Sicily = Home

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

My ancestors are from Sicily. My father’s parents from Ragusa. And my mother’s mother from Palermo.

I’ve been to Italy countless times (really countless, because I have no idea how many times) …but last month was my first time to Sicily.

I was in Ragusa. I went to Palermo. I felt the vibes resonating in my soul. I envisioned distant unseen memories. I met people who mirrored my style and spirit. And my palate…it screamed the loudest: “I know this food!!!”

I was a little nervy. I brought a small group of my cooking class students with me. Usually I lead people to places I’ve been. But this was all open exploration. Luckily, my companions were up for the ride and loved every minute as much as I did.

w our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

with our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

In Ragusa, we cooked with locals in their homes.

making scacce in Marian di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

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making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

We ate the food (and I’m telling you the taste was the same!) that I grew up with. Scacce, a kind of thin rolled up pizza with tomato sauce and Ragusano caciocavallo cheese.

scaccia

scaccia

more scaccia

more scaccia

...and more scacce!

…and more scacce!

We cooked and dined on pork braised in tomato sauce with ricotta ravioli and “cavati” (a hand-made cut pasta).

Ragusano pasta

Ragusano pasta

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In Palermo we shopped the Capo market with our hosts…

Capo market shopping

Capo market shopping

Capo market, buying fish

Capo market, buying fish

…and then cooked on a boat. We cleaned and stuffed sardines. We fried tiny fish and ate them whole in one bite. We marinated baby shrimp in lemon for bruschetta, and made almond cookies dipped in pistachios and candied cherry.

cooking in the boat's galley

cooking in the boat’s galley

stuffed sardines

stuffed sardines

shrimp bruschetta

shrimp bruschetta

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

almond cookies

almond cookies

We were wowed by cathedrals in Ragusa, Modica, and Cefalu…

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro Cathedral interior

San Pietro Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral interior

We were delighted with groves (and city dwelling) cactus plants laden with prickly pears (that we ate at one of our dinners).

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

peeled prickly pears at one of our dinners -- in Giovanni and Agata's home

peeled prickly pears at Giovanni and Agata’s home

The arancina…

arancina w cappuccino

arancina w cappuccino Ragusa

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

The special chocolate in Modica hand-made in the aztec-style…

making chocolate in Modica

making chocolate in Modica

The gelato…

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

The cannoli and pastries (and pastries) (and pastries)…

pastries in Cefalu

pastries in Cefalu

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pastries Palermo

pastries Palermo

cannolo Ragusa

cannolo Ragusa

And the wine. The Sicilian wine. Charming and comforting.

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I’m just back now for a couple of weeks and I’m already scheming about returning. There is a spirit in Sicily like nowhere else in Italy. Its heritage, steeped in many cultures (Arab, Spanish, Norman, Greek) all combine to make such a unique world. I know what that is now. And I’m so happy to be made of the same stuff.

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

Nashville Favs: A Short Current Roundup

Broadway Nashville

Broadway, Nashville

I’m always running around town. Usually for food. (Will run for food.) Here’s some of my usual stops these days. This list, of course, changes. Six months from now, the frequent-stop list may be different, but today’s favorites will still be favorites. This is a mix of shops and restaurants. Enjoy the tastes found at all. YUM!

Little Gourmand in Green Hills

photo compliments of Little Gourmand

photo courtesy of Little Gourmand

Just entering this charming, entrancing store is reason for a visit. The shelves are full of imports from France: mustards, pates, salts, cookies, beautiful kitchen towels, cheese plates & knives. The freezer is full of imported baguettes, croissants, pane au chocolat. You can float through the aisles and be instantly transported. Guenievre Milliner is the delightful French proprietor, who bakes fresh croissants & pan au chocolate every Saturday morning. Get there early. They fly into the mouths of knowing pastry lovers. (I even hesitate to tell you about it. I want mine!) You can sit at one of the lovely cafe tables and sip an espresso, too. For lunch, yum-full baguette sandwiches!

Jim ‘n Nick’s in West Nashville & Cool Springs

photo courtesy of Jim 'n Nick's

photo courtesy of Jim ‘n Nick’s

I’m lucky to have Jim n’ Nick’s BBQ right in the neighborhood. To be honest, we used to go there a lot. But then Martin’s opened and we ran cross town to Martin’s when the BBQ taste bud was screaming for satisfaction. A few months ago we said, “let’s just go here. it’s in the nab.” Well. We think we have a new favorite. At Jim n’ Nick’s you sit at a table, the server serves you, they bring a basket of those amazing corn biscuits, and the BBQ? Well, as I said, I think have a new favorite. I love the baby backs. My mom the spare ribs. My sister likes both equally. Duane goes for the hot links. And the sides are stellar. Now those BBQ taste buds scream more often.

