Endings, Beginnings, and Spaghetti

August already. How did that happen?

However it did, it sure happened quick. One minute it was spring, with each long, languid day offering the promise of infinitely more to come, and the next it’s late August, and each warm breeze feels like the closing act. Even if the temperature hasn’t dipped too much yet, the evenings are becoming noticeably shorter, and as early pumpkins and apples start appearing beside the peaches, corn and tomatoes, I know it’s just a matter of time before we’re digging out the parkas and extra socks.

Of course it’s still a while before that happens, and when I stop to think I remember how the end of summer means the beginning of fall, a season I love almost as much. This year the sense of August as the harbinger of an ending seems particularly acute, though, since, well… it is. Not to over-dramatize things, since all the changes are positive and welcome, but as much as I’m looking forward to them, beginning something new always means ending something old, and when that something old has brought good things, leaving it behind is hard.

In my case, the end of this month is bringing about some significant life changes. We’re moving again, for starters, though this time luckily not across hemispheres, but just across the country—to Stuttgart, capital of the southwest. Known as an industrial powerhouse, and cradle of the formidable German automobile industry, I’ve been thrilled to learn that Stuttgart is also Germany’s gastronomic capital. It makes sense, actually, as the city is located barely an hour from both France and Switzerland, is smack in the middle of German wine country and is surrounded by the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the republic (61 in the region, at last count). I daresay we couldn’t have chosen better if we’d tried.

And then there’s the reason for the move. I’ve been offered a job down there, a really, really great job, one that combines my background in language and writing and public relations and offers me the chance to work for one of the most well-known and well-respected companies in Germany. It’s like nothing I’ve done before, but somehow it’s perfect for me—well, as perfect as something that doesn’t involve food can be. It will mean big changes, though, in everything from how I spend my days to what I spend them thinking about to how much time and energy I’ll have to potter around the kitchen at their end—to, of course, how blogging will fit into the picture.

But let’s not worry about that now. First, I have a promise to fulfill. Last time we spoke I told you I’d share a treat from Sicily with you, and I don’t intend to let you down. In fact, it would be criminally negligent of me to not share this particular recipe with you, since it offers one of the best vehicles for sweet, juicy late-summer tomatoes (i.e. the kind in your markets NOW) ever devised. In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest it makes one of the best pasta sauces ever devised. I’ve seriously been tempted to spend this month eating nothing else.

Now here’s where I have to admit a bit of a convoluted background to this dish. Ostensibly it’s a slight modification of the famous pesto trapanese, a tomato, basil and almond sauce hailing from the northwestern city of Trapani. I actually didn’t eat this in Sicily—I wasn’t near Trapani, and it wasn’t the right season anyway—but shortly after I returned home I found the recipe in one of the newest Sicilian cookbooks on my shelf, Made in Sicily by London restaurateur and author Giorgio Locatelli. What initially caught my eye in Locatelli’s version was his substitution of mint for the more common basil, something I may have been dubious about once upon a time, but certainly not since traveling to Sicily this spring and falling in love with the intense Sicilian mint that perfumes everything there. The second thing that struck me was that instead of grinding everything together to the usual homogenous mass that characterizes a pesto, he left the various components chunky and distinct, juicy nuggets of tomato interrupted by splinters of almond and curls of fresh mint.

Or at least that’s what the luminous photo next to the dish showed. And for some reason, after admiring that photo and quickly scanning the list of ingredients, I ran off to make the dish without, well, actually reading the recipe itself.

It was, however, as spectacular as I expected: the sweet bursts of tomato, like half-melted rubies clinging to the hot pasta, the toasty crunch of almonds, the peppery slick of olive oil, and the ribbons of spicy mint, which is so unexpectedly sublime with tomato and garlic, so clean and fresh and bracing, I might never touch a sprig of basil in their presence again.

Unfortunately it was also wrong, as I discovered after I’d made the sauce this way two or three times. Don’t ask me what the photographer was smoking, but the instruction was clear as day in the recipe, when I actually bothered to read it: grind everything to a paste in a mortar.

Oops. But by then it was too late; I had fallen so in love with my accidental version and its rustic, toothsome chunks that I simply couldn’t fathom doing it any other way. And since it’s the version I love, it’s the version I’m giving you—though to nip any confusion in the bud I’ve changed the name from ‘pesto’ to to the more generic ‘salsa’. Even if you’re a fan of the original I urge you to give this one a try; though I should warn you, you may soon find yourself trying to sneak tomatoes, almonds and mint into nearly everything you eat. Not that this qualifies as a problem in my book.

