It is early May, and I am currently writing this from one of my favorite neighborhoods in Palermo, Sicily. For the past few years, I have been hosting spring and fall Sicily food and culture experiences for American guests. I bring groups of no more than 12 people to explore the culture, food, and wine of Sicily. We encounter endless beauty and magic, but the biggest revelation to many Americans is how seasonal eating is in Italy, especially Sicily. For most Sicilians, it is the only way to eat.
When here, you quickly learn that Sicilian food is really very different from what we call Italian-American food in the US. The reverence for ingredients in Sicily allows for simple cooking that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is the essence of ingredient-driven cuisine. In the US, we have begun to embrace local food and farm-to-table, but really it is only around the edges of our culture. Most people in the US still eat commodity food all of the time. It takes effort and money to live and eat locally and seasonally in the US. In Sicily, it is a way of life for everyone, from the richest to the poorest.
A memorable highlight of my Sicily Experiences is the few days we spend together in the Sicani Mountains, learning about life in traditional villages and the food of the real locals. Last October, I took my group to a fabulous experience about 30 miles inland from Agrigento on the edge of Aragona. For three days, our home base is a stunning Agriturismo named Fontes di Episcopi, or the Bishop’s Fountain, as this Palazzo was built as a gift for a local Bishop a few centuries ago. This artsy bio-resort has a few acres of olive, lemon, mandarin, and almond trees, as well as seasonal veggies growing on the property. They also own land a few miles away near the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, where they grow ancient grains in conjunction with Slow Food Sicily. They harvest, dry, and grind their own grains for the bread and pasta we make together onsite. This is what Sicilians refer to as OKm meals.
The house chef at “Fontes” is Maddalena Terrana. This woman is a force of nature. She is built like a wire with big powerful hands and a personality to match. She speaks Sicilian, not even Italian! The only English word I have been able to extract from her is Yummy, Yummy! Her cooking skills were passed to her from the previous generations, who taught her the traditional recipes specific to her village, which she enthusiastically shares with us. Everything we make is only what is in season, or has been preserved by her and her team from their own vegetables. When she whips us up a huge “Apericena” or dinner of appetizers. There isn’t a thing on that table that is flown in or even driven in from more that 20k away. It is the only way she knows to cook and my guests all love her for it.
It is the same for all of the chefs and home cooks in Sicily. Last April, another friend from the same region prepared a fantastic “spring” salad for us in her family home. It was made from peas and fava beans grown on the property that were blanched and simply tossed with olive oil, spring onions, mint, Trapani salt, and fresh lemon juice. It was garnished with a little Ricotta Polpette. The dish was sublime, especially when we paired it with locally grown Inzolia wine.
Before I returned the following October, I emailed her with a request. When I am chatting with Sicilian people, my Italian is passable, but when I am actually writing, courtesy and accuracy are essential. Google Translate came to the rescue.
“Greetings. I am very excited to be working with you again! I am currently hosting a fabulous group of Americans. They are passionate about food and wine and are loving the Sicily Experience thus far.”
I continued with flattery, “I am certain your demonstration will be the highlight of the trip for them!”
Now for the request (see how I did that?), “I am hoping you will make that magnificent Fava bean salad you made for the groups I brought to you in April.”
See? I was working this with just enough familiarity restrained by professional courtesy. I really thought I did good.
Her brief reply? “No. Non é la stagione.”
Translation? No, It is not the season. End of conversation. Implied in this simple answer is, “What are you crazy?” Instead, we enjoyed some fall specialties like Zucca in Agridolce (sweet and sour pumpkin), red wine-smothered cabbage, and cauliflower lasagna.
I wish offering strictly seasonal food was that easy in the US. It is far from it. When I catered in the Hudson Valley from 1995-2016, we marketed farm-to-table weddings. The term Farm to Table made our potential clients very excited! However, I cannot tell you how many brides and bride’s parents with checkbooks insisted that we serve something totally out of season, like roasted brussel sprouts in June, Caprese salad in January, or Asparagus in October.