El Amigo Tacos on Nolensville Road near Elysian Fields

El Amigo on Nolensville Road

El Amigo on Nolensville Road

About 5 years ago, I ran a Nashville tours business with Annakate Tefft Ross. We rented a van and brought Nashvillians on all kinds of food adventures. On our very first tour we tooled up and down Nolensville Road tasting cuisines of the world. Our favorite stop for authentic Mexican tacos was always El Amigo. Duane and I still go there for, usually, a Sunday lunch. The tacos are SUPERB (and only cost $1.50, so get many). The sunny dining room, and the busy kitchen, fills what used to be a gas station. Do not let that deter you. Enjoy!

El Amigo chorizo tacos

El Amigo chorizo tacos

Lazzaroli Pasta Shop in Germantown

photo compliments of Lazzaroli Pasta Shop

photo compliments of Lazzaroli Pasta Shop

It’s the bee’s knees of an Italian food grocery store. But the real star of the show is Tom Lazzaro’s fresh made ravioli and pasta. Ravioli filled with such a variety you’ll stand at the freezer pondering and deciding for a good hour. And then pull several boxes to take home. We last tried the sausage & asiago. Yowsa. Wolfed down to the tune of Mmmmmm & Whoaaaaa. But the gorgonzola still rings in my taste memory. He makes several sauces to bring home, too. He makes fresh mozzarella every Saturday morning. Plus the shelves are full of Italian import wonders. And the refrigerator is stocked with Benton’s bacon and Italian specialty salumi.

Aldi supermarkets, several locations

Photo compliments of Aldi

Photo compliments of Aldi

Yes. A supermarket. I’ve heard so many things about Aldi, but hadn’t been. I also heard it has ties to Trader Joe’s (see my Trader Joe’s posts). Which gives it some pretty high marks. It’s supposedly a German-owned chain. When you walk in you feel shades of a European supermarket. How it’s laid out. How you get a cart (put in a quarter to release the cart, bring it back and pop out your quarter at the end. just like in Italy, only there you use a euro). You need to bring your own bags or they will sell you plastic bags (just like in Italy. cheap bags, but still better to bring your own). Lots of German imported candies, chocolate, etc. Great deals on produce. And meat (my mom says the meat looks exactly like the cuts and quality from Trader Joe’s). And then: sometimes shoes. pots & pans. grilling utensils. I bought a 2-burner cooktop for demonstrations. It’s worth the trip. You’ll exit with bagfuls. And feel ike you’re on a food exploration expedition.

I’m always on the prowl for the new (or new to me). Letting that “gatherer” ancient gene kick in. Stay tuned for more finds!

My Crazy Breakfasts

biscuits and butter

biscuits and butter

I live in the South and for breakfast I sometimes have biscuits. And sometimes I have grits. (Not on the same day.) This is not new to my new Southern living. When I lived in NYC I often ate biscuits for breakfast. And sometimes made grits. I love biscuits. And I love grits.

So my biscuit roots and my grits roots are not Southern roots. My favorite biscuit recipe is from Betty Crocker’s 1950 cookbook, a book my mom had when I was a baby and so I have it, too.

Betty Crocker

Betty Crocker

My mom was born and raised in Brooklyn and she made Betty Crocker’s biscuits. That’s how I learned it.

My grits recipe snuck into my repertoire somewhere in the 1990’s while living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and followed me to Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx and has followed me to the South. (Sorry, everyone, I use instant grits…what do you expect a New Yorker to do?) I call my breakfast grits “crazy grits” because they are certifiable.

These are both breakfasts I eagerly look forward to. Mondays are usually grits mornings (Duane says it’s his favorite breakfast). For a while I refrained from making biscuits at all because we were trying to lose weight and bready, starchy things are weighty. But just this past Sunday morning I threw diet to the wind and made biscuits. I could (literally) eat the whole batch, but I didn’t. But I wanted to.

