Archive for the 'Sicilian cuisine' Category

Her name is Rosalba Lo Greco and she cooks for Barone Pietro Beneventano at his agriturismo, or farmhouse inn, Case del Feudo, outside Siracusa. She learned to cook, Rosalba says, from watching her grandmother. My mother was a terrible cook, she told us, but every summer she sent me to spend three months with my grandmother in Piazza Armerina and she was a great cook. I’m passionate about good food—I love to cook, I love to feed people. To cook just for the sake of cooking, no—they say what I cook is pretty good, for me it’s just normal. And they’re the smallest secrets that make the difference—for instance, the eggplant in a caponata, it should be a little crunchy, it should have character...

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East of Palermo on Sicily’s north coast is a fishing village called Porticello where the day boats go out every morning to harvest what’s in the nets that were set the day before. Chef Franco Crivello has his restaurant here—he calls it Frank the Fisherman, Francu U Piscaturi, but its proper name is Trattoria del Arco and Franco is truly a chef, not a fisherman at all.

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In the hills north of Ragusa—the Monti Iblei, they’re called—there’s an unusual restaurant that’s famous all over Sicily – maybe all over Italy – famous because nothing is served here but pork. In fact, the restaurant’s motto is: Qui si magnifica il porco—here pork is glorified. And it’s true. From the time it was founded by the great-grandparents of Salvatore LaTerra, Ristorante Majore (My-YORE-ray) has existed by, for, and about nothing but pork, and much of the time pork cooked over live fire, which might be the best way of all.

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Surrounded as it is by three seas—the Tyhrrenian, the Mediterranean, and the Ionian, it’s no wonder that seafood plays a prominent role on the Sicilian table. The variety is simply astounding—anchovies and sardines, squid, calamari and octopus, a huge variety of mussels and clams, tiny sweet shrimp and big, meaty red shrimp, mackerel, prized red mullet, familiar fish like grouper and unfamiliar varieties like scabard fish, a great favorite, or... Eels, a great flavor boost for a zuppa di pesce or Sicilian fish stew.

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Different climates, different terrains, mean that even a product as simple as cheese is produced in dozens of different varieties from mountains and valleys, from the sea coast and from inland plateaus, all over Sicily. Francesco Guccione, who, with his partner Boni, has a tidy shop called La Dispensa de Monzu in Palermo, is an expert on all these varieties, many of which are sold in the shop—the name of which you could translate as “The Butler’s Pantry.” We asked him to sort through the panoply of Sicilian cheeses and tell us something about the best.

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At the opposite end of the island, on the very slopes of the Etna volcano, the Benanti family is also proving that old vines and new ideas go hand in hand to produce superior wines—so superior that in 2007 Benanti was named winery of the year by the prestigious Italian magazine Gambero Rosso.

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Nearby, in Trapani, we discovered something the Arabs brought to Sicily—or so they say—when they occupied the island more than a thousand years ago. This is couscous. Pino Maggiore, chef and owner of the trattoria Cantina Siciliana in the heart of Trapani's old ghetto, showed Steve Jilleba, executive chef at Unilever Foodsolutions, how it's done and Mary Taylor Simeti, an American writer who has lived in Sicily and written about its food traditions for a good 40 years, helped us to understand it.

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Back in his restaurant, Il Cociniero, in the hotel Katane Palace, Carmelo shows us how to make one of Sicily’s most important dishes: A baroque caponata. . . and caponata is one of the signature dishes of Sicily, made with eggplant, and peppers, and tomatoes, and many other ingredients depending on where in Sicily you find yourself. A baroque caponata has a lot more ingredients and. . . we’ll find out what they are. It’s a dish, Carmelo says, that brings together all the different influences on Sicilian cuisine, Arab, Norman, Spanish, and products that arrived after the discovery of America. No one knows what the word caponata means, but it’s related to pisto from Madrid and ratatouille from France in which there’s also this play between vegetables and agrodolce—sweet-sour. There are many variations, a winter version that uses vegetables from the mountains, a spring version that uses asparagus and peas, there’s a version that includes lamb, and even a version that adds lobster to the dish. This is a noble version, a late summer version, that requires 16 hours of preparation. It’s flavored with fresh mint, a little bit of raw garlic, and a few fried capers. Some people add green olives, and some add a little anchovy. What makes it baroque is the addition of other ingredients, like black eggs or drunken eggs, hardboiled eggs marinated in a mixture of 70% red wine and 30% aged wine vinegar; chocolate; and then I add certain seafoods, like these red shrimp, an anchovy, and a few mussels.

