Chapter 1: Sicily
A Southern Italian Summer
WELCOME TO SICILY
By Sara Hauman & Jordan Mackay
“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything,” wrote Goethe, about 235 years ago. This still feels apt today, especially if you think of that key as one that unwinds a tightly coiled spool of crucial cultural and historical influences. Given that, to most people in the U.S., Sicily’s most famous figure, Vito Corleone, wasn’t even a real person, we all have a lot to learn.
A massive island at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily lies at a major intersection of Western history, culture, and geography. With a northeastern corner two miles from mainland Italy and a southern flank that dips below the tip of Africa, Sicily straddles continents and realms. Consequently, its history was written by a diverse list of occupants, including Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish, each of which contributed to Sicily’s dialects, ethnicities, cuisine, and architecture. Geographically, Sicily is varied. The rich, bucolic farmlands lie on the more populous western side, while much of the remaining country is dauntingly hilly and mountainous. Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, towers over the eastern half of the island. At once rich and impoverished, Sicily’s wealth is not monetary, but elemental, derived from fertile, volcanic soils, and a quintessentially Mediterranean climate that beckons tourism, grows succulent produce, and delivers a bounty from an endless coastline. For these reasons—as well as the infamous grip of the mafia—Sicily remains an object of fascination for the rest of Italy and the world. Its languorous rhythm is suffused with sunlight, delicious food, heady wine, spectacular scenery, and a pastiche of cultures that constantly reminds that you are in a place of consequence.
No visitor exits Sicily without having the intensity of sensation and the freshness of flavor indelibly etched in their memory. Every food item—be it pulled from the sea, herded from the hills, or plucked from a tree—buzzes with a rare immediacy, vitality, and succulence. While elevated, modernist cuisine exists, the soul of the table here is classic Italian cucina povera, the food of necessity, which creates deliciousness via simplicity and intensity. In our menu, as all over Sicily, you find the same quintessential staples mixed and matched throughout many dishes: swordfish, tuna, anchovies, capers, raisins, almonds, pine nuts, olives, lemons. Sicilian food relies on the contrasts between salty and sweet, acid and fat in simple combinations that echo the way the ingredients exist in nature: fatty fish pulled from coastal waters served with capers grown on the windblown shores; citrus, almonds, and olives from neighboring trees. Inescapably, Sicily’s intense socio-cultural diversity is expressed in almost every meal. In this menu we enjoy foods from the Greek and Roman influence (olives, olive oils, and anchovy), as well as Arab (arancini, almonds, citrus, orange blossom water) and Spanish (pepper and chile).
To wash all these delicacies down: wine, of course, which in Sicily is both an ancient tale and a modern one. The archaeological evidence for wine on the island predates the Greeks. In past centuries, however, Sicily was not known for fine wine. Rather, the excellent calcareous and volcanic soils and the perfect winegrowing climate—dry summers, bright sunlight, warm days, frequent wind—made viticulture relatively easy. The relative ease of ripeness and high yields turned the island into a popular source of cheap table wine. Once Italy’s top producer by volume, in recent decades wine production has declined, ceding territory to fine wine production. Famously, the exotic and high-altitude slopes of Mount Etna with its nuanced, world-class reds from Nerello Mascalese and whites from Carricante have led the way, raising the bar across the island, and attracting new drinkers from all over the world. Even Nero d’Avola, the island’s workhouse red grape has found some redemption in new-school quality red wines.
However, while Sicily may yet be associated with fruity reds, in truth seventy percent of the island’s output is white wine from local grapes like Grecanico, Inzolia, Grillo, and Carricante. Of course, this makes sense, as both the climate and the cuisine—heavy on seafood and fresh fruits and vegetables—just beg for bright, clean, refreshing white wines, such as we might recommend with our menu. As one would at every meal in Sicily, take a moment to savor the wine, then let it flow into the pleasures of cooking, eating, and sharing.
OUR SICILIAN DINNER PARTY MENU
You can download all the recipes as a PDF by clicking the button below.
Snacks: CHERRY & SAFFRON ARANCINI
Salad: FENNEL & CITRUS SALAD
Starter: SAUSAGE & RICE STUFFED PEPPERS
Main Course: OLIVE OIL POACHED SWORDFISH
Dessert 1: FENNEL & LEMON GRANITA
Dessert 2: CHEWY ALMOND & ORANGE BLOSSOM COOKIES
CHERRY & SAFFRON ARANCINI
Makes about 16-18 arancini
2 oz. dried cherries, soaked and chopped
1 small pinch of saffron
1 Tbsp white wine
1 ¼-1 ½ lbs. par cooked risotto rice
2 oz. parmesan, grated
2 oz. almonds, toasted and chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh oregano, leaves picked and roughly chopped
¼ tsp. cinnamon, ground
2 egg yolks*
½ lb. low-moisture whole milk mozzarella, cut into 1/4" cubes
*Reserve the egg whites for the Almond & Orange Blossom Cookies.