Page 67. That’s the page Betty Crocker’s biscuits are on. Even if I think I have it memorized I take out the book (red Pennsylvania Dutch pattern with a missing spine) and go immediately to page 67 for the recipe.

page 67

page 67

This past Sunday, tho, I just went with my whimsy (and left the book on the shelf). A cup and a half of flour. A teaspoon and a half of baking powder, a large pinch of salt, a bit of aleppo, 4 tablespoons of butter, cut in with a pastry cutter. Betty then adds milk. I was feeling devil-may-care. I had a leftover 1/4 cup of ricotta. And a leftover 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Oh yeah.

I barely knead it. Just push together to stick and pat into a thick disk.

I barely knead it. Just push together to stick and pat into a thick disk.

cut biscuit dough straight down. no wiggling.

cut biscuit dough straight down. no wiggling.

just baked biscuits

just baked biscuits

Over easy eggs. A few chorizo sausages chopped up. Some summer sliced tomatoes. And biscuits and butter.

breakfast of champions. or silly people. or both.

breakfast of champions. or silly people. or both.

On Monday… the grits. Here’s why they’re crazy. I top them with a sauté of vegetables (etc) that are hanging out in the refrigerator. This time there were 3 kinds of tomatoes, 2 kinds of peppers, mushrooms, onion, scallions, arugula, and some more chorizo. I sauté these up in a medium fry pan, while the grits simmer in a medium saucepan. I add salt, parmigiano, cumin and some aleppo to the grits. I add cumin, salt, pepper, turmeric (just a tad) to the veggies. Sometimes I splash a bit of vermouth.

vegetable saute

vegetable saute

The grits go first into the bowl and then the tasty chopped wonders on top. Duane adds one of his hot toppings: ghost pepper sauce, tabasco, or sriracha. I just take it straight.

grits for me and Duane

grits for me and Duane

grits for me

grits for me

Breakfast. Break that fast with delicious. Nothing much Italian about these dishes, but a palate must roam.

my friend, the biscuit

my friend, the biscuit

 

Got tomatoes? Make a quick, fresh, pasta sauce.

tomatoes at Rialto Market in Venice

tomatoes at Rialto Market in Venice

Summertime and the tomatoes are easy. And they’re here. Lots of them.

The multi varieties in the markets make me feel a bit giddy inside. The color alone widens my eye pupils sending waves of exciting energy. Yes, just looking at them brings happiness.

We know there’s just a small summer window for summer locally-grown tomatoes (the ones in the photo above were “imported” from Sicily to Venice). Just a small window when tomatoes are really GOOD. When all we have to do to enjoy them is slice ’em up (maybe add a few grains of salt) and just eat.

tomatoes

But if you’re raking in bushels-full then it’s time to make some fresh tomato sauce. You can freeze the sauce (in dinner-time amounts) in plastic containers or ziplock bags. Or with just 6-8 tomatoes you can make some sauce just for tonight. It’s easy!

In the recipe below is the technique called tomato “concasse,” where you peel and seed the tomato and cut it into pieces. Eliminating the peel and seeds takes away any rough or bitter taste, leaving a smooth, buttery tomato for your sauce.

peeled tomatoes

peeled tomatoes

fresh tomato sauce

fresh tomato sauce

Flavor your sauce with onion and/or garlic and fresh herbs.

fresh tomato sauce

fresh tomato sauce

Choose your favorite pasta shape (any will do) and take your bowl of pasta and fresh tomato sauce outside, in the garden, on the terrace (or at least by a summery window). Sip a cool glass of wine. Immerse yourself in summer.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

6-8 large ripe tomatoes

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced

2-3 garlic cloves, smashed

1/2 cup dry white wine

salt & pepper to taste

handful torn basil or mint leaves

Using a paring knife, core the tomatoes (just cut out the stem end). Cut a superficial “x” at the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, big enough to hold the tomatoes. Drop in tomatoes to boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes. Lift out tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place immediately in an ice water bath (large bowl with about 2 cup ice and added water). Once tomatoes have cooled down take them out of water and they should be easy to peel. Discard skins. Cut tomatoes in quarters and using your fingers, slide out most of the seeds.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until onion softens and garlic colors lightly. Add the wine. Let it cook until almost evaporated. Add tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer, covered askew, about 20-30 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, smash the pieces of tomato to break them down a bit. Boil your pasta. Unite with sauce! Add a sprinkling of grated cheese.

tomatoes in Rialto Market in Venice

tomatoes in Rialto Market in Venice

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger!

Murray's Cheese at Kroger's

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese Shop is on Bleecker Street in the NYC’s West Village. It’s a NY institution where you can find ANY cheese you may be looking for at great prices. New Yorkers LOVE Murray’s Cheese Shop.

