I was in Tunis recently and very much enjoyed one particular meal at a restaurant that was by locals and cooked traditional food. The restaurant was very hard to find and our map reading skills were not the best, but we were very happy with the range of food we ate there. Harissa seemed to be in most of the food we ate including some mixed in some oil, which was served as a dip as a starter. It had slices of cucumber and black olives in it.

The other was a carrot dip also with Harissa.We dipped our bread into both of them.

I have been making and eating harissa for many years.

Harissa is a hot chilli condiment and ingredient and is the favoured national spice of Tunisia, but it is also popular in Algeria and Libya. It is very common to have harissa with couscous and I first tasted it in Sicily many years ago, which is very close to Tunis.

There are now many books about Middle Eastern cuisine (and North African) with recipes and variations for making it, but this version is very simple. I like to use whole caraway or cumin seeds rather than the powder and I do not usually weigh the chilli flakes, but the following ratio works well. In Tunisia they use a dry, very dark whole chilli, which produces Harissa with an intense colour. The chillies could also be smoked (hence their dark colour).

150g dried chilli flakes
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
hot water to soften the chilli
1 tbsp whole caraway or cumin seeds
salt, 1 tablespoon
extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup for the mixture and a little extra to seal
Pour hot water on to the chilli flakes, (just enough to cover them) and soak for about 30 minutes. If using caraway sees rather than powder, add these to soak as well. (The water will be absorbed and the flakes should swell).
Blend the ingredients in a small food processor.
Add the garlic, salt and some the extra virgin olive oil. You may need to add a little water – it should resemble a soft paste.
Pack into small glass jars and top with oil to seal. Replace the oil covering each time you use it.

 

To make the Harrisa flavoured oil simply mix 2-3 teaspoons of Harissa in about 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil.

MA2SBAE8REVW

Wild asparagus is strongly associated with spring and as an Italian I am continuing  with my appreciation and fascination of wild asparagus and seasonal produce.

I bought these wild asparagus in Varese, close to Milan and once again they are totally different in appearance, taste and texture. These are from the woods, i.e. “bosco”. Their stems are slightly furry and they do not taste as bitter as the other two varieties I ate in Sicily or the wild asparagus I ate in Tunis. See Wild Asparagus in Tunis

In this region of Italy butter features strongly in cooking so I sautéed them in butter and added salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. We ate them as a contorno (side dish).

 

I sautéed the second bunch in butter and oil and then added eggs, some grated Parmigiano, salt and pepper and made a frittatatina (small frittata) – this is a very common way to eat wild asparagus in Italy; in Sicily it is one of the favoured foods on Easter Monday (called La Pasquetta).

FRITTATINA DI ASPARAGI ( Small Frittata….substitute with thin variety of asparagus)
Wash the asparagus well, break off any hard ends and break the asparagus into smaller pieces.
Sauté the asparagus in some extra virgin olive oil, add a little salt and pepper. ( Most Italians pre-soften them by boiling them first).
Mix 6 eggs that have been beaten with a fork, add a little salt and about 1 tablespoon of grated cheese.Pour the egg mixture on top of the asparagus, cook the frittata on one side, slide the frittata onto a plate, flip the uncooked side on to the pan and cook.

 

After Italy I went to Spain (Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona). I saw wild asparagus plants growing Toledo and in the Gaudi Gardens In Barcelona (including wild fennel and even bushes of thyme in Montserrat). I did not see them on menus or for sale in the markets in Spain but I suspect that the wild asparagus season is well and truly over – Spain was much warmer than Italy.

 

The quality of the vegetables in the markets in Spain is very good, but I was surprised not to see anything out of the ordinary. There were artichokes and broad beans (both in season) but nowhere near the range of salad or cooking greens I saw in Italy.

What I appreciated in Spain and especially in Barcelona were the artichokes. They are almost totally stripped of all their leaves, sliced very thinly, dipped in a little flour and deep fried. Like the Italians, the Spaniards also eat them as a frittatina (tortilla). The cleaned artichokes are sliced thinly and cooked in the same way as the wild asparagus.