Soak the dried cherries in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drain, then chop roughly.
Pour white wine over the saffron and let bloom for at least 15 minutes.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the risotto rice, chopped cherries, parmesan, toasted almonds, egg yolk, cinnamon, and saffron and white wine mixture.
Mix well until thoroughly combined.
Portion and shape the rice into 1 ½ oz. balls.
Insert 1 mozzarella cube into the middle of each arancini.
Re-shape the arancini by rolling it between your palms, ensuring the mozzarella is fully covered by the rice mixture.
Prepare to fry the arancini:
2 eggs, beaten
1 Tbsp. water
1-2 cups all-purpose flour
2-3 cups panko breadcrumbs
Roll the arancini in the flour and dust off any excess.
Whisk the water into the eggs and then add the flour dusted arancini.
Transfer the arancini to the breadcrumbs and coat thoroughly.
Fry at 350F for 6-8 minutes or until the outer breading is golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 140F.
PAR COOKED RISOTTO RICE
Yields enough for arancini and stuffed pepper; about 3 lbs.
1 Tbsp. salt
1 qt. plus 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup white wine
1 lb. Arborio rice
Bring stock, white wine, and salt to a boil in a medium-sized pot.
Stir in the rice.
Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat and cover. Cook on low for 25 minutes.
Transfer the rice to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Loosely cover the top with plastic film. Cool.
FENNEL & CITRUS SALAD
5 oil packed anchovy filets, chopped
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
¼ cup red-wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 medium sized fennel bulbs, tops removed and reserved*
1 ½ oz. wild or baby arugula (rucola or rocket)
1 red spring onion, trimmed and tops removed
1 oz. black oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped
1 ½ oz. parmesan cheese
Flaky sea salt
*Reserve the fennel tops for the Fennel & Lemon Granita.
In a small bowl, whisk together chopped anchovies, Dijon mustard, red-wine vinegar, and olive oil. Set aside.
Remove the outer layer of the fennel and trim the root end without removing it. Cut the fennel in half lengthwise through the root so you will end up with slices that resemble the natural shape of the fennel.
Using a mandoline or very sharp knife, slice the fennel through the root, and keep the fennel layers connected and intact. The slices should be about 1/8" in thickness.
With a knife, remove the peels from the oranges and grapefruit. Cut into 1/8" slices and then into half-moons or into small bite-sized chunks.
Using a mandoline or very sharp knife, slice the red spring onion as thinly as possible, about 1/16".
Layer the fennel, citrus, spring onion, and arugula on the plate you will be serving the salad on.
Drizzle with as much or as little red-wine vinaigrette as you like.
Top the salad with olives, shaved parmesan (use a vegetable peeler to shave the parmesan thinly), a few grinds of black pepper, and a healthy pinch of flaky sea salt.
SAUSAGE & RICE STUFFED PEPPERS
2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
8 oz. hot Italian sausage, uncased
½ medium yellow onion, diced small
5 garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
1 oz. salted capers, soaked, drained, and chopped
10 anchovy filets
2 ripe Roma tomatoes, diced small
¼ cup white wine
1 oz. basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 ¼-1 ½ lbs. par cooked risotto rice
½ lb. low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella, cut into 1/4" cubes
3 oz. parmesan, grated and separated into 2 oz. and 1 oz. amounts
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 medium to large bell peppers, halved and de-seeded
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat.
Add the hot Italian sausage. Cook the sausage, while smashing with a wooden spoon to break apart, about 4-5 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan, leaving all the fat behind.
With the pan on medium heat, add the onion, garlic, and salt to the residual sausage fat in the sauté pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until translucent, then add the chopped capers, anchovy, and tomato.
Cook for another 3-5 minutes on medium heat, while stirring frequently. The tomato will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Deglaze the pan with white wine. Scrape up the tomato stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook for the mixture for another 2 minutes, then stir in the basil. Cool this mixture.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the par cooked rice, cooked sausage, and cooled tomato mixture.
Mix in the cubed mozzarella and first measurement (2 oz.) of parmesan cheese.
Add 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil to a large casserole or roasting pan. Place the halved peppers into the dish, cut side up.
Fill each pepper with rice and sausage filling. Insert 1 prune in the middle of each filled pepper.
Top each pepper with the remaining parmesan cheese (1 oz).
Cover the casserole dish with foil and bake at 350F for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove the cover and continue cooking for another 20-25 minutes or until the peppers are tender and the tops are golden brown.
Remove from the oven and cool for 5-10 minutes before serving. These peppers can be prepared a day ahead and re-warmed.
OLIVE OIL POACHED SWORDFISH
8 swordfish steaks, about 2" in thickness and about 4-5 oz. each
3 Tbsp. salt
½ head garlic, unpeeled and smashed
2 sprigs rosemary
4-8 cups extra virgin olive oil
2 lemons cut into wedges cut into four wedges each
Preheat the oven to 250F.
