Catania airport in August is not short of craziness, Italian’s are on their annual summer break and everywhere is bedlam. After making it through the queue for my rental car I manage to find my car amongst a sea of Fiat Cinquecento’s, I’m heading to a small town called Giarre on the East coast of Sicily somewhere between Catania and Taormina.
I make it off the autostrada and follow my directions to Villa Olmo. Things are looking a little deserted but as I take this very worn and narrow road I see a grand home make it’s presence felt. I walked through the doors of Villa Olmo to be greeted by my hostess, mia sorella Annie. It was late afternoon and I was welcomed with a much needed g&t. Campari and orange may have been more appropriate but since this villa had been invaded by Australiani, it was a gin and tonic!
Through the overwhelming hall of stone floors and antique furnishings I come to the main courtyard. Large umbrellas shade the guests as they recline on the red and white candy striped lounge chairs. In front of me the panoramic vista of the Meditteraneo and behind us, we are dwarfed by the enormity of Mount Etna. I have arrived a week into the stay at Villa Olmo. Franca the Villa chef, has the next night off so my sister and her friends have thrown me the apron for the evening.
I wake up early the next morning as cooking for twelve adults, three nannies and four kids is a little bit of work! I’m going to start at Catania Fish Market as it is famous for being one of the oldest and most traditional “Peshceria” in Italy. It is set in the walls of the old city of Catania. The city has been damaged by lava flows from Mount Etna and earthquakes in centuries past but still retains it’s Baroque grandeur.
Through a maze of streets and piazza’s we find the market booming with trade, noise and the freshest seafood, which is literally still trying to swim out of the crate they are in. Squid, swordfish, tuna, clams, mussels, prawns and so many venders proudly displaying their treasure. You can also buy your meat, cheeses, spices, nuts and anything imaginable for preparing Sicilian cuisine. Sicilian cuisine has many Arab and North African influences. With the use of rice, saffron, citrus, nuts, raisins, couscous and cinnamon that has integrated this Italian cuisine.
I hadn’t planned a menu for the evening as I wanted the market to tell me what I should prepare. After an inspirational walk through this very raw market, I start to buy my larder for dinner. Some plump figs were going to make an excellent bite with “aperitivi” and the Sicilian staple of eggplant would be rolled into some involtini to start as well as baby squid and teeny tiny school prawns. Mussels and clams would make a perfect spaghetti alla pescatora and sun kissed peaches were the right choice for dolce after this Sicilian feast.
When in Sicilia – every night is a celebration, so for this evening I selected my menu based on the best produce the market had to offer and of course, a classic Italian flavour!
mac and cheese (per bambini)
500g of short dried pasta
1L of full cream milk at room temperature
1 cup of grated mild cheddar cheese
1 cup of grated mozzarella
1 cup of fresh corn
4 slices of leg ham cut into a large dice
Preheat oven to 180. Cook the pasta ‘al dente’ or a little underdone as it will finish cooking in the oven. While the pasta is cooking take a medium saucepan and on a low heat add the butter and melt. Stir in the flour together with a wooden spoon. The butter and flour will start to become golden and smooth, cook for a few minutes and then add the the milk one cup at a time. Bring to a boil and whisk constantly until the sauce thickens. Season and set aside. Drain pasta and combine with the béchamel sauce, ¾ of the cheese, corn and ham. Place the pasta in an ovenproof dish and top with the remaining cheese. Place in the oven and cook for 30mins or until you have a browned top.
100g soft butter
130g grated parmasan cheese
400g meat sauce
130g pecorino grated
pinch of saffron
500g beef mince
500g pork mince
one white onion diced
2 cloves garlic finely sliced
1 tbsp of tomato paste
1 lt of tomato passata
200ml of water
salt and pepper
Cook the rice and drain well. Comine rice with beaten eggs,butter and parmasan and mix well. Set aside and prepare the meat sauce. To make the meat sauce brown onion and garlic in oil and add the tomato paste. Cook this for atwo minutes and add the mince. Colour the mince and break up with a wooden spoon, add the passata and water, the meat should be covered. Bring to the boil and then simmer for an hour covered. Season to taste.
