It is impossible to describe the degrees of yellow from the most candent cadmium to ochre, from discoloured ivory to lemon bronze. The air was full of wisps of straw and the heat beat upon us as if from some huge oven where the Gods had been baking bread.
Sicily is a mythical place–where Demeter and Persephone we’re split into our seasons, where the River Styx flows without mercy. The rocks along the shore were thrown there by a raging Polyphemus and the dangerous whirlpools are blamed on Charybdis.
Sicily is Magna Graecia, but at the table are also Moorish, Bourbon, Norman, and Roman influences–apricots, pistachios, and lemons in elegantly constructed pastries. Its dishes–pizza, frittata, caponata, and cannoli–are the signature of Italian-American food.
In this book, Melissa Muller traces her own family history, and pulls her dishes from “the reality of Sicily that is the hidden core of the island…”. Muller’s passion for Sicily is rooted in childhood summers spent in her grandmother’s village of Sant’Anna of Caltabellotta–an easily defended mountain cliff, with a fresh spring and fertile flatlands.
Muller begins with the Foundational Elements and Preserved Foods that gives Sicilian dishes their particular savor. Olive oil, of course, but also wild fennel, saffron, and orange blossom, and a pantry built with onion marmalade, parsley-mint oil, and pistachio pesto.
And then she moves through a complete menu. Sicily was the granary of the Roman empire and breads like mafalda and muffuletta are shaped, stuffed, and flavored, becoming savory symbols–a result of imagination, the island’s vast wheat fields, and its history.
The bright flavors of antipasti like Olive Salad, Eggplant Trifle, and Grilled Octopus with Chickpea Puree could be a meal in themselves.
Soups, Rice and Pasta range from homey minestras to elegant risottos (a Northern dish but in Sicily made creamy with olive oil rather than butter). Vegetables dishes are a cornucopia of fertility–eggplant, tomatoes, fave beans, squash flowers, peppers, and cauliflower.
Seafood dishes come from the island’s port towns–grilled, stewed, baked, stuffed shrimp, cuttlefish, sea urchins, monkfish, bream, mussels, skate and swordfish with the flavors of pistachio, mint, marsala, or just simple preparations that rely on absolute freshness.
The island’s goat, pork, lamb, beef, veal, and rabbit appear in grilled sausages, braised braciola, roasted pigs and chicken, and flavored with pomegranate, chicory, peppers, and even a savory Sicilian Chocolate Sauce.
Just typing the words cannoli, cucidati, and cassata makes me feel at home–the pastries by which I measure all other sweets. The flavors of citrus, anise, almonds, and honey appear in baroque pastries, homey cookies, and delicate custards. Every time Muller went to do her research at a pasticerria, pad and pen in hand, she writes, “the sweet aromas rendered me a child again.” I know the feeling, ask me about Strufoli.