One particular family was legendary in our catering office for their naivete. They had planned a fall harvest wedding. The bride wanted strictly local farm food, but the Dad insisted that the vegetable had to be asparagus.
At a farm.
In the Hudson Valley.
I guess he was status conscious or something and asparagus seemed. to him to be more uopscale than the farm’s humble offerings of squash, chard, kale, and Brussels sprouts. When I put up a faint protest about the choice of asparagus, I was met with, “Whaddaya mean Asparagus is out of season? I just bought a beautiful bunch at Hannaford last week! If I could buy it, why can’t you?”
With that, I understood that my lecture on seasonal sustainability and the impact of food traveling 3000 miles and all that stuff would be useless, so…I knuckled under. But of course, the family ‘Zilla could have asparagus for their wedding. And begrudgingly, I bought the wooden, flavorless imported Asparagus in October for their wedding.
On our October Sicily trip, one of the vegetable dishes my friend’s mom made for us was a delicious local specialty called Zucca in Agrodolce. It’s a sublime dish of braised slices of Zucca Rossa, which is similar to our butternut squash, sliced into pinky-thick half moons and braised with garlic and vinegar. It is then finished with honey. It is a common dish made by families that are jarred up to keep for the winter.
The moral of the story is this; nobody is perfect. Even I eat salads in winter. But there are some things that are truly seasonal, and their annual arrival should create excitement. Celebrating seasonal food is the key to being a true foodie. Anyone can have truffles shipped to their door year-round, but waiting for the first morels of the season is much more authentic. It is our demand that keeps the shelves stocked with vegetables that are not in season all year round. In a powerhouse economy like ours, we can learn a few lessons from a humble “backward” Island like Sicily.
Spring Pea and Fava Bean Salad. A Sicilian recipe for spring with a bonus.
Peas and Fava Beans are usually ready to harvest in the Hudson Valley by Memorial Day in most years, though Pennsylvania Favas may appear in the better markets a little earlier.
After you shuck your fava beans, you may have to peel them. If your fava beans are large, you definitely will need to peel them, but if they are small, say about the size of your pinky nail, you needn’t, as the skin is tender enough. See the technique below for peeling favas.
Also, fresh peas are super sweet when fresh, but they begin to convert to starch shortly after picking. Buy your peas from a farmer’s market. I suggest that you prep them the day you buy them. Once they are shucked and blanched, the conversion of sugars to starch stops. Never buy fresh peas from a supermarket as they will be at least three days old and probably much older. Old peas are just not good, and after all that shucking for such a small yield, who needs to be disappointed? If you can’t get them from the farm, you are better off with frozen. (Frozen peas are so sweet because they are processed the day they are cooked)
If you need a shucking demo, just search Youtube.
2 cups shelled and peeled fava beans*
2 cups shelled sweet peas
Salt to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs of fresh garden mint.
A spring onion or a large scallion
Bring a large pot of an ample amount of moderately salted water to a rolling boil.
Drop in the favas and give it a stir.
When the water returns to a boil, cook for one minute, and then scoop out the favas to an ice bath to cool.
Now drop in the peas. When the water returns to a boil again, cook for one minute. Use a colander and drain. Cool in an ice bath.
Let them rest in the cold water for a few minutes, then drain well.
Put in a serving bowl.
Pick the mint and shave the leaves into thin strips. Cut the spring onion, bulb, and most of the green stem into thin strips as well.
Toss together with the beans and peas. Dress with extra virgin olive oil, salt pepper, and a small squeeze of lemon juice, and serve promptly.
If you want to prep ahead, process, blanch, and chill the peas and beans. Toss with a small amount of olive oil and store in the fridge for up to 12 hours.
Easy Peel Favas.
Favas have a second skin. It is not so much that it isn’t edible; it is just so high in fiber that it can create scandalous flatulence.
The easiest way to peel favas is to plunge them into boiling water for about two minutes, then plunge them into ice water. Let them rest a minute. The skins should easily slip off by pinching the beans, You’ll get the hang of it.