MA2SBAE8REVW

This is Franco the miller who mills cereali a pietra – in other words he produces stone-ground flour from high quality wheat.  He and his partner have an old water mill and they are experimenting with reviving old strains of wheat – so far so good! And there are farmers who are growing the old grains and buyers who are supporting it. Many of them are restaurateurs who are making pasta and bread in their restaurants.

 

The area of Sicily where this is happening is Chiaramonte Gulfi – I am so impressed and interested in what is happening in this south-eastern part of Sicily (see post about Massimiliano the Butcher).

 

The grain smelt wonderful and watching the stones grinding and the sifting process was an amazing experience. The flour needs to be kept in cool conditions or used quickly as it does not have any additives or bleaches, the germ of the wheat is maintained in the milling – flour that is good for us in other words.

 

Franco does not waste the by-products.  The bran is sold as animal fodder and he has customers and supporters who are interested in using the finer bran in baking. We sampled some bran biscuits produced by one of his followers.

 

There was another reason why I was interested in this mill and that is that my grandparents in Ragusa used to have an old water mill down by the river at the bottom of Ragusa Ibla. It no longer functioned as a mill and they used it as their get-away from the city, especially in the summer months, and grew their herbs and vegetables there. Being a regular visitor to Ragusa as a child I loved the mill (we travelled from Trieste and visited my grandparents each summer for two months each year).

I bought some of Franco’s flour home to my aunt, Zia Niluzza, who lives in Ragusa and still makes pasta by hand on special occasions. My visit this time was the special occasion and she produced her exceptionally good, traditional ricotta ravioli that are a specialty of this area of Sicily.

 

The ravioli di ricotta from Ragusa are usually served with a strong sugo (meat and a tomato-based sauce), which here is made with pork meat and pork sausages and tomato pasta. In Ragusa they add a little sugar (1 teaspoon per cup of ricotta; other local variations include a little orange peel or finely cut marjoram.

 

My aunt also made her special gnochetti. Rather than eating one kind of pasta at a time, we piled both ravioli and pasta into the one plate and helped ourselves to more sugo – but I noticed that she now uses less pork and I did not detect any pork rind in it. This is also a common additive in this part of Sicily. We are all health conscious these days.

 

For the ravioli you will need fresh pasta sheets and strong sugo made with meat tomatoes and tomato paste.

For the filling:

Drain the ricotta
Place it in a colander lined with cheesecloth and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Mix the ricotta with a little salt and some sugar (1 cup of ricotta- 1 teaspoon of sugar).

Make the ravioli:
The most authentic and quickest way to cut the ravioli is by hand. There is no
prescribed size – they can be either round or square (about 7cm/3in across)
or half-moon shaped (a 9cm/4in circle folded over).
To make individual ravioli, cut pasta into circles or squares. Place heaped
teaspoons of stuffing in the centre of each, continuing until all the stuffing
is used. For half-moon shapes fold the pasta over the filling. For others, lay
another circle or square on top, then moisten the edges with a little water and
press together carefully to seal properly (press hard on the edges and spread
the pasta to a single thickness, so they cook evenly).
Set the finished ravioli on a lightly floured cloth. They can rest in a cool
place for up two hours.

To make more than one raviolo at a time:
Cut the pasta into long rectangular strips about 9cm wide. Place heaped
teaspoons of stuffing about 5 cm apart (beginning about 2cm/.in from the
margin of the sheet). Cover with another strip of pasta of the same size.
Cut each raviolo free with a knife or serrated pasta wheel. Repeat the
process, until all the pasta and the stuffing is used up.

Cooking:
Cook ravioli as you would any pasta. Lower them into the water a few at a
time and scoop each out when it floats to the surface.
Dress them carefully with the sauce so as not to break.

