Sicilian spices? I have never been an adventurous cook when it came to flavoring my dishes. Generally, tomatoes, basil, parsley, olive oil and garlic have been my go-to seasonings.
After some research, I am surprised that other spices are represented in some Sicilian dishes. Sicilian food is based on simplicity. There is, however, a secret Sicily. Let me explain.
We must start at the very beginning. As many of you probably have heard, Sicily is often referred to as not “real” Italy. Well, that hurts a Sicilian who loves Italy so much. Let me introduce you to the facts.
You see Sicily has a convoluted cultural history, so the cuisine on the island represents the civilizations that conquered our beloved, isolated area: Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabians, Normans, Spanish, and finally Italians in 1860. I would not be surprised if they were invaded by Martians too, but nobody is talking.
Well, that is a lot of cultures, and each left representations of their culinary traditions on the tiny island. We can thank the Arabs for agricultural imports such as oranges, lemons, artichokes, sugarcane, rice, almonds, and pistachios. Because of Mount Etna’s constant activity, the volcanic soil allows these foods to grow abundantly even now.
The Arabs seemed to be the ones who most influenced the spices used in Sicilian cooking. To my surprise, I have not used these spices at all, so we are going to experiment together. They are cinnamon, saffron, and bay leaves.
Now that I think of it, cinnamon is a pleasant flavor and a pinch of it would add just a hint of “sweet”.
I would think to use cinnamon in a dessert dish, for example cannoli. Ricotta, citron, orange zest, and sugar combine with cinnamon to fill a crunchy deeply fried roll.
A pasta dish, however, at first seemed rather far-fetched to me. Well, call me a believer now. Check out this recipe.
Pasta alla Paolina
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- salted anchovies
- spoonful of tomato paste
- boiled cauliflower
- Cut an onion into very thin slices and brown it in olive oil.
- Clean and remove the small central spine on the back of the of the anchovies.
- Add 4 ounces of anchovies to the pan.
- Add a spoonful of tomato paste diluted in a bit of water.
- Add 1 lb. of fresh sardines (cleaned and spined).
- Cook them until they are reduced to small pieces.
- Add 1 lb. of cauliflower already cooked.
- Flavor with salt, pepper and cinnamon.
- Cook pasta separately according to package directions, drain, and place in a large bowl.
- Add the sardine mixture to the pasta and stir.
- Serve with Romano or Parmesan cheese.
I must tell you, with great embarrassment that I have never kept saffron in my spice cabinet. Call my face red because it is part of the Sicilian-Arabic food connection.
I hate to admit it but along with being stubborn, Sicilians are narrow-minded and tend to discard the less-known spices. This is why I am learning late in life about exploring and discovering new inlets of this fascinating cuisine.
Since Sicily is an island and fish is abundant, sardines are plentiful and actually delicious, if you like fish. Give this recipe a try, and include a large bottle of red wine for the table. (The inspiration for this recipe is Chef Vincenzo owner of Ristorante Cin Cin in Palermo.)
Pasta con Sarde
- 8 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tins of sardines
- 1 tin of anchovies
- 2 onions – finely chopped
- 1 fennel bulb – finely chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato puree optional
- handful of pine nuts
- handful of raisins
- cup of water
- salt and pepper to season
- handful of breadcrumbs per serving
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- Pinch saffron
- Heat the oil and sauté onions and fennel until soft
- Add the anchovies and cook until they breakdown. Add a tablespoon of tomato puree and some water to loosen everything into a thick sauce.
- Add the fennel seeds, pine nuts, raisins, sardines and saffron.
- Serve with al dente (very important!) spaghetti and a good handful of toasted breadcrumbs.
Here I go again back into the Way back Machine watching Mom cook. I remember bay leaves as the one spice that actually gets removed from the meal before presenting it.
This spicy leaf is added to soups, and stews for a well-rounded savory taste. The idea is to cook the bay leaf within the food and remove it because it does its work while the pot is cooking.
The bay leaf actually comes from the laurel tree which is abundant in Italy. In ancient Greece and Rome, bay leaves made up the crown for victors in battle as a symbol of success.
I must be honest. I like the flavor, but I never use bay leaves in my cuisine. I really should. My new year’s resolution is to expand my horizons. This is a good start.
Sandi’s Beef Stew Recipe
- 2 pounds sirloin tips cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1- cup chopped onions
- 1 can 14-1/2 ounces diced tomatoes, undrained
- 1 can 10-1/2 ounces condensed beef broth, undiluted
- 1 garlic clove minced
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 carrots cut into 2-inch pieces
- 3 medium potatoes peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup sliced celery 1-inch lengths
- 1/4 cup water to set aside
- 3 tbsp. all purpose or gluten-free flour to set aside
- Mix the flour and 1/4 cup of water until it is pasty and set aside.
- In a Dutch oven, brown beef in batches in oil; drain. Return all meat to the pan. Add onions, tomatoes, broth, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper Stir in carrots, potatoes, celery, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil.
- Cover stew and cook on medium until you can stick a fork through a carrot or potato but the veggies are not mushy about 1 hour. Discard bay leaf.
- Stir in the water/flour mixture in the last 5 minutes.
When I think of sage, I think of stuffing on Thanksgiving. I have never used it in my cuisine. Sage, however, can be a great addition to some wonderful dishes. By the way, it has a load of health properties for example, helping with digestion and reducing inflammation.
Check out this video from Recipe30.com. It shows every step and I managed to gather techniques that I never knew, like how to cut a butternut squash.
This recipe is butternut squash risotto. Here you go.
The new year has arrived and I am resolving to expand my horizons while researching Sicilian cuisine. I hope you enjoy this post and use the recipes to expand your culinary range. See you next time.
This video demonstrates a very unique use of sage.
Cheers and Happy New Year.
The SKY IS THE LIMIT!