Sicily, largest of the Mediterranean islands, lies between Europe and Africa and its history, culture, and food belong to both continents. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, and Italians have all laid claim to the island and each wave of invaders has left its mark on the island's cuisine. Greeks and Romans brought grapes, olives, and wheat, and cheese-making. The Arabs introduced eggplant, artichokes, sugar cane, citrus fruits, almonds, and pistachios. The Spanish imported sweet peppers and, indirectly, were responsible for the now ubiquitous tomato. Under Spanish rule the island's aristocracy prospered.
For the rest of the population poverty was a fact of life. Sicilian food is based on ingredients which were readily and cheaply available. Pasta is central to the Sicilian diet and is dressed with a wide range of sauces based on fish and vegetables. Tuna, sardines, and swordfish are the seafood most commonly eaten, and artichokes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes are the favorite vegetables. Meat and chicken play only a small part, but cheeses are incorporated into many dishes.
It is the island's dolci (desserts) which are perhaps the greatest triumph of the Sicilian kitchen. Cassata and cannoli are irresistible and the ice creams made in Sicilian gelaterie are second to none.
Contrary to what its name suggests, this dish is Sicilian in origin and is found in various guises all over the island.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Slice the eggplant into rounds, place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave to disgorge for about an hour. In a medium skillet, sweat the onion and the garlic in a little oil and add the tomatoes, sugar, salt, and pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the sauce is thick and glossy. Heat 1/2-inch of oil in a large skillet and when it is very hot, add the slices of eggplant and fry until golden brown, then drain on paper towels. Cover the bottom of a gratin dish with a little of the tomato sauce. Place the slices of eggplant in the gratin dish, cover with tomato sauce, basil leaves, and grated Parmesan. Repeat this process until all the eggplant is used up, finishing with a generous layer of Parmesan. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Cannoli are part of Sicily's ancient tradition of pastry and dessert making. Sicilians buy their cannoli at the local bakery, but they are so delicious it is worth trying to make them at home, though you will require cannoli tubes to shape them.
In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour, add the cocoa powder, sugar, salt, and marsala. Knead the pastry for about 15 minutes, adding more wine if necessary until it is smooth and elastic like a pasta dough. Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible. Using a saucer and knife, cut the pastry into rounds. Put each around a cannoli tube and seal the edges with a little water. In a large saucepan, heat 2-3 inches oil and when ready, fry the cannoli until dark brown, 1-2 minutes. Drain on paper towels and when cool, slide them off their tubes.
Ricotta Cream Stuffing
Combine the ricotta, sugar, and vanilla extract in a bowl and blend until smooth. Stir the chocolate and candied peel. Stuff the cannoli with this mixture, sprinkle with chopped pistachio nuts and dredge with confectioners' sugar.
Introduction and Recipes from:
A Little Sicilian Cookbook
Mary Maw and Radha Patterson
Illustrated by Pauline O'Reilly
(Reprinted with permission)
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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This page modified February 2007
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