BUT Murray’s is also (inexplicably and astonishingly wonderfully) in most Kroger stores in the Nashville area.

Murray's at Kroger

Murray’s at Kroger

A nice-sized Murray’s kiosk just off the produce section is packed with exotic & familiar, domestic & international cheeses. Go look. It will knock your socks off. They have cheese section titles like: “grate & crumble,” “melting,” “blue & bloomy rind,” “washed rind,” and more.

Murray's Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

Murray's Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

You can taste any of them (the people behind the counter are helpful and know their cheese). So when it’s hard to decide what to get, get a taste.

Murray's Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

I love the manchego cheese (young & aged). I love the blue cheeses. They have true parmigiano reggiano. They have several pecorino cheeses. Cool Scandinavian cheeses. Lots of goat cheeses. Lots of good gouda cheese. Soft & fatty cheeses. Aged deep orange cheeses.

There are also small bins nestled in the cases filled with smaller chunks under $5.

Murray's Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

You can’t go wrong. You want to buy everything.

Just next to the cheese kiosk is a refrigerated stack of shelves with more goodies you can’t find everywhere, like: wild boar salami and parmigiano butter.

Not every Kroger has a Murray’s Cheese, but you’ll know when they do because they post a Murray’s sign outside.

Murray's Cheese at Kroger

Murray’s Cheese at Kroger

The yes places I know about: Kroger on HWY 70S in Bellevue, Kroger at HWY 96 in Franklin, Kroger Green Hills.

Get thee to the cheesery!

Pizza for Dessert

grape pizza

grape pizza

I know you’ve seen pizza served for dessert. A lot of sweet stuff piled on like chocolate or nutella.

This one’s a little different. This involves fruit, and, yes, sugar, but then we sneak in the savory with rosemary & olive oil. Oh yeah. That’s right.

I first discovered sweet grape pizza from a Tuscan recipe for schiacciata di’uva (pizza with grapes). In that recipe the pizza was folded in half with grapes on the inside and on top.

I’ve since morphed the recipe to be a flat open pizza.

grape pizza assembly

grape pizza assembly

making grape pizza in my cooking class

making grape pizza in my cooking class

And now I’ve added brown sugar with the white sugar, prefer more abundant rosemary, and bake it until it’s nice and deep golden brown. The edges get a crispy snap and the sweetness surprises your tastebuds…making them run back for more.

grape pizza cut into pieces

grape pizza cut into pieces

To begin, you can buy pizza dough in the supermarket. This recipe is for 1 pound. But I’m also including here my Dad’s recipe for pizza dough, which my family is realizing is really my Aunt Mary’s recipe for pizza dough. Aunt Mary wasn’t my real aunt, but she’s still Aunt Mary to me. She, & her husband (Uncle John), lived upstairs from us in Brooklyn. She was a mentor in the kitchen for my mom. A sweetheart and a Sicilian.

When the summer gets in full swing try this with thin slices of peaches. In winter it works with thin slices of apple. I’ve used nectarines, too, and I just envisioned sweet red plums. Gotta try that one!

Grape Sweet Pizza w Brown Sugar & Rosemary

1 lb. pizza dough (store-bought or fresh-made)

3 cups seedless red grapes, sliced in half

1/2  cup sugar (or more)

1/2 brown sugar

8-10 fresh rosemary sprigs, Leaves stripped off, stems discarded

a few healthy drizzles of olive oil

Preheat oven to F. 400 degrees

Make sure dough is at room temperature. Press out dough into a thin flat disc or oblong shape. Alternatively, cut dough in half and make 2 smaller pizzas. Lay thin dough on a lightly-oiled parchment-lined baking sheet.

Place the grapes, cut side down, on top of the dough, pressing them in lightly. Leave a narrow border of dough on the outside edge. Sprinkle with sugar. Toss on rosemary. Drizzle olive oil.

Bake about 20 minutes until crusty and golden. Cut into squares to serve.

Dad’s (& Aunt Mary’s) Pizza Dough

For the dough:

5 cups flour (all-purpose)

2 teaspoons salt

2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (1 package/envelope)

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 egg

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or you can do this by hand) mix together the flour and salt. In a medium bowl or large measuring cup combine 1 1/2 cups warm water (tepid, not too hot, not too cool) with the yeast and the sugar. In a small bowl or cup mix the egg with the olive oil.

