Sicily: The Cookbook, Recipes Rooted in Traditions
If like me you favor the foods of the Mediterranean -- especially Italian -- your cookbook shelf is probably dominated by Marcella Hazan (her first, The Classic Italian Cookbook, is still my favorite). You may also have Arthur Schwartz's peerless Naples at Table or his Southern Italian Table, which I use constantly, or maybe On Top of Spaghetti by the celebrated Providence, RI restaurant Al Forno. Maybe you love The Italian Baker by Carol Field, or the hefty and resourceful The Silver Spoon, or the accessible Italian Easy from the London River Café. Or like me, you have a dog-eared and well-splattered copy of Diana Seed's The Top 100 Pasta Sauces.
But make room for one more.
SICILY: THE COOKBOOK (Rizzoli New York, © 2017, hardcover, 8 1/2" x 10", 336 pages, color photography, $40) is Melissa Muller's very beautiful new cookbook that makes you want to cook this food, eat this food, visit Sicily, cook in Sicily. It will enrich your understanding of, and improve your skill in Italian cuisine and it will seduce you with its genuine enthusiasm, inspiring recipes, and amazing flavors.
It's also acutely personal, but not in the way that so many cookbooks are now, full of anecdotal and irrelevant blather. Instead Muller reveals a compelling narrative, based on real life and real people. As she wrote, "Every recipe contains the imprint of the family." The book is exquisitely written with a rare sense of belonging and a long-lens yet intimate perspective through which Muller both observes herself and brings us with her as she explores her Sicilian legacy.
Central to her story is her grandmother Francesca, who left the village of Sant 'Anna as a child in 1936 to emigrate to America, later bringing her granddaughter back to Sicily every summer. These visits fueled the pull that led Melissa Muller to eventually make her adult life there.
Melissa Muller wrote SICILY after years of meticulous research while also running three successful Sicilian restaurants in New York where she was born and educated at both Columbia and the International Culinary Center. She now lives on a farm with organic gardens and orchards in the middle of Sicily.
Muller lets us see Sicily as a real place, formed by its rich past but now very much in the present. For example, Muller doesn't just give us facts and tips about olive oil; those are easy to find with a quick Google search. Instead she takes us to the olive groves, telling us the history of Sicilian olives and what makes them different, and then through a modern harvest, to the pressing and bottling. It might change how you think about every bottle of oil you'll buy.
As we read Muller's stories, and the 100+ recipes (more on these shortly), our imaginations get a boost from Sara Remington's 200 gorgeous color photographs that are so inspiring that you don't know whether to buy a plane ticket to Palermo or else lick the pages. But the photos aren't mere postcard images that just prettily fill spaces; instead they are useful, showing the surface of a loaf of bread or the viscosity of oil in which a chunk of tuna belly has been preserved. They contribute to the content, not just decorate it. This begins with the book's cover in which a woman shells a bowl of fava beans -- at last, an Italian cookbook that resists the cliché of a bowl of red-sauced pasta.
Sicily is an ancient global crossroads. While essentially Italian, its food is a palimpsest of its conquerors. Over the centuries and starting in the Bronze Age, the land was conquered variously by Romans, Greeks, North Africans, and finally the Italians, and occupied by Muslims, Greek Byzantines, and Jewish Sicilians. As Muller observed, "as each invader would introduce new crops, Sicilian cuisine expanded and became more and more nuanced."
Despite all its beauty and storytelling, the book is acutely useful. In an authoritative declaration of today's Sicilian cuisine, Muller gives us over 100 recipes -- nearly all from home cooks -- but there are also primers, guides, and smartly organized information. These tell us how to shop for and make the dishes and get the most from their flavor. For instance, she has a two-page chart about Grape Varietals and Denominations so you can better navigate your favorite wine shop's Sicilian bottles. And there are similar at-a-glance resources about beans, olives, cheeses, cookies, and pizza. There's a descriptive inventory of the ingredients in most Sicilian kitchens; you might expect olive oil, vinegar, citrus and garlic but there are also elderberry flowers, bay laurel leaves, jasmine, capers, almonds, and salted anchovies.
I really liked her quick instruction guide for reading Italian product labels. Those of you who get tempted by the charming "San Marzano" labels on cans of wimpy California tomatoes will get to know why these pale compared to the tomatoes that come in a can with a label with the letters D.O.P.
(Worth noting: Muller provides ingredient substitutions throughout the book for anything that is hard or scarce to get in conventional U.S. markets, plus she has a list of online Italian grocers at the end of the book.)
There are stories about salt, preserved fish, citrus at Christmas, and of course, pasta. And the end of the book has a list of recommended pastry shops, restaurants and pizzarias, and festivals for when you visit Sicily (if you're in Palermo next April you can attend the 'Mpurnatu Festival Campobello di Licata which celebrates a pasta dish).
After Muller's compelling introduction called Rooted in Sicily, there are ten chapters, beginning with what she calls Foundational Elements. This is where she establishes the Sicilian palate and pantry with Grape Reduction, Trapanese Pesto (made with tomatoes), Garlic Paste, Soffritto, Bread Crumbs, and Sweet & Sour Sauce (agrodolce).
