Editors Picks

An Introduction to Sicily: How One Volcanic Island’s People Created So Many Dishes

Christina Giallombardo

Sicily, an island subjected to millennia of conquests and Empires, is a melting pot of all the cultures and cuisines of those who once sought the land. While Sicily shares Italy’s love of pastas, olive oils, wines and seafood, it has many other influences that make the food distinct to the island.

The use of couscous, particularly in Trapani, is one of the most notable contributions of the Phoenicians of North Africa, whilst the Sicilians love of meat dishes stems from the Normans.

The Greeks introduced fish, such as tuna, sea bass and swordfish, olives and pistachios. Like the language, you’ll find each region of Sicily has its own speciality with Catania, the second largest city situated on the east coast, having heavy Grecian influences.

Perhaps one of the most prominent influences in Sicilian cuisine comes from the Islamic Moors occupation of Sicily from 827-902 which not only changed the food but society itself. The cuisine in Palermo, the island capital city, is highly influenced by Arabic food. The introduction of saffron, raisins, pine nuts and apricots by the Arabs are examples of foods found in dishes all over Sicily.

Here are two Sicilian dishes which are Arabic in origin that you have to give a try! As they say in Sicily – buono appetito!

Arancini:

Makes approximately 14

Arancini are deep fried balls of rice, most often filled with ragú, mozzarella or butter and are a staple in Sicilian cuisine. Whilst the filling and shape differ from region to region, like eastern Sicily specialising in conically shaped arancini al ragú inspired by the volcano Etna, they all have the same basic recipe and hold a special place in Sicilian’s hearts.

This recipe can be made vegetarian by using a vegetarian substitute for parmesan. It can also be made vegan by using water instead of egg, and vegan cheese instead of parmesan.

Ingredients:

  • 500g of risotto rice
  • 2 eggs
  • Fine breadcrumbs
  • 1 vegetable stock cube
  • 70g grated parmesan
  • 1 L of water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Filling of your choice

 

Method:

  1. Place the rice, water and stock cube into a large saucepan. Put the lid on the pot and cook the rice over a high heat until it boils. Once the pot boils, take off the lid and reduce the heat to low until the rice has completely absorbed the water and is cooked.
  2. Add the grated parmesan, one egg and a few pinches of salt and pepper into the pot and mix; make sure the rice is on the sticky side.
  3. Thinly spread the rice onto a flat tray and cover it with some cling-film. Leave it to cool down for approximately 3 hours.
  4. In the meantime, you can prepare your filling! The beauty of arancini is that you can fill them with anything you want, from ragú, red pepper paste, cheese or butter; you can also leave them completely plain.
  5. In a bowl whisk one egg and in another bowl place your fine breadcrumbs. Season the breadcrumbs with some salt and pepper.
  6. Wet your hands with some water, then pick up enough of the rice to cover your palm. Place the filling of your choice into the centre and then roll the rice around the filling until it forms a sphere.
  7. Roll the rice ball in the egg mixture and then the breadcrumbs, making sure they are thoroughly coated.
  8. In a large pan put enough vegetable oil so that it covers the bottom by about 1cm and turn the heat on low. You can tell that the oil is hot enough to begin frying the arancini when bubbles form around a wooden spoon placed into the oil.
  9. Fry the arancini until they are golden brown in colour, and then they are ready to eat hot or cold!

 

Caponata:

A tangy dish filled with vegetables, fruits and nuts that’s gluten-free, lactose-free and vegan! Caponata is often served as a side for fish dishes, but it can be enjoyed by itself, or with some pasta. The recipe differs across all of Sicily, with some regions adding carrots, raisins and bell peppers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 aubergines
  • 1 white onion
  • A generous handful of green olives
  • 40g pine nuts
  • 40g celery
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp capers
  • 60ml white wine vinegar
  • Basil
  • Salt and pepper
  • White granulated sugar
  • Vegetable oil

 

Method:

  1. Chop aubergine into decent sized cubes and place into a colander. Generously sprinkle salt over the aubergine, mixing until each cube is thoroughly coated, then leave it to sit for 30-40 min.
  2. Finley chop the white onion and fry them in a large pan with some vegetable oil on a medium heat until they are golden brown and soft.
  3. Chop up the celery into pieces about 4mm thick. Add this to the onions and fry them until they have also browned.
  4. Rinse the aubergine in cold water to completely remove the salt, then add it to the pan. Mix everything together. Add more oil if it looks dry.
  5. Once the aubergine and celery have softened add the white wine vinegar to the pan then cover with a lid.
  6. Chop up the tomatoes into cubes and when the white wine vinegar has evaporated add the tomatoes, pine nuts, green olives and capers into the pan. Simmer for 15 min on low heat.
  7. Add some salt and white sugar to taste, and finish by adding some finely chopped basil on top.

 

Christina Giallombardo

Featured image courtesy of Christina Giallombardo.

Article images courtesy of Alice Nott.

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