Last Updated on March 30, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
The Taste of Sicily – Coniglio Alla Stimpirata
One of the first Sicilian dishes I tried was caponata. A sweet-sour vegetable dish that is like a more exotic ratatouille and is sometimes served with pine nuts and raisins, I was smitten at the first spoonful. It’s a recipe to make in late summer here in the UK when local tomatoes are ripe and there are plenty of courgettes and aubergines. It is a clue to the kind of dishes you’ll find in Sicily, the ‘football island ‘ off the boot of Italy, almost parallel with Tunisia. Understand a little of the history of Sicily and you’ll start to understand the food – it’s been part of both the Greek and Roman empires, been under Germanic rule, followed by Byzantine, Arabic, Norman and Aragon (Spanish) rule and only returned to being part of Italy in the mid 19th century. That in part explains a cuisine which is ‘Italian but not as you know it’. Add to the mix a volcanic land that is hard to farm, people who are historically poorer than their northern Italian cousins and an island that has been devastated by volcanic activity on several occasions over the centuries and it’s easy to see why this part of Italy depends on Cucina Povera This sweet and sour rabbit dish typifies the kind of dishes I learnt to make on a cookery course in Sicily some ten years ago making use of local seasonal ingredients. Full of flavour, with plenty of fresh vegetables the addition of mint and a sweet-sour sauce to the Coniglio Alla Stimpirata makes a dish that, if I had to guess I’d immediately place as Sicilian.
I’ve made Coniglio Alla Stimpirata as a pairing for a rather special bottle of Nero d’Avola that I’ve been sent. Very much the grape of Sicily, it’s named after the town of Avola on the south-east coast of the island, though the grape is planted across the island these days. Sicily has a hot Mediterranean climate – I was there in November and could swim in the sea and easily get sunburnt. A little like Syrah, the wine has high tannins and lots of body. My wine was the 306 Biologico Nero d’Avola 2017 from Independent wines, a Sicilian DOC and Decanter silver medal winner.
The wine comes from an organic micro-winery run by Salvatore Tamburello, his wife and three daughters. To get the wonderful, rich red wine we tried, Salvatore removes half the grapes from his vines so that the remaining fruit get extra nutrients and the end result is a more concentrated flavour. The vineyard and winery is in the western part of Sicily just south of Palermo and these vines are planted around 200m above sea level in a mixed limestone and clay soil. Once harvested they are cold macerated for 20 days at 18C then most is left to mature for 20 months in stainless steel tanks. Less than 10% is aged in oak barriques then blended to add a touch of oak. The end result is a deep ruby, silky wine with red fruit notes and hints of black pepper, cedar and leather. An excellent wine to enjoy with food, we loved the smooth rich and full mouthful which was robust enough to pair with the Coniglio Alla Stimpirata
If the wine was 100% Sicilian, the rabbit was a British creature from Wild and Game, an online game specialist with a range of ready-meals, pies and pastries to complement the wild game birds and meat they sell. Their oven-ready wild rabbit comes from Ben Rigby Game and is supplied butchered but whole (with liver and heart to help enrich your game stock). They deliver their products frozen so, if you can make space in your freezer, you can stock up on all sorts of delights. It’s one of the few places where I have been able to source wild boar (more of that later!).
I have to confess to a touch of trepidation about jointing the rabbit. I’m not sure why as I much prefer buying whole poultry and jointing it. Rabbit is really no harder. Although I did find it a little messier I suspect that might have been my lack of experience. The advantage of a whole rabbit is that you get a ribcage, liver and heart to make into stock and you can joint the rabbit itself appropriately for your recipe. If you are using farmed rather than wild rabbit you may find you can use the ribcage as a ‘rack’, but my wild rabbit really didn’t warrant that.
Once the rabbit is jointed, it will cook in much the same way as chicken portions. It has very little fat and needs careful treatment to avoid drying it out. I followed the suggestion given in one of the recipes I used as the base for my own Cogniglio Alla Stimpata and soaked the rabbit in vinegar for a few minutes (half an hour in my case), before draining it, rinsing it and drying it. Probably not necessary for a 750g rabbit, which must have been young, the vinegar is supposed to help soften the ‘game taste’. Next time, I will try brining the joints overnight which is another technique intended to help soften the flavour and improve the texture of this very lean meat.
At the heart of this dish is a generous quantity of good quality olive oil. You start by browning the meat in oil before gently softening the vegetables in oil over a low heat with just a little water to stop the mixture from drying out.
