Montalbano, Sicily and Food Inspiration

I am not much of a TV viewer on the whole but I can become obsessed with the odd TV series.  One such obsession turns out to be the Sicilian sleuth “Commissario Montalbano” series, set in Sicily.  My husband and I even bought DVDs of the programme.  Recently, the Italian state television was showing a few re-runs and we concurred that the older episodes were a lot better than the recent ones.  Every Montalbano story features some kind of Sicilian food to drool over and I was inspired to try out a few dishes – beginnig with the Pasta Ncasciata that takes forever-and-a-day to make.  But then, with the lockdown, there is very little excuse as regards availability of time on our hands. (https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/pasta-ncasciata-a-sicilian-medley-of-marvellous-mixture/)

In July of 2014, our mother treated the whole family (three daughters, their husbands and grandchildren) to a memorable holiday in South-East Sicily, renting a va va voom property with a swimming pool very close to the town of Scicli.

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The above photo is a view of Scicli from the rental villa.  It was holiday we still rave about … I fell in love with Sicily and would love to go back.  In the  meantime, I have memories.  Here, I’d like to share a post from my older blog about a day spent in Punta Secca, where a lot of the Montalbano filming took place.

Montalbano Land and “Enzo a Mare”

 

During the Autumn of 2002, I signed up for a course of cooking classes that were held on a Tuesday evening and happened to coincide with the TV showing of the popular Inspector Montalbano series.  I took a look just now and apparently it was already in its Fourth Edition by then –  but that was the first I had ever heard of the TV series and of course missed it all.  Shame on me for never having read Camilleri’s books on which the series was based.  I was grateful it was showing, however, because my husband and two children seemed to enjoy it a lot and didn’t mind my absence (I hasten to add that I always cooked dinner for them before going).  Years later, I got to view and enjoy some of these episodes myself on DVD … and now, somehow, they hold a special symbolic meaning for me, reminding me of a very happy, energetic and lighthearted phase in our nuclear family’s life.

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More recently, just last month in fact, an extended-family holiday in Sicily saw us residing within driving distance of Punta Secca, in the province of Ragusa.  Our daughter who is a great fan of the Montalbano series said that there was no way she was going to give  ‘Marinella’ a miss.  Punta Secca is the real name for the fictional Marinella, the small town with Montalbano’s house and large terrace overlooking the sea.  The town with the big white lighthouse.  Our daughter got quite excited at the prospect of seeing them ‘in real life’.  I am apt to turn up my nose at touristy tours that rely on indulging the voyeur in us but this time I was game. And besides, I just love the sea.

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And I also love me a long hot summer … it makes swimming all the more enjoyable.  This year the Italian summer has been more like monsoon downpour territory and unseasonably cold to boot.  What is the point of a wet, cold Italian summer?  We were fortunately spared the worst down in Sicily but it wasn’t exactly hot … the temperature on average being in the region of 28°C.  Picture my joy then as the day we chose to visit Punta Secca was gloriously sunny and even, almost, ‘hot’ (i.e. over 30°C) ! Clear blue skies! Bliss.

3This is the bay where Montalbano likes to take a swim.4Nothing trendy about it.  Here I am, taking a shot veering to the right of the bay.5And here am I, looking to the left of the bay.  And there in the distance … is ‘the’ terrace that so entrances Inspector Montalbano and his viewers, sporting a white beach umbrella. If you enjoy a spot of visual play, you will notice that the beach umbrella looks a bit like a ‘moustache’, set against the grey building whose windows look like ‘eyes’ !6A closer shot of the terrace – or is it a balcony? never mind.  A man sitting there under the beach umbrella.  Wonder who he is …7Beyond the balcony and in the distance is the … white lighthouse.  ‘The’ lighthouse that appears at the programme’s signature trailer at the beginning of each episode:

