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The Sicilian Pantry

Sicilian Food
History of Sicilian Food

Sicilian Food Today
Typical Sicilian Dishes


Tom Musco

Almonds The almond was first cultivated by the Greeks in Sicily; it was revitalized later by the Arabs.

Amaretti These crisp, almond-flavored cookies are used, crushed, in some meatball preparations.

Anchovies Anchovies are frequently crushed and dissolved in oil as the foundation for many pasta sauces, with or without tomato. They are commonly used as a topping for pizza.

Aniseed The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans knew aniseed, but the Arabs introduced its cultivation in Sicily. In medieval times, Arab doctors used aniseed for the supposed medicinal properties.

Apricots The Arabs introduced the apricot to Sicily. The word "apricot" derives from the Arabis al-berquq. Though both the Greeks and Romans knew of this fruit, combining it with meat or rice is an Arab and Persian tradition.

Artichokes The artichoke was developed by the Arabs, or perhaps the Berbers, from the cardoon, a wild edible thistle that looks like celery and tastes like artichoke. The artichoke first appeared in Italy in Naples and then in Tuscany in 1446, but it was being grown in Sicily as early as 1290 in the kitchen gardens of Palermo.

Basil Fresh basil is available in Sicily year-round. It is always added to a dish at the last minute, and most often paired with tomatoes, eggplant, or zucchini.

Bay leaf Bay leaves grow all over Sicily and are often used when grilling.

Breadcrumbs Sicilians use breadcrumbs to thicken sauces, to sprinkle over pasta and to add texture to many dishes.

Broccoli Broccoli is called sparaceddi in Sicilian. Sparaceddi also refers to broccoli rabe or rapini. In Sicilian, green cauliflower is called broccoli, while white cauliflower is called vrucculi.

Caciocavallo Caciocavallo is a cow’s milk cheese that can be eaten as a table cheese when young. Aging up to a year produces a sharper, harder cheese good for grating. Use the mild version in all recipes. Traditionally, the cheese is shaped in balls that are tied together, two by two, with raffia. Aged caciocavallo is grated and served with pasta as Parmesan is used on the Italian mainland.

Candied fruit The Arabs taught the art of candying fruit to the Sicilians. The most common fruit used for candying are citrus fruit, specifically the peel.

Capers The use of capers in Sicilian food goes back to the Greeks. Being a desert plant, the caper bush needs very little water or nutrients. The best Sicilian capers come from the island of Pantelleria. Sicilian capers are bigger and more strongly flavored than those from Provence, and are usually preserved with salt rather than brine. Their pungent, almost peppery taste stands as one of the most characteristic flavors of Sicilian cooking.

Chickpeas Dried chickpeas need to be soaked overnight and cooked at length. Chickpea flower is used to make Panelle.

Chili peppers Chili peppers are sometimes associated with the Arab influence by Sicilians, even though they came later from the New World, probably by way of Spain or Tunisia.

Cinnamon Cinnamon is the inner layer of the bark of the cinnamon tree. An ancient spice, it was popularized by Arab traders in Sicily.

Currants Called ribes, from the Arabic word for rhubarb, or uvette zante, currants are little black raisins. Palestinian Arabs may have introduced them to Sicily.

Eggplants The Arabs around the late tenth century introduced the eggplant to Sicily. It did not become popular in the rest of Italy for another five hundred years. The best eggplants, according to Sicilians, are a variety known as the Tunisian eggplant, large egg-shaped and pale purple, which is very sweet and does not have to be salted before cooking. Tunisian eggplant is fried and combined with tomatoes, basil, ricotta salata, and pasta to make pasta alla Norma. Much of Sicily’s eggplant is used to make caponata, a vinegary dish that can be put up at harvest time and enjoyed all winter long.

Estratto di pomodoro This true Sicilian specialty is a dark red paste with a clay-like consistency, made by spreading salted tomato puree out onto large wooden boards to dry for two or three days in the sun until nearly all moisture has evaporated. Preserved under a layer of olive oil, estratto keeps in the refrigerator for several months. It is used in much the same way as tomato paste, yet is has a stronger, much more intense flavor.

Fava beans The fava bean is an important food in Mediterranean societies. In Sicily the fava goes back to before the Greeks. Sicilians eat fava raw and in Frittedda, and raw served with pecorino cheese. Dried fava beans are used in soup called maccu, a staple of the peasant diet since antiquity.

Fennel Wild Sicilian fennel has been an important ingredient in the cuisine since antiquity. It’s found in numerous braises and pasta sauces and, most simply, sliced and served in a salad with citrus fruits and olives.

Figs Fresh figs are popular and abundant in Sicily.

Garlic Garlic is one of the four cornerstones of Sicilian flavor, along with onions, parsley, and oregano.

Lemons The first mention of the lemon tree in any language dates from the beginning of the tenth century and is from an Arabic source. Sicilians are very fond of lemons, eating them raw with salt, in salad, in sherbet, and with meat and fish.

Marsala wine Marsala wine is commonly found in chicken and meat dishes, yet also lends a particular sweetness and airiness to the dough for cannoli. Marsala is used to soak layers of sponge cake in the classic cassata alla Siciliana. Some of the drier Marsala wines are becoming increasingly popular as an aperitif.

Mint Mint is used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking and in Sicily.

Nutmeg Nutmeg is the kernel of the fruit of a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Sicilians use nutmeg to flavor pasta, fish sauces, and some vegetable preparations.

