Friday, 7 October 2011

Sicily: Squid ink, a home cooked Italian lunch & Greek ruins

It's impossible to describe Sicily in a few sentences as it's such an enigma; beautiful, full of stark contrasts as well as fine nuance, a midden of past conquests and civilisations. Tenacious people living in a paradise where Mt Etna is a constant, but for the most part ignored, living threat.
We woke up on several mornings to find cars, pavements and houses covered in fine black dust (actually glass), and there was an almost permanent haze in the Naxos/Taormina air from Etna's breath.

The beach in Naxos, 2 minutes walk away from our 'bach'.
That said, the sea is so warm even I can swim in it! We stayed on the Ionian sea coast; to the southwest is the Mediterranean, and the Tyrrhenian sea surrounds the northern coasts. Beautiful turquiose water, and islands dripping in myth - Homer's 'Odyssey' with  the Cyclops is just one - and everywhere there are reminders of past occupations; Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish.

Visiting the Valley of the Temples was a long drive, but very worth while. Here lie the ruins of ten Greek temples that at one time were the rival of Athens. Some are partially restored, but every one has a presence all the more poignant because they are juxtaposed against a distant background of high rise housing.
Another interesting juxtaposition is the placing of some stunning modern bronze sculptures scattered among the temples.

Another reason why this day was memorable is that I tasted real squid ink sauce for the first time - don't know why I've not tried it before, after all other great foods are black - like truffles. Oh my goodness, the flavour! Squid ink (Nero di Seppia) is not at all fishy but is perhaps best described as tasting of sea and umami. In any case, I've already put in an order to Sabato back home. . . I loved it, just hope I can recreate that flavour!

Whole marinated and grilled squid were a triumph, too - it's seafood heaven in this place; squid, octopus, mussels, and of course swordfish (marlin).

Away from the beaches you could be in a different country, and it's well worth while exploring some of the villages in the more inaccessible parts of the interior, as well as villages like Savoca, where 'The Godfather' was filmed.

One of the absolute treasures of our week in Sicily was to be invited with our friends, Terry and Anne, to our host's home for lunch. Betti loves to cook and we'd already been advised that if Betti and Franco invite you for lunch, never under any circumstance turn it down. This turned out to be a great truth.

Betti & Franco

We've found the Italian people are, in general, very friendly, have a natural courtesy and a great sense of humour. In the case of Betti and Franco, they are also overwhelmingly generous and hospitable. This was no ordinary lunch.

First, there was a selection of appetisers

Skewered black and green grapes with cheese, baby tomatoes stuffed with ricotta and herbs

Foccacia with delicious home made sundried tomatoes

A fingerfood quiche/pie, with onion and a bechamel sauce

Betti's sister Rina, who with Franco was Betti's support team
There were also olives Franco had picked from the tree in their garden and processed himself - so good, with just a touch of chilli.
Next, the pasta course; Betti made Pasta Norma, a penne with home made tomato sauce;  sister Rina made a fresh anchovy, fennel, and tomato sauce,  garnished with coconut thread. The Pasta Norma was delicious, and I thought the anchovy/fennel/tomato was a great flavour combination.

Pasta Norma and penne with fresh anchovy, florence fennel, tomato and a coconut garnish
Each person was served a portion of both complementary pastas, and it was at that point I realised that 'lunch' was actually dinner. . .

Franco then dished up baked swordfish rolls topped with toasted breadcrumbs and accompanied by a caponata; a lovely combination of flavour, colour and texture.

Silver service, of course

Baked swordfish rolls, with caponata
Betti and Franco's son, Giovanni, lived in New Zealand for ten years, so Betti and Franco have visited  and both Betti and Rina wore pounamu, much to our delight. We would love to have been able to converse freely, but Russ is the only one of us who has taken some Italian lessons (five) but that, along with the fact that both Betti and Rina have been teachers and know a little English, helped. In any case, good food is part of an international language, as we all know.

I have to try to get hold of Betti's lemon sorbet recipe, it's the best I've ever tasted, and was served as a palate freshener after the fish.

And then, just to round off, was a superb grape and custard tart

And yes, I did eat it all. Needless to say, though, none of us were hungry again until after well into the night, and even then we didn't need much. Wonderful food, lovely people and what a treat to experience Sicilian hospitality like this.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Guest post by Christy of "Ellice Street Galley Kitchen" - Chickpea, zucchini and herb fritters recipe review

I’m Christy Harcourt. I live in Wellington, New Zealand and write Ellice Street Galley Kitchen, a food blog enjoyed by readers far and wide, including such personalities as my mother, sister, and aunties. I like many different foods, and am currently reviewing Rowan’s latest book, with quality testing services provided by my ever-patient and exceedingly lovely boyfriend, Josh.

I'm so lucky. I don't know if you've seen Julie & Julia (if not, you should - Meryl Streep is bloody fantastic) or read the book, but if you have - you'll know that Julie faced the following - ah, impediments - in her endeavour to work through an entire recipe book in order to learn about cooking:

* the recipe book was inordinately, unfeasibly long (524 recipes)
* she only gave herself one year to finish it (that's at least 1.5 recipes every single day)
* the book, while brilliant, was somewhat dated, involving a fair amount of obscure and archaic French recipes, including such delightful instructions as "boil this pigs hoof for 36 hours" (or something)
* the author of the book, when informed of her efforts, thought it was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard.

In contrast, Rowan Bishop's Vegetarian Kitchen is a mere 180 recipes (pfff - a snap, I hear you say!), I've given myself loosely a year to finish (read: if I don't finish by next June, I will probably just give myself an extension), the book is imaginative, modern, and simple to follow, and last but certainly not least, its author not only didn't think it was stupid, but actually invited me to write about it on her own blog. Win? I think so.

So here I am. I'm so glad I chose this recipe for Ellice Street Galley Kitchen's little field trip to Rowan's blog. It's a perfect demonstration of what attracted me to Rowan's book - simple, cheap ingredients, quick and easy to make, healthy, and yum. It's also, of course, vegetarian. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I like to eat meat in moderation, and there are too many good reasons for that for it to be worth going into here.

It was also another case of just letting go and trusting Rowan's recipe, which to her credit seems to be always worth the effort. I struggle with fritters as a concept, because although they are often quick, it's so hard to avoid ending up with something that isn't somewhat reminiscent of an oil sponge. I also would never have thought of grating zucchini. Shows what I know. These are astonishingly fast to make (in summary: blitz chickpeas, grate other stuff, mix, and fry). The chickpeas and other ingredients hold together beautifully in the pan, and somehow produce fritters that are not oily, but crisp and dry.

The chickpeas give a delightful, wholesome texture, and the zucchini and coriander complement their mild flavour. We ate them with supermarket thai sweet chilli sauce, which was good - though I mourn for the loss of my home made chilli jam which we finished last month. That would be even better, if you have any.

On the whole, a great success. I cooked up the leftover mixture for dinner the next night, and it was just as good, if not better. I have a feeling it would also freeze quite successfully. I’m only a quarter of a way through this book, and I can already unreservedly recommend it. Everything in it tastes awesome. Nothing in it is expensive, particularly hard to make, or boring. What more can I say?

Thanks Rowan for another inspired mid-week meal. And thanks for not thinking I am completely bananas.

Ka kite,

Click here to visit Christy's blog - Ellice Street Galley Kitchen