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9M0re views of Montalbano’s house.10I can’t explain it but the atmosphere was just so energising and restful at the same time.   There was direct synergy at work between the physical and the emotional.  The intensity of the blue of the sky and two-tones of the sea were mesmerising.  The air too tasted of ‘salt’ … iodine. On days such as these, you feel you want to live forever. 11It was coming up to lunch time and I was already looking forward to having a swim afterwards …1213And then … just beyond the lighthouse ….14What should we espy in the distance but ‘the’ beach-hut restaurant where Montalbano likes to eat!15Enzo a Mare!1617Is that a sight for sore eyes or what?1819We were just all so relaxed and happy and looking forward to our lunch … Normally I snap photos left, right and centre of the food being served but this time, somehow, I was so ‘in the now’ that I didn’t !

Which is a shame because it was all delicious.  I ordered a plate of linguine with a swordfish ragout sauce.  I am not a great lover of swordfish but I thought I would be adventurous and try something new.  I am so glad I did … it was possibly the best dish I ate throughout our whole week’s stay in Sicily.

Everthing about Enzo a Mare is great … even the lamps made out of baskets!

2122And here is Nuniza, the chef.  I asked her for the recipe and if memory serves me well it goes something like this.

LINGUINIE WITH SWORDFISH

Pan fry a little garlic in some olive oil, to which you must also add: a small amount of lemon zest, salt-dried capers, olives and fresh mint leaves.  Add the swordfish, diced.  Cook for the briefest of time (1 minute say) and then splash a little balsamic vinegar in the mix. Turn up the heat and toss the pan.  Add tomato sauce and cook for about 10 minutes.  When serving the linguine sprinkle some Sicilian oregano around the rim of the dish.  Truly more-ish!

20We said arrivederci to this corner of paradise and went to lie down on the sand … Some time later I ventured back to Montalbano’s bay and waded in as far as my thighs.  The water was freezing and I was too much of a wuss to manage to dive in, as I would have liked, and enjoy a swim à la Montalbano.  Ah well … next time.


24On our way back to the car, later in the evening, I espied this lady reading decorously on her terrace within spitting distance of Montalbano’s house.  I was very much intrigued by her … and by her flowers on the terrace and the greenery climbing all over the facade of her house.25Another lady of ‘a certain age’ and beautifully dressed walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  The lady who was reading heard it and got up and peeped over the rails of the terrace.  Her face broke into a lovely smile as she recognised her friend.  “Ciao cara,” she said.  She beckoned for her to come up, to join her.  “Passa di qua,” she told her.  And her friend made her way into the house not by the front door, no, but by a large open French window (or whatever these things are called) on the ground floor.  I felt as if I were trespassing so I didn’t take any photos.  It was an amazing vignette of Sicilian life to ‘catch’ … so pleasant, so unhurried, so civilised.  I wonder who these lovely ladies are …

Punta Secca (Santa Croce Camerina) and Enzo a Mare.  Good company, glorious food, the sea … what more could I have asked for?

Pasta col Tonno Sfiziosa – ‘Fussy’ Pasta with Tuna

I am reposting another version of the classic pasta with tuna – one that can’t be made in a hurry and that requires a little attention to detail in the prepping phase.  Definitely worth the trouble, however, if you have the time and inclination.  I wrote the post in December 2014, that’s quite a while ago !

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It is very traditional to have a fish-only themed menu on Christmas Eve in most parts of Italy, including Rome.  Also traditional are foods fried in batter such as artichokes, cauliflower, broccolo, apples, cod fish etc.  Spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti in a clam sauce) are always a big hit.  And so is pasta with tuna – not fresh tuna but tuna packed in olive oil.

I stopped buying tuna a few years ago, after reading about the parlous state of this particular fishing industry.  I don’t want to sound all holier than thou over this decision and I am sure I am not the only one.  However, I also keep an optimistic attitude and look into reports on improvements (in Italy’s Mediterranean waters at least) and it would appear that the numbers of tuna have grown to the point that I can now resume eating it without feeling guilty (and being careful, of course, to choose the right brand).