Olives and olive oil Olive production did not suffer a setback under the Arabs, as some people claim. Since the olive is sacred in the Koran, it might be expected that the Arabs would greatly increase the number of olive trees in Sicily. But for some unknown reason the production of oil dipped in medieval Arab Sicily. The finest olive oil is cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. No heat-extraction process or chemicals are used in cold pressing, and in this first pressing the olive releases the purest oil with all its nutrients. Olives come in a wide range of green and black hues. In Sicily, no dinner would be complete without a bowl of olives.

Onions Onions were grown in abundance in Palermo, according to the tenth-century Arab traveler Ibn Hawqal. The Arabs considered onions to be an aphrodisiac.

Oranges The orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily. This was the bitter orange. The Arab emirs of Palermo created orangeries and used the bitter orange, lime, and shaddock for candying, preserves, and essence. In Sicily the sweet orange is known as the Portugal orange. Another orange grown in Sicily is the blood orange, called tarocco, ideal for orange salad.

Oregano Oregano is a powerful flavoring in Sicilian cooking. It is always used dried, never fresh. Its leaves lend a strong, spicy flavor to sauces for grilled fish or roasted meat as well as pizza, pasta sauces, and chicken dishes.

Pancetta Pancetta is Italian bacon.

Parsley Parsley is used extensively in Sicilian cooking, both as a flavoring and as a garnish.

Pecorino Fresh pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese, tastes similar to feta, though less salty. Aged pecorino is also common, usually grated over pasta or served with fresh raw fava beans.

Pine nuts Pine nuts are an essential ingredient in cucina arabo-sicula. They are from the cone of the stone pine and are native to the Mediterranean. They are used in many sweet-and-sour dishes and fillings.

Pistachios The Arabs introduced the pistachio in Sicily. Sicilians will tell you that the best variety is the pistachio di Sicilia, which comes from Bronte in the province of Catania.

Pomegranates The pomegranate was first brought to Spain and Sicily by the Arabs to grace their pleasure gardens. It is an Asian bush that can attain a height of twenty feet.

Potatoes Potatoes appear in frittate, salads, soups, and sauces, but are perhaps most widely acclaimed as the main ingredient in cazzilli, the cigar-shaped fried croquettes.

Raisins Several kinds of raisins are used in Sicilian cooking.

Rice The rice used in Sicilian cooking is Arborio or Vialone rice. Italians like their rice creamy; Sicilians like theirs al dente, with the grains more separate. It is used to make the well-loved street food called arancine ("little oranges"), fried balls of cooked rice stuffed with meat and peas or cheese or all three. Sicilians generally do not make risotto.

Ricotta Ricotta is not a cheese but a creamy curd that has been cooked twice. Hence the name ricotta, literally, "recooked." The best ricotta is made with sheep’s milk.

Saffron Medieval Sicily, with its subtropical climate and loamy soil, was found to be ideal for growing saffron. The Arabs introduced it around the year 920.

Salt Some culinary historians believe that the Arabs taught the Sicilians how to salt fish. Salt industries are today based around Trapani.

Sardines Once among the most plentiful fish, have dwindled considerably as a result of over fishing in recent years. Nevertheless, they remain strongly identified with the cuisine, most notably in pasta con le sarde, the national dish that highlights Arab ingredients (pine nuts, currants, and saffron) as well as wild fennel greens.

Sesame seeds Sesame seeds were introduced by the Arabs. They are often used on bread, in sauce, and for sweets.

Squash Marrow or summer squash was cultivated in medieval Sicily in fields called nuara, a dialect word from the Arabic nowar. Today these squash are called zucca.

Sugar The Arabs introduced sugar cane and sugar-milling techniques to Sicily. Cultivation was well established by the year 950. The sugar industry of Arab Sicily was centered at Palermo.

Sunflower-seed oil The sunflower was introduced to Sicily by the Spaniards after its discovery in the New World, and now there are fields of sunflowers in Sicily.

Swordfish Swordfish appears on nearly every menu in coastal cities and towns. Usually it is simply grilled, drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with salt. Involtini of swordfish, thin fillets wrapped around various fillings (including herbs, breadcrumbs, capers, pine nuts, olives, and/or cheese) are also popular.

Tomatoes Tomatoes are a New World fruit, but that does not preclude their use in cucina arabo-sicula. One theory holds that the color of the tomato was as important as its taste: Once it became rooted in Sicilian culture, it was used as a less expensive substitute for saffron.

Tuna Each spring since the Arab occupation, fishermen have participated in a ritual tuna killing (the mattanza), using elaborate, multi-chambered nets to trap the fish before harpooning them. Usually tuna is braised, grilled, or pan-fried and served with an uncooked sauce.

Bottarga (dried tuna roe) shaved over pasta is another specialty.

Vino cotto Vino cotto is a syrup made from non-fermented grape must (the pulp and skin of processed grapes), was used as a sweetener (along with honey) before the Arabs introduced sugarcane. Table grapes (muscatel or other similar varieties) are passed through a food mill; the resulting grape must is then filtered and boiled for several hours until it has the consistency of honey or molasses. Many Sicilians still make their own vino cotto at harvest time and use it in desserts like buccellato.

Watermelon The Arabs introduced the watermelon to Sicily, probably in the mid-tenth century. The seeds were roasted, then pounded into a paste or crushed into cakes. There are two kinds of watermelon in Sicily. One is round with a light green skin; the other is larger with a dark green skin.

Part V: Typical Sicilian Dishes

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