Bonus recipe, Ricotta Polpette
These are delicious little cheese balls that make a great vegetarian alternative to meatballs.
Makes about 12.
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs,
¼ cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
Zest one lemon
a two-finger pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
A few mint leaves, minced
Extra virgin olive oil as needed.
You need to drain the ricotta well. Do this by putting the ricotta in a strainer over another vessel to catch the whey and letting it drain for at least two hours or overnight at room temperature. Alternatively, if you can find Ricotta Impastata, which is drained ricotta, that will work well.
To make, mix the ricotta with everything except for the eggs and bread crumbs, and olive oil.
Taste? It should be savory with a hint of sweetness from the sugar.
Now whisk the egg and fold it in. Thoroughly mix the egg and the ricotta.
Now add about 3 tablespoons of the bread crumbs. Mix in well.
Give the crumbs a minute or two to sponge up any liquid. It should be tight enough to form small walnut-sized balls. If it’s too loose, add some more crumbs, a little at a time.
Pour the remaining bread crumbs on a platter.
When the cheese seems tight enough to form without being too dense, roll your balls and put on the bread crumbs; carefully coat the balls with the crumbs.
In a heavy skillet, heat and add enough olive oil to come up ¼ inch.
Turn heat to medium. When the oil is hot, carefully add the balls, cooking medium heat for about two minutes. Carefully turn each ball, and gently press down a bit, forming ½-¾ inch thick patties. Remove from the oil and drain on pepper towels. These can be reheated in a toaster oven or even an air fryer.
Serve a couple of Polpette on top of the pea and fava salad for an authentic Sicani mountain dish!
Zucca in Agrodolce. A Sicilian recipe for fall.
Agrodolce, or sweet and sour, is a popular flavor profile around the world and is especially beloved in Sicily, where the influence of Arab and even Jewish cooks from 1000 years ago are still felt in the every day Sicilian dishes.
Makes about two quarts.
1 large or two medium butternut squash
1 ½ cups of white wine or cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup honey or sugar (to taste)
Extra virgin olive oil
Crushed red pepper to taste.
We will use the necks of squash for this dish, You can reserve the round bottoms for soup or for stuffed squash.
Cut the squash off at the base of the neck just before it begins to bell out to form the round bottom.
Cut off the top half-inch with the stem, leaving a cylinder shape.
Peel the neck with a vegetable peeler.
Stand it up and slice it downward, splitting it in half. If it is very big, you can split each half again, forming quarters.
Slice these pieces against the grain in ½ inch-thick slices.
Use a large, heavy nonreactive skillet.
Add extra virgin olive oil, coming up about ¼ inch deep.
Put it on a medium flame.
Season the slices of squash with salt and lay them carefully in the warm oil. Do not overcrowd the pan. It can be done in batches if necessary.
Cook for about 4-5 minutes over medium heat and turn. The slices should just obtain a little bit of golden caramelization.
Turn and repeat the process. Remove these slices to a platter and continue to saute the rest until you have cooked them all.
Pour off the remaining oil.
Now add the garlic cloves and the vinegar to the pan.
Bring to a boil, and cook for about 5 minutes until the garlic begins to soften just a bit.
Carefully slide the squash slices into the pan and gently shake the pan, allowing the slices to settle into the vinegar.
Cover and cook at a brisk simmer for about 5 minutes or until the squash, though still al dente but can be pierced with a fork.
Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the slices into jars or other heat-proof containers of your choice.
Bring the pan of vinegar and garlic to a rolling boil.
Whisk in the honey, stir, and cook to melt it.
Taste. You can add more sweetener, crushed pepper, and salt to your liking.
Pour this over the squash.
Top with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil and store refrigerated for up to one month.
Serve as an antipasto item on a veggie board, or try using them as a sandwich topping instead of out-of-season tomatoes.
To learn more about me, my Siciliy tours, and more, visit https://ricorlando.com and follow @chefricorlando on all Social Media.