I just hope the good people of Trapani will forgive me for my freewheeling approach to their gastronomic heritage. And I hope you, dear readers, will forgive me for another stretch of silence around here. On the bright side, a belly full of spaghetti should tide you over nicely.

Spaghetti with Salsa Trapanese

You may have noticed that I mentioned making this dish shortly after returning from Sicily early this spring, long before any edible tomatoes were on the market in this hemisphere. I was, in fact, so eager to try it that I gave it a shot with canned San Marzanos, drained, rinsed, seeded and chopped. I have to say, it honestly wasn’t half bad—in fact I’d rate it as significantly better choice than out-of-season (i.e. hothouse) fresh tomatoes. Of course candy-sweet summer heirlooms are in a league of their own, but should you find yourself craving this in the off-season, there’s no shame in substituting the contents of three 400g/14oz cans for the amount of tomatoes given here.
p.s. I know peeling tomatoes is a chore, but please don’t skip this step or the pieces won’t get that luscious, half-melted texture when they hit the hot pasta.
p.p.s. This sauce certainly doesn’t only go with pasta; try it over sauteed fish or chicken too.

Source: adapted from Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Sicily
Serves: 4-6

500g (1 generous lb.) juicy, ripe plum or heirloom tomatoes
75g (1/2 cup) blanched almonds
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed or grated on a fine Microplane
40g (1 large handful) fresh mint leaves, shredded
50ml (scant 1/4 cup) olive oil
salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste
pinch of sugar

500g/1 lb. dried spaghetti

Cut a shallow ‘X’ in the bottom of each tomato and place them in a deep heatproof bowl. Bring a kettle of water to a boil, then pour enough over tomatoes to submerge them all. Leave for 10-20 seconds, or until the skin at the cut part of the tomatoes starts to curl. Drain and fill the bowl with cold water. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin. Cut them in half, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon, and dice the flesh. Sprinkle lightly with salt and let drain in a sieve while you prepare the other ingredients.

Toast the almonds in a 350F/175C oven for 8-10 minutes, or until golden. Cool, then chop medium-fine.

Combine the chopped almonds and tomatoes in a large serving bowl with the garlic, mint and oil, mashing the tomatoes slightly with the back of the spoon, and season to taste with more salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Let sit while you cook the pasta, or up to several hours.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti just until al dente. Drain it well, and immediately add to the bowl with the sauce, tossing to coat. Correct the seasoning if necessary, and serve.

I don’t feel this needs any cheese, but Locatelli suggests that if you want some, dice some young pecorino and toss it in before serving.

The Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School

So, Sicily.

As much as I loved Palermo, I have to say it paled in comparison to the the five days I spent with the most incredible group of bloggers at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School.

If the name Anna Tasca Lanza rings a bell for you, there’s a good reason. In her day, she was the authority on Sicilian food—the Marcella Hazan of the south. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, before any kind of regional awareness had entered the Italian food lexicon in the US, she began writing about traditional Sicilian cooking for the American market. As people woke up to the bold, rustic flavors of the island, her fame spread, and she began regularly collaborating with such food luminaries as James Beard, Julia Child* and Alice Waters, and making frequent appearances on television and radio. She published two books of her own, and among the other numerous Sicilian cookbooks on my shelf, I doubt there is one that doesn’t mention her name.

She also opened a cooking school on her family’s 19th-century estate, Regaleali. Located about halfway between Palermo and Agrigento in the mountainous Sicilian heartland, Regaleali has been in the Tasca family since 1830, when it was bought by Anna’s great-great-great grandfather, Count Lucio Tasca. It’s still very much a working farm; wine, olive oil, wheat, almonds, favas and citrus are grown on its 1,200 acres of softly rolling hills, and even today it represents one of the major sources of employment for people in this impoverished corner of the island. Over the years it has evolved, though, first with the establishment by Anna’s father of a state-of-the-art winery which now ranks among Sicily’s best, and later, when he divided up the estate among his children. His son inherited the ‘main house’ and winery, and his three daughters were given smaller houses and land around the property; Anna’s was a traditional farmhouse set around a cobbled courtyard, called Case Vecchie.

The estate is home to thousands of olive trees which produce a beautifully mellow, grassy oil the color of the afternoon sun. I think if I had an unlimited supply of oil like that, life would be pretty much complete.