From here the more traditional chapters follow: Preserved Foods, Bread & Savory Bites, Antipasti, Soup & Rice, Pasta, Vegetables, Seafood, Meat, and Fruits & Desserts.
You'll see recipes that may be familiar and others that will be new and even exotic. There's much about the Sicilian practice of preserved fish (tuna, bottarga, anchovies, sardines, dried codfish), citrus marmalades, and foods to save and savor flavors as with caponata made variously with artichokes, eggplant, green apple, tuna, or winter squash.
Breads & Savory Bites are made with a variety of wheat and flour, including heritage grains. There's a primer on classic bread shapes, instructions for starter doughs, a Tomato and Herb Pesto for Bread, Muffuletta (Soft Rolls), and others that justify Sicily's reputation for bread greatness.
Antipasti begins with what some call sashimi but the Italians call crudo, then salads, including a bountiful Seafood Salad made with scallops, mussels, octopus, calamari and finished with a delicate avocado cream. There are more modern takes, as with Muller's Savory Eggplant Trifle, and a soufflé-like Squash Greens Flan with a Ragusano Cream. Other dishes make use of the island's famed olives, as in a simple Olive Salad I made last week with cracked, pitted green olives, crunchy carrots, celery, red onion and red peppers, the flavors brightened with fresh lemon juice and slicked with olive oil. Served with a piece of simple broiled swordfish, it was like putting a precious jeweled necklace on a plain black dress. Perfect.
The chapter about Soups & Rice includes broths; hearty bean and lentil soups; arancine, the satisfying balls of cooked rice, often stuffed with cheese or ragu; and risotto. The recipe for Pesto Broth with Bread Dumplings is an old one that originally used a local spring herb called nepitella for which Muller has substituted fresh basil and mint. This simple recipe is perfect for the spring and early summer when fresh basil becomes bountiful, and if you use vegetable broth it is vegan. Here it is.
Chapter 6 is Pasta, both dried and fresh. It begins with what Muller calls "The Essential Sauce," made with olive oil, tomato pulp (there's more on this ingredient, including how to make it fresh), garlic or onion, fresh basil, salt and water. But this chapter is not red-sauce dominated. On the contrary, there are pastas with sardines, sea urchin, bottarga, cauliflower, and eggplant. Then also crepes, timbales, couscous, and fresh pastas (with red mullet and bottarga, porcini, pork ragu, pumpkin and fresh ricotta, and others).
Her splendid and easy recipe for Pasta with Preserved Tuna, which Muller calls "Sicily on a plate," will be as good as the quality of the tuna you use, which I learned when I made it with a can of high quality ventresca di tonno (canned tuna belly) I had bought on my last trip to Italy. You can buy similar quality tuna in some specialty markets or online from one of Muller's online sources. Or use Tonnino, which is increasingly available in supermarkets.
Vegetables may be the heart of Sicilian cooking because the island is so bountiful with varieties that thrive in the island's microclimates and sunshine. The tomatoes are legendary, but Sicilian vegetables also include greens, cabbage, fava beans, artichokes, peppers, squash, eggplant and huge cauliflower that are often deep purple. The recipes in this chapter include stuffing vegetables, making cutlets, adding to frittatas or frying as fritters, smoked, or twice cooked.
Since Sicily is an island, it's not a surprise that the chapter on Seafood would be so diverse. There's Tuna Sausages, Salt-Baked Sea Bass, classic Swordfish Involtini, Olive Oil-Poached Hake, and a simple but so tempting Fried Mixed Fish to which you can add little slivers of fried zucchini. Here's that recipe.
Chapter 9 is all about Meat. In Sicily pork and lamb dominate, but beef, veal, chicken, rabbit, hare and goat are also eaten. The chapter begins with things more familiar, like Grilled Beef Braciole and Grilled Sausage with onions and peppers, and the popular Porchetta (Roast Suckling Pig), but these are followed by Quail Stuffed with Chicory, Braised and Glazed Lamb Shanks, Mamma Adele's Braised Goat, and a luscious Stuffed Beef Roll.
Sicilians love their sweets so the last chapter, Fruits & Desserts, has lots of variety, making special use of that which is local and bountiful (e.g., citrus and almonds). Like Pistachio Ice Cream, Almond or Lemon Ice, Rustic Almond Cookies, Layered Cannoli, Carob Custard, Watermelon Pudding, and a favorite of my husband's, Limoncello (made with pure 100-proof grain alcohol, something I will have to try).
I certainly love the recipes in this book but what SICILY mostly has also done is remind me about the importance of connecting food to the people we love and to the primacy of ingredients. That it is worth the trouble to seek the obscure ingredient, and better to make a modest dish for which I've paid a premium for the best possible imported canned sardines instead of a pricey aged steak. That once in a while it is salvation to pause and take the time to mindfully cook instead of always looking for the quick way to the table. That even if it is not the food of my ancestors, that connecting with a cuisine that is both historic and satisfying can change our dinner table and those who sit around it.
And that I can read another's journey and somehow make it mine.