Take 400g of the meat mixture and add the peas and saffron. Cook down to reduce the sauce by half so it is fairly dry. Add the grated pecorino. Now with damp fingers, take with your hands some rice mixture and roll into a 1 ½ inch ball. Make an impression into the side of the ball and add a little of the meat mixture. Fold rice over meat mixture and try to make a triangular ball shape, continue with the rest. Now roll all the arancini’s in flour, dip in beaten egg and toss in breadcrumbs and shallow fry until brown and heated through.
figs with gorgonzola and prosciutto (serve with pre dinner drinks)
12 small black figs
180g gorgonzola dolce
12 slice of prosciutto crudo
Cut a cross at the top of each fig and tuck a small amount of gorgonzola inside then wrap in a piece of prosciutto and bake under the grill for 3-5 minutes until the prosciutto is slightly crispy.
fritto misto of school prawns and squid
500g of very small school prawns
500g of squid cleaned and cut into rings
2 cups of fine semolina flour
canola oil for deep-frying
lemon wedges to serve
A pinch of saffron
4 egg yolks
2tps white wine vinegar
a clove of garlic finely chopped
400ml olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
Place saffron in a small bowl with enough warm water to cover. Place the eggyolks, eggs, vinegar and garlic with a pinch of sea salt in the bottom of a food processor and whiz until mixture is thick and creamy. With the motor running addoil in a steady stream and then add saffron and water. Season to taste.
Pour oil into a deep fry pan and heat till hot. Place a small piece of bread in the oil to make sure it is hot enough, if the bread cooks quickly and becomes brown and crispy the oil is ready. Place the flour in a bowl and toss to coat the prawns and squid. Place in a colander to rid any excess flour. Cook squid and prawns in batches so as not to crowd the pan and drain on paper towel.
Serve immediately with the saffron aioli and lemon wedges.
involtini of eggplant
2 large eggplants
400g of ricotta cheese
100g of grated parmesan
50g toasted pine nuts
½ onion diced
2 cloves of garlic finely sliced
400g tin diced tomatoes
½ cup water
10 basil leaves
Preheat oven to 180 degree’s. Cut each eggplant into 6 slices lengthwise. Arrange slices on a tray and sprinkle with salt, cover and lean for an hour. Meanwhile make the tomato sauce by adding oil to the pan add onions and cook till soft and add the garlic. Then add the can of tomatoes and water simmer together for 10 minutes, season and add torn basil and set aside.
Heat an oiled griddle pan and grill eggplant on each side. Combine the ricotta with the rest of the ingredients and season to taste. Add a small amount of the ricotta mixture on each piece of eggplant and roll in rolls. Place enough tomato sauce to coat the bottom on an ovenproof dish, place the rolls side by side finish with a ladle of tomato sauce and cover with foil. Bake for twenty minutes in the oven to warm through.
spaghetti with clams and mussels
5 cloves of garlic finely sliced
500g cherry tomatoes halved
Chopped fresh parsley
Discard any open mussels or clams. Boil salted water for the pasta and cook. Heat oil in a large saucepan and add garlic. Let the garlic soften and add the cherry tomatoes. Add some of the salted pasta water to the pan (a ladle) and let it simmer with the tomatoes making a sauce by mushing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Add the mussels and clams and cover for a few minutes till they have opened.
Drain the pasta and add in to the saucepan and toss through the sauce. Serve drizzled with olive oil.
peaches stuffed with amaretti biscuits
12 ripe peaches
300g amaretti biscuits
caster sugar to sprinkle
a splash of grand marnier
600g of marscapone
1 tsp of vanilla been paste
Preheat oven to 180 degree’s. To peel the peaches easily , boil the kettle and add water to a bowl, with a sharp knife score a cross at the bottom of the peach and place in the boiling water for a minute. Take the peaches out and the skin should peel away easily. Cut in half and remove the stone. Place the halves in an oven proof dish. Sprinkle caster sugar over then drizzle the wine. Crumble the amaretti biscuits into the cavity and bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until peaches are tender.
Mix the marscapone with the vanilla bean paste. Serve 2 halves and a dollop of marscapone.