Cookery is one way to explore a country – and if you are unfamiliar with Sicilian food (and unable to escape to the Mediterranean island for the summer), then Ursula Ferrigno’s new book Cucina Siciliana (Ryland Peters & Small, £16.99) is all you need to immerse yourself in the traditions of southern Italy.
The chef and prolific Italian food writer learned to cook from her Italian grandmother, and has taught at Leiths and La Cucina Caldesi cookery schools in London, so you’re in good hands.
Ferrigno’s writing is an ode to the sun-blessed produce of Sicily’s fertile volcanic soil; olive oil “anoints” her ingredients at every turn. David Munns’s photography brings both individual dishes and everyday Sicilian traditions to life, from aperitivo in Siracusa to vineyards in Marsala and the mattanza, an old method for netting fish.
The book pays tribute to the influences left behind by the conquests of the Greeks, Romans, Normans and Spanish, with recipes that range from easy (I refer you to her broad bean soup with lemon, mint and pasta, or the black fig, mozzarella and basil salad tossed in red wine vinegar) to difficult (the likes of cassata, a ricotta-covered sponge cake, is more challenging).
It is split into six chapters; antipasti, salads and stuffed vegetables, meat and fish, bread (try the semolina mountain bread), dolce e pasticceria (dessert and pastries) and gelateria.
It was difficult to whittle down my choice of recipes; but pasta with sardines, an iconic Sicilian pasta dish associated with Palermo, was a must – as were arancini and cannoli.
Filled risotto croquettes (arancini di riso)
Arancini can be filled with anything from ragù to mushroom risotto, but I loved Ferrigno’s suggested saffron risotto rice, pecorino, ham and tomato passata. Yet despite procuring a bag of extra fine Italian “00” flour, I wasn’t thrilled by my breadcrumb coating – more like a heavy batter than a light coat to delicately encase my arancini. Perhaps practice is required.
Pasta with sardines (pasta con le sarde)
Served on Sunday evening, Ferrigno’s fennel frond-garnished, take on the classic, with bursts of sweetness from raisins, golden toasted pine nuts, and an intense umami punch courtesy of a can of anchovies, was a heavenly success. I couldn’t get fresh sardines in the supermarket, so I ordered a packet of Picard frozen boned and butterflied fillets, and served with a leftover half bottle of white wine.
Filled with creamy ricotta, grated dark chocolate, bright green flecks of chopped pistachio, lemon zest and cinnamon, cannoli are best eaten straight after the shells have been filled, so they are crisp and crunchy. But, moreish filling aside, even after three attempts I couldn’t get mine to set properly in the desired cone shape. Not for the pastry novice.
Many of the recipes rely heavily on the availability of good-quality Sicilian produce, from zesty lemons and wild mountain fennel to ripe, juicy tomatoes and an excess of pistachios. To do many of them justice requires well-sourced, sometimes expensive ingredients.
But Cucina Siciliana is to Sicilian cookery what Georgina Hayden’s Taverna is to Greek-Cypriot food; a bible for long, heady summers eating and entertaining at home, Italian-style – with a glug of limoncello for good measure.