Anna and her husband had one daughter, Fabrizia. In her younger days Fabrizia was, by her own admission, interested in anything that wasn’t Sicilian, and as soon as she was old enough moved north, where she established a career as an art historian and had two children of her own. When Anna launched herself into the culinary world, Fabrizia cheered her mother on from afar, at first. In her mid-40s, though, after suddenly finding herself out of a job, Fabrizia realized the not only was she deeply homesick for Sicily, but what she really wanted to do was dedicate her life to keeping traditional Sicilian cuisine alive too.

Cactus (aka prickly) pears grow everywhere in Sicily. They’re called fichi d’India (Indian figs), and put into everything from jam to ice cream.

That little house among the trees is where we slept. Imagine waking up to this every morning…

So Fabrizia moved back home and started working with Anna. Although she had previously never felt any particular affinity for cooking (“my affinity was for eating!” she told me), something about this food-centric life just felt right, like it was what she was really meant to be doing all along. It was only natural, then, that when Anna passed away two years ago, Fabrizia took over. She’s now an active ambassador for Sicilian cuisine in her own right, spending several months each year traveling, giving lectures and demonstrations, and cooking as a guest chef in well-known restaurants (she has regular gigs at Babbo and Chez Panisse, for instance). The rest of the year she spends at Regaleali, teaching cooking classes and tending to the estate and its endless harvests. And this year at least, entertaining food bloggers.

Fabrizia with her cousin Giuseppe, co-owner of the estate’s winery Tasca d’Almerita along with his brother Alberto. Can you see the family resemblance? It’s all in the hair.

Due to the estate’s comparatively high elevation and clay-rich soil, the conditions are perfect for growing a variety of reds and whites. Although everything they grow is effectively organic, they reject labeling it as such. Guiseppe is actually very concerned about the environmental damage being caused by ‘organic’ wine production, in particular contamination caused by runoff of copper sulfate, which is used widely as a non-chemical fungicide. At Regaleali, by contrast, they take a biodynamic approach, and are constantly seeking new methods that allow them to grow as sustainably as possible.

Regaleali in spring: flowering almond trees, olive trees, vineyards and endless blue skies.

The thing that struck all of us, I mean apart from the sheer beauty of the place, was how we felt we were welcomed almost like members of the family. If you didn’t know they rank among Italy’s elite aristocratic families you certainly wouldn’t know it by meeting them; everyone we met was refreshingly humble and down-to-earth. Fabrizia, in particular—who, by the way, is also a marchesa (marquess) like her mother—took us under her wing with such warmth and affection that we felt more like long-lost children home for a visit than a crew of camera-toting journalists.

Of course it didn’t hurt that we were all in our favorite element, in the kitchen and around the table. The daily program went something like this: wake up, stuff ourselves with sesame-crusted semolina bread, fresh sheep’s milk ricotta and about a dozen flavors of Fabrizia’s homemade preserves as well as a cake or two that had magically appeared overnight. Set off on a little outing to visit a local producer, accompanied of course by copious tastings. Around noon gather back in the teaching kitchen for a hands-on demonstration of whatever local specialties were on the lunchtime menu, followed by a four-course communal lunch. Digest for a couple of hours. At five gather back in the kitchen for an aperitif, a new lesson and, at the end, another three or four course meal. Stagger to bed swearing we will be much more successful at curtailing our gluttony tomorrow. Wake up, conveniently forget all about the previous night’s promises because really, food this good doesn’t just fall onto your plate every day, and repeat.

The iconic pasta con le sarde, pasta with fresh sardines and wild fennel. Now I understand why they say you can’t make it without that fennel—its flavor is like fennel on steroids. In this part of Sicily it’s traditional to top the dish with a mixture of toasted breadcrumbs and sugar. The sweetness is a bit jarring at first bite, but it quickly becomes addictive.

But truly, I don’t know what was better: the food, with its gutsy, punchy, sweet and sharp edges and ingredients that tasted like concentrated versions of themselves, or the fact of having nothing better to do all day than hang out with a group of similarly food-obsessed people and, with minimal effort on your part, have a multi-course meal of said food land on your plate three times a day. Believe me, there was true panic in everyone’s eyes when someone voiced the fear we were all secretly harboring by the end of the week: “but how can we ever go back to our normal lives after this?”

How, indeed? I’m still trying to figure it out, actually, but at least I have memories, and more importantly, recipes. For things like a lemon-almond pudding called biancomangiare and sweet-sour artichoke caponata.