MA2SBAE8REVW

This is Massimiliano Castro the best butcher in Sicily. I visited him in his butcher shop in Chiaramonte Gulfi in the province of Ragusa. As you can see he is quite famous. And his praise is well deserved.

I sampled and bought small pieces of his different salami and salamini (small salami). Some are flavoured with Sicilian pistachio from Bronte or carob or wild fennel from the local area. Most were made with the prized meat of the black pigs from the forests of the Nebrodi Mountains. Their meat is of extremely high quality. The wild breed is diminishing but with the help of the Slow Food Presidium this indigenous breed and the products obtained from this pig is being preserved. Massimiliano sources his pigs from farmers who are breeding them on organic farms.

He is also making some with asina meat (female donkey). Do not be alarmed, donkey meat was eaten in most parts of Italy once and was also used in smallgoods. These donkeys are native in the region of Ragusa and were once used to carry sacks and bundles and were eaten once the animal was too old. Now they are bred exclusively for their meat. Just as there is a renewed interest in the native Nebrodi black pig the Slow Food Ark of Taste is also helping to preserve indigenous breeds of donkeys all over Italy and the products obtained from their meat. The donkeys are being bred in limited numbers on special farms.

 

Massimiliano vacuumed packed all of the bits I bought as gifts for my relatives in Ragusa. He does this for customers who order his smallgoods from other parts of Italy as well as overseas buyers. I also bought some Gelatina renowned in this Southeast are of Sicily. I have written about this previously.

 

His reputation is certainly growing and he has been invited to conduct a smallgoods making workshop in Australia in the near future.

 

The visit to his butcher shop was kindly arranged by Roberta Carradin and Antonio Cicero who live on the outskirts of Chiaramonte have a restaurant called Il Cosiglio Di Sicilia in Donnalucata. They invited me to visit Massimiliano because they know I’m interested in the quality artisan produce that has developed in this area of Sicily, which has growing reputation for excellent artisan produce.

 

Roberta and Antonio bought the meat from Massimiliano’s butcher shop and we sampled the donkey meat which was tasty and maybe could be described as tasting of veal or young beef.

 

Jann Huizenga wrote about our fabulous lunch on her blog called Baroque Sicily.

 

The menu at Robert’s and Antonio’s restaurant features fish freshly caught by the local fishermen off the coast around the small and very attractive fishing village of Donnalucata in Southeast Sicily and dishes of smallgoods and meat from Massimiliano.

Thank you Jann for introducing me to such lovely friends, each one so passionate about Sicily and its produce.

There are so many wonderful things happening in Sicily and each one of you – a photographer, a butcher, a chef and a food critic, all contributing to preserving, developing and celebrating the culinary wealth of Southeastern part of Sicily.

 

MA2SBAE8REVW

I have had the most wonderful seafood meal in Catania at the “La Vecchia Quercia” in the Garden Hotel in San Giovanni la Punta.

I was a guest of Ristoworld an online not-for-profit organization dedicated to the restaurant and food production industry whose aim is to showcase Italian food internationally. Ristoworld has organised many congregations and competitions to promote  culinary skills in the restaurant and hotel trade.

This is an organisation that was first formed in Sicily in 2008, by Andrea Finocchiaro a chef who is based in Catania. This group has grown significantly and there are now delegates and representatives from all regions of Italy and from other parts of the world. I am the Australian delegate.

Apart from Andrea and Fabio Trefuletti (secretary) I met other members of the group. The food was cooked by Costantino Laudani, head chef at La Vecchia Quercia (he is also the delegate of Sicily for Ristoworld). My charming waiter and sommelier was Allessio Valenti (vice president of Ristoworld). 
Apparently Alessio is Catania’s best cocktail maker. Pity I am not into night life!

Unfortunately not all of the food was photographed. The antipasti were spectacular and there were so many of them…..marinaded fish, prawns, mussels, octopus……caponata with grated chocolate, cuscus.
We said no to fruit and dessert – we just could not have fitted it in.

MA2SBAE8REVW