Salt the swordfish steaks and then place in an oven-safe baking dish.
Leave the skin on the garlic cloves and smash with your knife or the bottom of a heavy pot. Add to the baking dish, along with the rosemary sprigs.
Add as much olive oil as needed so the swordfish steaks are fully submerged in the oil. Cover and place in the oven for 23-25 minutes.
Remove the swordfish from the oven and let cool at room temperature.*
Once fully cooled, remove swordfish steaks from the oil and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper to allow excess oil to drip dry.
When dry, remove the skin from the swordfish steaks.
Cook the swordfish on a hot grill. The fish is already cooked, so you only want to quickly get grill marks on the fish, so they absorb a light smokey flavor.
Remove the fish from the grill and serve with the sauce and lemon wedges.
*You can poach the swordfish ahead of time and store it refrigerated in the olive oil for up to a week.
Makes about 1 quart
2 oz. golden raisins, soaked
2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
½ medium yellow onion, diced
5 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 oz. salted capers, soaked, drained and chopped
½ tsp. aleppo pepper (or chile flakes)
2 oz. pine nuts, toasted
3 ¼ oz. zucchini, diced small
6 oz. canned plum tomato, chopped
½ cup chicken stock
½ oz parsley, picked and chopped
3 Tbsp. swordfish poaching oil
Submerge the raisins in boiling water for 15-20 minutes. Drain.
Heat the grapeseed oil in a medium saucepan.
Sauté the onion, garlic, and salt on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until translucent.
Add the chopped capers, aleppo pepper, hydrated raisins, toasted pine nuts, and zucchini.
Cook for another 3-5 minutes on medium high heat, stirring frequently. The zucchini will still be firm at this point.
Add in the chopped tomato and cook the mixture for 3-5 minutes or until the tomato begins sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Add stock then bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the zucchini is very tender.
Remove from the heat and stir in parsley and swordfish poaching oil. The sauce should be chunky and thick, almost like a relish.
FENNEL & LEMON GRANITA
2 cups water
5 oz. granulated sugar
1/2 cup fennel tops, juiced
2 lemons, zested
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
In a small sauce pot, add water and granulated sugar. Bring to a boil, then allow the syrup to cool.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the cooled sugar syrup, fennel juice, lemon juice, and lemon zest.
Freeze this mixture. Once frozen use a fork to scrape the surface of the ice. It will be light and fluffy.
Alternatively, you can freeze the mixture into small silicone ice cube molds. Once frozen, remove the frozen cubes.
Using the cheese grater attachment on a small food processor, process the frozen cubes. This will easily create a shaved ice effect.
WHIPPED ALMOND CREAM
Makes about 1 pint
2 cups, heavy cream, divided equally into two separate cups
2 oz. almonds, toasted
2 tsp. powdered sugar
Place the toasted almonds and 1 cup of cream in a small pot.
Slowly bring the cream to a simmer then cover and steep for 20 minutes.
Strain the mixture then strain the cream and discard the almonds. Chill the cream thoroughly.
Once chilled, place the second cup of heavy cream, the chilled almond cream, and powdered sugar into a medium bowl.
Whisk until the cream begins to thicken and soft peaks form.
To assemble the granita:
Spoon granita into 8 glasses.
Top granita with whipped cream and serve with almond cookies on the side.
CHEWY ALMOND & ORANGE BLOSSOM COOKIES
Makes about 16 cookies
7 oz. blanched almonds
7 oz. granulated sugar
2 egg whites
1 tsp. orange blossom water
½ cup powdered sugar
1 orange, zested
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Add almonds and sugar to a food processor. Pulse until a very fine almond flour is made.
With the food processor on, drizzle in the egg white and orange blossom water. Process the mixture until thoroughly combined.
Portion the dough into 1 oz. pieces, about the size of 1 Tbsp.
With damp hands, roll the cookie dough in between your palms to create a smooth, round ball.
Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart.
Using a sieve, sprinkle powdered sugar over the tops of the cookies, making sure to coat well.
Using a microplane, zest 1 orange over the tops of the cookies.
Bake the cookies for 10 minutes. Rotate and bake for another 6-8 minutes or until the cookies just begin to turn a light golden-brown color.
The cookies should puff-up and have a cracked appearance on the top.
Store in an air-tight container for up to a week.
ABOUT OUR AUTHORS
Chef Sara Hauman’s career is sprinkled with culinary accolades: Eater Young Gun, Zagat 30 under 30, and Bravo Top Chef contestant. Having cooked in kitchens from Spain’s famed Asador Extebarri to San Francisco’s Octavia, she now resides in Portland, OR.
Jordan Mackay is a James Beard award-winning writer covering wine, spirits, and food. He has written for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Food & Wine magazine. Jordan has penned countless books including Secrets of the Sommeliers, The Atlas of Taste, Franklin Barbecue, Franklin Steak, and the pending Maison Premiere Almanac.