THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
A few days ago, I had the pleasure to work with Jan D’Atri on NBC and show off one of my absolute favorite recipes: ‘Pesce Spada alla Siciliana’ or ‘Swordfish Sicilian Style’. I was struck by beautiful balance of this preparation when a few years ago, while visiting the Italian island, i ran into this incredible easy dish that combines savory flavors such as capers and tomatoes with the sweetness of pine nuts, raisins and black olives.
Sicily is Italy’s most southern region, also known as the ancient land of the Sicels. The Phoenicians and the Greeks were the first foreigners to arrive and colonize the island. They introduced the concepts civilization and culture and left their tracks by constructing incredible temples, like the ones in Agrigento, and theaters in cities like Taormina and Siracusa. Sicily then became a Roman province.
At the fall of the Empire, the island came under the control of the Byzantines until it was conquered by the Arabs. Thanks to the agricultural, scientific, commercial and artistic skill of the Arab people, Sicily enjoyed a period of great prosperity.
The region experienced further growth under Norman-Swabian rule. The Normans built numerous monuments like the cathedrals in Palermo and Monreale. Things took a turn for the worst when Charles of Anjou took over the island and local discontent led to the Sicilian Vespers.
After the Angevins were removed from power, the Kingdom of Argon, led by Peter III, the son-in-law of the last Swabian king, took control of the island. After various successions, Sicily was taken by the Bourbons and merged with Naples to become the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After the arrival of Garibaldi in 1860, Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
The Sicilian landscape and climate vary dramatically across the island, from the gorges of Alcantara, to the mountains to the volcanic islands. The Sicilian Apennines are located in the northeastern part of the island and are comprised of the Peloritani, Nebrodi and Madonie mountain ranges.
Other major landmarks include the Central Plateau, known for its sulfurous fumaroles, the Erei Mountains and the Iblei Mountains in southeastern Sicily. The famous DOP Sicilian olive oil comes from the Iblei area, as well as the valleys near Trapani and Val Demone.
Sicily is also home to one of Europe’s most active volcanoes, Mount Etna. There is a dramatic contrast between the black area near the summit and the fertile slopes where grapes, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, cactus fruit and pistachios, including the famous Bronte variety. The rest of Sicily’s produce is grown on thin, alluvial plains and along the coast.
The region of Sicily also includes the surrounding islands. The Aegadian archipelago is located off the northwestern Sicilian coast, while the Aeolian Islands are to the northeast. The Pelagie Islands and the solitary island of Pantelleria are found to the south of Sicily, and are known for their great grapes, like Zibibbo, producing wines known to be strong and syrupy, like Marsala, Malvasia and Moscato from Pantelleria. Legendary are also the Sicilian capers.
So it is no wonder if Sicilian cuisine is the result of a melting pot of all the different cultures that have occupied the island. Sicilian cuscus, is identical to its Middle Eastern cousin cuscus, however you are much more likely to find it served with a rich fish stock in Sicily. Rice is used to make arancini, or stuffed, fried rice balls, that are also of Arab origin. Wheat is a major crop in Sicily and has been used in pasta production since the 11th century.
Sheep’s milk is the predominant source of dairy in Sicily and is used to make Pecorino Siciliano DOP, Ragusano DOP and Piacintinu, which is colored with saffron. Ricotta is also a main ingredient in the regional desserts and is often paired with almonds, pistachios, fruit and honey. Stuffed Cannoli and Cassata are the two primary examples. Sicilian marzipan, sorbets and gelato are all produced with local ingredients.
Tuna is caught off the coast and used in many regional recipes that include tomatoes, olives, capers from Pantelleria, lemons and other citrus. The local tuna is also preserved as bottarga, or dried fish roe, or salame di tonno, a cooked tuna sausage.
But swordfish, also known as the king of the ocean, is probably one of the most noble ingredients from the gastronomic traditions of Sicily and Calabria:
Swordfish was known and enjoyed by the ancient Romans for its tenderness. Various documents from the 2nd century A.C. talk about fishing for swordfish in the area of the Messina Strait. Although swordfish is now known and fished throughout the world, once it was primarily fished in the narrow corridor, just 3 km wide, which separates Sicily from the Italian peninsula called the Strait of Messina, where these fish tended to reproduce.
Used in the most refined of recipes, it is extremely versatile and can be easily married with other characteristic products of the Mediterranean region, such as capers, lemon, eggplants, mint and bell peppers.
Today, I am sharing with you my FAVORITE way of enjoying Swordfish. An easy, quick and succulent recipe that will make you discover and appreciate an aspect of Italian cuisine that you might have not known before.
Buon Appetito Amici…
SWORDFISH SICILIAN STYLE
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1 onion, minced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
10 large or 20 small mixed olives (black and kalamata), pitted
1 pound of cherry tomatoes
4 swordfish steaks, each ¾”-thick (about 1½ to 1¾ pounds total weight)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons capers packed in salt, rinsed
1 teaspoon chopped oregano
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon chopped marjoram
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
½ teaspoon minced garlic
4 fennel fronds for garnish
1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley
1 lemon, cut into wedges
In a 12″ skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat for 2 minutes; add the celery and onion and cook until they are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to cook evenly. Reduce the heat to medium; add the capers, olives, and tomatoes, and stir well. After 1 minute, pour in ⅓ cup water, stir, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the liquid in the sauce has reduced somewhat. Add salt and pepper.
In the meantime prepare an emulsion mixing extra virgin olive oil, fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram and half teaspoon of minced garlic. Mix well and let rest.
Season the fish with salt and pepper, and brush each piece with olive oil. Cook on a grill over high heat for about 3 minutes on each side.