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This is the Mediterranean, in the old language it meant the middle of the world “medi-terranea” – and that’s what it was for the ancients, the very center of the known world. Today it’s a delectable center of the culinary world, and at the center of that center is Sicily, right in the heart of the Mediterranean, the largest island, one of the most beautiful places and one of the most exciting regions – where it’s possible to experience the whole delicious panoply of what Mediterranean cuisine is all about.

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It’s an extraordinary thing to us visitors, but in Sicily, ordinary people, trattoria cooks, home cooks, diners in simple restaurants, even school children, expect to find the quality and seasonality and variety that high-end restaurants take for granted.

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Sicily’s culinary history is deeply rooted in salt. The Phoenicians came to Sicily from Tunisia almost 3,000 years ago looking for tuna, and for the salt that they needed to preserve the magnificent fish. They settled close by these salt flats on the western coast of the island between Trapani and Marsala. Salt is harvested from the sea to this day using methods that are just a little modernized from how the ancient Phoenicians did it.

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In Sicilian markets like this one in Catania where we spent time with another top Sicilian chef, Carmelo Chiaramonte from the restaurant Il Cuciniere—the cook-- in Catania Carmelo orders his fruits and vegetables, like his fish, directly from the market, from suppliers who make sure he gets the best – and he knows the qualities of all this materia prima, as it’s called in Italian: This is what Carmelo calls “la stagione misteriosa” the mysterious season of fruits that mature when the weather turns cooler. In September, October, and November in Sicily a whole series of fruits start to mature only when it’s fresher. Apples and pears, but also pomegranates, sorb apples, arbutus berries, jujubes, chestnuts, walnuts—they have a very precise, late season character.

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One of Sicily’s most acclaimed chefs—and the only one with two Michelin stars—is Ciccio Sultano. At his elegant small restaurant Il Duomo in Ragusa he delivers the kind of simple chic food that would not be out of place on a restaurant menu in Milano—or Barcelona for that matter. But it’s always tied to the Sicilian seasons, Sicilian ingredients, Sicilian traditions.

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From the vivid street markets of Vietnam, perfumed with tropical fruits…to sun-warmed Sicily and the coastal town of Trapani, where seafood couscous is the signature dish…the world of food takes us places beyond imagining. For a chef, every journey brings new tastes, new ingredients, new skills and inspiration. The more we see, the more we grow. Travel with Mai Pham, a chef, cookbook author and Vietnamese food authority, through the street-food stalls of Hanoi and the floating markets of the Mekong. Meet Ciccio Sultano, Sicily’s acclaim Michelin-starred chef and your guide to the finest Sicilian ingredients. Witness the preparation of an elaborate caponata, the Sicilian eggplant dish, at the hands of chef Carmelo Chiaramonte. Then see another expert’s approach at a farmhouse inn near Siracusa as one of the island’s best home cooks makes the dish her own way. Fasten your seat belt for a whirlwind tour of the world’s best tables. “Savoring the Best of World Flavors: Sicily and Vietnam” is the third edition of The Culinary Institute of America’s World Culinary Arts DVD Series: a first-of-its-kind DVD reference library documenting the “gold standards” of world cuisine. In this edition, we’ll explore the markets and hidden kitchens of Vietnam and Sicily, with local food authorities providing background and history, while leading chefs demonstrate key techniques in step-by-step detail.

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