Next, add the rabbit, olives and capers and continue stewing in oil and a little water.
Finally, you make up a sweet-sour baste from vinegar and sugar which is cooked off to finish the cooking off before garnishing with mint. It’s the use of vinegar that typifies this dish – and which places it from around Syracuse where this style of dish is used for a whole range of ingredients including fish, chicken and vegetables. Apparently, the concept of ‘stimperata’ or ‘stemperata’ comes from medieval cookery and the idea that the nature of food could be changed by tempering it with a sauce and then allowing the flavours to meld together. The medieval concept was that this tempered the food so that it was in some way corrected. Adding the vinegar which is then evaporated off is the ‘tempering’ that is used in this recipe.
Some of the recipes I checked had pine nuts and raisins added at this point, just like caponata, and all had fresh mint scattered through the dish while it was still warm. For the most part, if tomato was used in the recipes it was a tiny amount. What all the dishes had in common was strict instruction to let the dish rest for at least 6 hours. In Sicily, this dish is traditionally eaten at room temperature. I tried a mouthful or two and did enjoy it. But, as it was a chilly spring day in London, I knew I’d need to reheat it. And, I really didn’t want to have to add more vegetables or pasta so I cooked a few more vegetables than the recipe I was working with had suggested. We enjoyed our Coniglio Alla Stimpirata with a green salad on the side and, of course, plenty of 306 biologico Nero d’Avola. I’m not sure what the Sicilian chef I learnt to cook with would have made of it – I’d like to hope she’d have been pleasantly surprised. Certainly, the flavours brought back Sicily for me.
If you’d like to try it for yourself here’s a printable version of the recipe based largely on an original one by Valeria Necchio on the Great Italian Chefs website.
A classic Sicilian sweet and sour dish made with rabbit, adapted from
- 750 g rabbit jointed into 6 pieces
- 500 ml white wine vinegar
- 4 tbsp good quality olive oil
- 2 medium carrots peeled and diced into 1cm chunks
- 2 sticks celery trimmed and sliced to around 1cm
- 1 medium onion peeled and finely chopped
- 2 medium potatoes peeled and diced into 1cm chunks
- 8 shallots or small onions peeled and halved if necessary
- 100 g pitted green olives
- 2 peppers red, yellow or green
- 1 tbsp capers rinsed
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 red chilli or a scant teaspoon of chilli flakes
- 2 bayleaves
- 50 g caster sugar
- 1 handful fresh mint leaves
- freshly ground salt and pepper
Put the rabbit joints in a bowl and cover with 450ml vinegar topped up with a little water. Cover the dish and leave for up to half an hour. If necessary, turn the joints to keep them covered in liquid.
Rinse the rabbit joints under running water, drain and pat dry with kitchen paper or a clean teatowel
Heat half the oil in your skillet or pan until it is nearly smoking. Add the rabbit and brown quickly over a medium to high heat, turning a couple of times.
Put the rabbit to one side and turn the temperature down. Add the rest of the oil along with the garlic, chilli, bay leaves and all the vegetables except the peppers. Cook over a medium heat for around 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
Once the potatoes and carrots start to soften add the peppers along with a little water, cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the rabbit back to the pan along with the olives and capers. If necessary add a little more water. Cover and cook for 15 more minutes until the rabbit is tender and the liquid has reduced down
Mix the remaining 50ml of vinegar with the sugar and stir well. Turn the heat up and pour over the sugar and vinegar mixture. Cook for 5 minutes or so until the vinegar has evaporated.
Turn off the heat and add the mint leaves, tearing any larger ones into small pieces. Stir through.
Allow the dish to rest at room temperature for around 6 hours. If you are planning to leave it for longer, put it in the fridge where it can safely stay for a few days.
Bring back to room temperature or reheat before serving.
Meanwhile, if you’d like an alternative Sicilian dish here’s the recipe for Pasta Alla Norma that I learnt when I was staying near Syracuse. It’s an easy vegetarian supper dish that everyone enjoys!
For rabbit and other wild game meats, we recommend Wild and Game. You’ll find they have a wide range of products on offer including British game meats, pies and a selection of game ready meals.
Our wonderful Sicilian Nero d’Avola came from Independent Wine, an online wine seller with a comprehensive cellar of Italian fine wines. We love the fact that you can order just a single bottle of wine from them – though we are sure you’ll be tempted to buy more!