Last Updated on June 19, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
A love letter to the food of Sicily
Ben Tish, the author of Sicilia (Bloomsbury), is an accomplished chef, food writer, restaurateur and teacher. He runs two restaurants in London that celebrate the food of Sicily. Shortly before the first lockdown, my family and I celebrated a milestone birthday at one of these, Norma, a lunch that lingers in the memory because the food, wine and ambience were all so simpatico. When Sicilia was published, I was delighted to receive a copy to review because I hoped to find some of the restaurant’s recipes within its pages. I was not disappointed.
In his introduction to an island about which Tish is truly passionate, he writes about the multitude of culinary influences that have shaped Sicilian cooking. Positioned as it is in the very centre of the Mediterranean, close to both North Africa and to Europe, it boasts a diverse range of food and produce. While the island’s history has seen many occupiers come and go, Tish explores the influence of the Moors and the Berbers which he views as having left the strongest impression. His descriptions of the markets he has visited over the years made me ache for travel especially since Sicily has long been on my bucket list.
Sicilia, beautifully photographed by Kris Kirkham, has recipes for different levels of confidence. There are simple salads and pasta dishes or more complex bread and pastries such as cannoli and buccellati; stuffed and braised lamb hearts and the spectacular baked Sicilian anelletti timballo which is the sort of complicated cooking you may enjoy for a special celebration. I tried a selection of dishes from a variety of sections of the book which is divided into chapters on bread, fritti, pasta and rice, veg, fish, meat, sweets, granita and ice creams. Tish provides introductory pages to each section and his notes above the recipes add to one’s appreciation not only of the origins of the dish but of its place in Sicilian cuisine.
Having eaten Pasta Alla Norma during the lunch I enjoyed at the restaurant, I was pleased to be able to serve it up at my table. This dish is, Tish informs readers, the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. It was created in Catania and some people believe it to be a homage to Bellini’s opera of the same name. The pasta dish is very simple – as so many satisfying pastas is – and involves roasting cubes of aubergine and then mixing them into a basic tomato sauce. Naturally, the quality of the chopped tomatoes will affect the depth of flavour of the sauce and I did feel that, although I used a good brand, my sauce was not what I recalled from the restaurant itself. The truth is, that the experience we have in high-quality restaurants does not usually translate to our own kitchens which is why, while I love to cook, I also enjoy eating food prepared by professionals.
The pasta section includes a recipe for homemade ravioli but I am far too lazy for that sort of cooking and opted instead for another very easy dish. Tish tells us that is one of the simplest of pasta dishes, and in the heat of a summer’s evening, it ticked the box for easy execution and minimal time at the stove. Lemon, parmesan, chilli and basil linguine is one of those store cupboard dishes that can be rustled up in no time and tasted as fresh and light as can be. I imagined sitting at a seaside restaurant overlooking the beach, with a chilled Sicilian white wine at hand. Instead, I had my garden on an unusually hot night. The wonderfully lemony flavour was so refreshing and I added extra chilli in the form of flakes which we added at the table.
The fish section in Sicilia has a tantalising selection from mackerel crudo with fennel pollen and preserved lemon to grilled monkfish with fennel sausages, tomatoes and pumpkin. Since I didn’t have fennel pollen to hand, I chose to make baked cod with courgettes, rosemary, Marsala and brown crab. I have to admit that I did not have brown crab either, and substituted sherry for Marsala, but the result was delicious nonetheless. What I learned from this recipe was that roasting the fish on a bed of chopped courgette is a very fine thing. I often sautée courgettes to serve alongside fish but cooking them with the fish was a revelation and one I will keep on with. Tish writes that Marsala – or sherry – has a great affinity with fish and shellfish and it did make a deeply satisfying sauce. This was a most successful traybake.
From the vegetable section, I chose a chilled green bean salad with toasted almonds, shallots, raisins and orange. The beans are cooked al dente and then plunged into iced water to arrest the cooking and preserve the vibrant colour. I only had blood oranges to hand but thought that since these grow in Sicily they would be true to the spirit of the dish even though they were very purple on the plate rather than orange. Tish’s salad is his homage to one of the Aeolian Islands off Sicily called Panera, where he ate a version of this dish. It has a wonderful freshness with the crunch of bean and toasted almond, the juiciness of the oranges balanced by the shallot and the tart dressing.
In his terrific section on ice cream and granita, Tish opines that granita may be Sicily’s greatest culinary gift to the world. It derived from the snow and ice that were gathered centuries ago in stone snow huts on the slopes of Mount Etna. The frozen blocks were brought down to cafes and restaurants where they were shaved into what eventually became granita during the Arab occupation when sugar, herbs and spices were added to the snow during the 16th century. During a week of really hot weather, I tried the coffee granita. Tish serves this with whipped cream or stuffed into a home-baked brioche. I kept it au naturel and there were sighs of gratitude when I passed around small glasses of sweet, strong granita at the end of a long, muggy day.
In Sicilia, Tish describes having first encountered this granita at a hotel in Taormina where the breakfast buffet had a granita station with a range of choices stored in antique silver cook flasks. Sound like my kind of hotel. It is the first time I have made granita and it is so easy that I am encouraged to try some more. Next up is Tish’s favourite – buttermilk granita. What a way that will be to start the day. Tish’s gelatos are equally inspiring and one that intrigued me is fig leaf ice cream. In my Garden of Eden, I have a tree with many leaves but not even a sign of a fig. Finally, I have a way to turn the meagre offerings of this sad fig tree into a wonderful dessert.
Iced coffee granita, easy to make for summer
- 80 grams ground espresso coffee I used the alternative - 1 litre freshly brewed espresso
- 1 litre water
- 80 grams caster sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- To serve with whipped cream:
- 300 ml whipping cream
- 3 tbsp icing sugar
Place the ground coffee and the water into a pan. Bring to the boil, stir from time to time then set aside.
Brew for a few minutes and then pour it through a coffee filter or a sieve lined with muslin into a jug or a bowl.
I used the alternative method which was to make a litre of coffee in a cafetiere which I then poured into a glass bowl.
Add the sugar while the coffee is hot and stir to dissolve.
Add the lemon juice. Set aside to cool, then taste for sweetness.
Once the coffee has cooled, transfer it to the fridge for an hour.
Now place the coffee in a freezable container and carefully place in the freezer for an hour.
Remove the container, whisk the coffee with a fork to break up the icicles that will have begun to form.
Return to the freezer and remove, every half an hour - I set an alarm for this - so that frozen crystals form rather than a solid mass. I had to judge at what point to stop whisking - you are looking for crunchy, frozen crystals.
It can now be kept in the freezer for 3 days before it loses flavour.
If you are topping the granita with whipped cream, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks and then whisk in the icing sugar.
Serve the granita in small glasses with or without cream. You can also cut open a brioche bun and fill it with granita and whipped cream.
Buy Sicilia from good bookshops or online from Amazon