to Monica there’s a saying that for the best salad you have to mix it up “like a pig”.
The final course was a Gelo di Canella – cinnamon jelly. Monica described it as light and summery, the perfect dessert for a hot day. It’s also a pretty healthy choice as the only ingredients in it are water, cinnamon, sugar and some starch (you can use either wheat, corn or rice flour) to make it set. Our version used cinnamon, which had been left to infuse in the water overnight. But you can use all sorts of flavours, like fruit juices, herbs, almond milk, chocolate or coffee. And if you’re feeling artistic you can even layer up different coloured jellies in a glass dish to make a stripy dessert.
After all Monica’s hard work, it was time to head to the dining room to try it all out. It was the perfect summery meal – everything was bursting with fresh flavours but it was also all very light. The combination of fertile volcanic soils and the strong Mediterranean sun makes the produce here taste so much more intense. This is an island where the most revered cooks are not the Michelin-starred chefs in fancy restaurants but the home cooks making recipes passed down through the generations. Learning to cook like a Catanian gives more than just a taste of Sicily’s food, but a window into the life of its people too.
A cookery class with Eleonora Consoli forms part of the Celebrity Cruises Sicilian Gastronomic Tour shore excursion, along with a guided tour around Catania’s markets. Many thanks to Celebrity for hosting my trip to Sicily to try it out. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.