Make a well in the center of the flour. When the yeast has “bloomed” (becomes puffy) pour the yeast water in the well and pour the egg/olive oil mixture in the well. Gently stir the flour and wet ingredients to roughly combine. Then mix on a slow speed with the dough hook for about 5 minutes until silky.

Take out dough hook. Smooth a thin film of olive oil over top of dough. Flip dough so all sides have a thin film of olive oil. Cover top of bowl with a clean dry kitchen towel and place in a draft-free place to rise. Let rise about 2 hours. It should double in size.

Scoop dough out onto a work surface and cut into 6-8 pieces (use a bench scraper or knife). Roll each piece gently into a ball and wrap each ball in a pam-sprayed or lightly oiled piece of plastic. Don’t wrap too tight since dough will rise again in plastic. Let rise about an hour more.

Unwrap dough and gently press into the shape you want. You can also stretch dough more by gently holding down the center and gently pulling the edges out.

Fav Nashville Eats: Mangia Nashville

porchetta sandwich on black carbon bread

porchetta sandwich on black carbon bread

I’ve got a new favorite sandwich. Porchetta (I’ll explain), broccoli rabe, caramelized onions, on black bread. Yes, black. Not pumpernickel. Black. As in carbon charcoal black bread. Good? YES! It’s only at Mangia Nashville.

Nick Pellegrino started Mangia Nashville while hitching a ride at the Cool Cafe in Franklin. On Friday and Saturday nights he’d take over that meat n’ 3 restaurant to stage an elaborate Italian multi-course feast complete with feet-tapping music (and indeed, everyone gets up to dance) while Coppola’s The Godfather played on the screens. Each course was served family style with 2 or 3 offerings of appetizer, main course, and dessert.

Wonderful success. So wonderful, he’s moved his happiness-generator to Melrose. Now, the place is all his. Mangia Nashville on Craighead just off of 8th Avenue still jumps every Friday and Saturday night with a seasonal fixed course menu of spectacular, authentic Italian dishes.

BUT! During the week, for lunch or for dinner, you can wander in and enjoy his special menu of panini, focaccia, and spuntini. Huh? Panini (sandwiches); Focaccia (thick, individual pizzas); Spuntini (favorite appetizers from across Italy).

One ingredient really stands out…it’s the killer (as in: “how do you make it taste so good?”) porchetta. Prochetta is a pork roast filled with herbs and garlic. Traditionally it is the young suckling pig, skin and all, but Nick’s is pork-belly-wrapped shoulder (including crispy skin). It is so moist and yummy.

My first run-in with porchetta was in Rome in the 1970’s. There’s a huge flea market there on Sundays at Porta Portese. I was making my way through the crowded market, buying scarves & shoes at great prices, hanging with my family…

1974 trip with family at the Porta Portese Sunday flea market

1974 trip with family at the Porta Portese Sunday flea market

…and there in the middle of the market was a man with a simple cart and a huge roast porchetta. He was selling sandwiches. Carving porchetta onto Roman rosetta rolls. The sandwich remained my Dad’s favorite food of Rome. Juice dripping down our arms while vendors shout “Saldi! Sadli!” (Sale! Sale!).

At Mangia I had porchetta on a roll of black bread. That bread was way too intriguing to pass up. And it’s delicious– it doesn’t taste like the carbon that makes it black…it just tastes good! And this carbon ingredient is supposed to be healthy for you, too. So why not?

Nick told me he was inspired by black carbon bread he had in Rome. He asked the Roman who served it how to make it and got an incomplete answer. So he came home and figured it out himself. Success! (And Yay for us.)

Mangia Nashville’s focaccias are about 8 inches — white or black bread. And the choice of toppings read like an encyclopedia of all luscious Italian tastes: arugula, mozzarella, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, sausage, swiss chard, pesto, roasted tomato, pancetta, ricotta salata, roasted garlic, and on and on….(drooling).

verdure focaccia

verdure focaccia

I also tried the pannelle. This from the list of “spuntini” appetizers. Panelle are Sicilian chickpea flour fritters. I make them in class sometimes. The version at Mangia is soft and decadent served with a chili sauce.

panelle

panelle

So, yes, come to enjoy the big weekend parties (reservations please). Or go during the week. There’s a full bar with great selections (and, of course, Italian beer, too) (AND–NY throwback–Manhattan Special espresso soda). Lunch, dinner, drinks and a hang. There aren’t too many sincere & authentic Italian joints in town. I highly recommend this one!