For fried fresh sardines drizzled with vinegar, and swordfish studded with mint, garlic and rosemary before being gently baked in wine.

For pillows of pasta stuffed with mint-flecked ricotta and drizzled with sage-almond pesto.

And for shatteringly crisp panelle, the secret to which is spreading the mixture as thinly as possible on plates, then letting them cool by an open window.

And for sweet, tender lamb stewed in the estate’s own red wine, and ricotta-filled cassata ringed with pistachio marzipan, and an emerald stew of fresh fava beans, and crunchy-creamy candied-orange-crowned cannoli, and little pillows of ricotta gnocchi drizzled in sage-infused butter, and artichokes stuffed with pine nuts and currants, and sweet-sour braised rabbit, and pillow-soft, olive-studded focaccia…

It’s a good thing Fabrizia’s first book is coming out later this year. Otherwise I’d have to share all these recipes here, because really, they’re that good.

Oh but don’t worry, of course I’ll give you one or two to tide you over in the meantime!

*Speaking of Julia Child, we heard a funny anecdote. Various members of Fabrizia’s family were always stopping by, including one of her maternal aunts, who joined us for dinner a couple of times. On one of these nights she told us about how she used to sometimes accompany Anna, her sister, on her ambassadorial trips to the US, and once they were invited to dinner by Julia Child and her husband Paul. “The were lovely people,” she told us, “and made us feel right at home.” “But how was the food?” I asked her, dying of curiosity. She wrinkled her nose slightly. “Oh, it was nothing special. I remember Julia made us a pumpkin soup. It wasn’t bad, but my own recipe is much better.”

Springtime in Sicily

Let me offer you a piece of advice.

Should you ever find yourself, on a particularly dark winter day, opening your inbox to find an email inviting you to spend a week in Sicily in early spring, here’s a few things you shouldn’t do. Don’t stop to think about your schedule, or how any number of things might come up in your life between now and then to prevent you from going. Don’t start looking at your travel options yet, which on first glance always appear to be more convoluted and/or expensive than they will actually turn out to be. Don’t start wondering if your family will ever speak to you again when you announce you’re abandoning them to their frigid northern fates while you jet off for a romp in the Mediterranean sun. Don’t hesitate even for a minute, just hit the reply button and type the biggest ‘YES!’ your sense of propriety and font options will allow, and hit send.

There’s plenty of time for worrying about the rest later, and no matter what that rest might be, I promise it’ll pale in comparison to everything Sicily has in store for you when you get there.

Like almond trees in bloom, and fragrant, purple bushes of wild rosemary.

And citrus trees, their branches buckling under the weight of more blood oranges, mandarins, lemons and citrons than you could consume in a lifetime.

And Palermo, a city you’ve always wanted to visit, which turns out to be full of chaotic energy and surprising elegance…

…and awe-inspiring baroque, moorish and modern façades that transport you, as you walk down a single city block, through centuries of the island’s tumultuous history…

…and vivid, bustling street markets teem with edible treasures the likes of which you’ve never before seen, from the tiniest artichokes…

…to the biggest cauliflower (called, confusingly, broccolo, and the size of a basketball)…

…and whose streets offer some of finest edible temptations on offer anywhere in the world: gelato in brioche (flavored with pistacchi di Bronte, the Lamborghinis of the pistachio world)…

arancine (risotto balls stuffed with ragù and fried, and when they’re as big as this one—the size of a grapefruit!—offer an entire meal in a convenient package), and the famous seven-layer chocolate and hazelnut cake called setteveli

…pane con panelle, thin, crunchy chickpea-flour fritters stuffed into a soft sesame roll…

…and sfincione, Sicily’s soft, spongy answer to pizza.

And then there’s some of the most varied and beautiful landscapes you’ve ever seen, emerald green from spring rains and dotted with craggy, snow-covered peaks.

At times you could almost be forgiven for thinking you’d taken a wrong turn, and ended up in the Scottish Highlands, or the Swiss Alps.

But then you round another corner, and there’s no mistaking where you are.

And best of all, there’s the whole reason you came to Sicily in the first place: to spend one of the most magical weeks of your life in the company of this magnificent woman and these extraordinary, hilarious, dazzlingly talented people, learning, laughing, cooking, and above all EATING.

I’ll tell you all about it next time.

p.s. My time in Palermo was frustratingly short, but the suggestions I was armed with thanks to these brilliant ladies (who have, I was happy to discover, impeccable taste) helped me make the most of every second. Next time I go I’ll definitely be following more of their advice.