The photos on today’s post were taken at the end of last summer, the tuna being a present from friends who had just returned from a holiday in Puglia.

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This tuna was A-star stuff, packed in proper olive oil and not some other substandard seed oil, and presented in a glass jar.

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Some tomatoes, a couple of cloves of garlic … and my new kitchen ‘toy’ – a tomato peeler.

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You don’t have to peel the tomatoes but I was in raptures of reverent tomato peeling activity and enjoying myself the way little children do when trying out a new toy …

IMG_9621IMG_9622A couple of anchovy fillets … and some lemon zest (for freshness).

Chop and de-seed the peeled tomatoes …

 

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Cook the garlic (careful that it doesn’t burn, it must cook until it is golden).

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Sprinkle salt all over the chopped tomatoes while the garlic is cooking …

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Get your pasta out (spaghetti would have been nice but I didn’t have any that day) …


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Add the tomatoes to the frying pan …

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After a few minutes, add the anchovy fillets …

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Taste … and add a pinch of sugar if necessary.


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It won’t take more than 10 minutes to have this sauce ready.  At that point, add some torn basil leaves and the lemon zest.  Switch off the heat.

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Sssssh … don’t tell anyone but I didn’t do such a good job of de-seeding the tomatoes.  Never mind.  I am still alive.

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Grate some pecorino cheese.  I think anyone who has been reading my blog for a while is fully aware of my reluctance to engage in cheese grating which is why I do my level best to fob this job off to any other family member or friend who happens to be in the vicinity.  It is important to have someone else grate your cheese for you, yes … but it is also important to make sure that the proper sized cheese grater is used.  See the photo above? The holes in the grater are too big … the grated cheese is not ‘fine’ enough for a pasta.  The finer the cheese grated, the easier it will be for the cheese to ‘melt’ completely into the sauce.  I know it sounds silly but it makes all the difference.

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While the pasta is cooking … drain the tuna.

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When the pasta is just about cooked, transfer it it to the pan with the tomato sauce.  Turn the heat on again and allow the pasta to finish its cooking time directly in the sauce.  If the sauce looks like it’s going to dry out, add some of the cooking water.

 

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Add the tuna last …

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Combine all the ingredients and switch off heat.
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The green bits are, I think, a mixture of mint and marjoram.  Parsely would be great too.

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Add the grated cheese last.

It is not ‘normal’ in Italian cuisine to mix cheese and fish together.  This recipe is one of the exceptions.  As is pasta with mussels and pecorino.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/pasta-al-tonno-variation/

Pasta col Tonno – Classic Pasta Recipe with Pre-Cooked Tuna

I am reposting a recipe I wrote back in March 2011.  It is a classic and it’s worthwhile keeping in mind when time is of the essence.  So think of this variation as the “quick and easy one”.

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At a restaurant not far from home last night, I was surprised to be served a dish made up of polenta accompanied by a tomato sauce and tuna – most unusual and very good too. Upon closer inspection, it transpired that that the tuna was not the fresh kind but, rather, the tuna that is packed in oil – you know, the kind one always keeps in the pantry for salads or for those just-in-case emergency occasions when a very hungry stomach (or two) will fight a very convincing battle with the brain when it presumes to think that cooking can’t be paramount on one’s list of priorities. And that is time to make a pasta and tuna dish so that both stomach and brain will be appeased.

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The ingrediens: some pasta, a jar of tuna packed in olive oil, a jar of tomato sauce, garlic, anchovy fillets and any fresh, green herb you may have around … in this case it was some marjoram.

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When one is in a hurry, it is best to think slowly and act quickly … so take a moment to ‘orchestrate’ the necessary steps.  First things first: put the water on to boil and pour some olive oil into a good-sized saucepan.

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Peel some garlic and cut in half and put it into the saucepan together with one anchovy fillet.  Turn the heat on a low heat (we don’t want the garlic to burn to a crisp) … and then open the jar of tuna and put it through a colander, and open the jar of tomato sauce.

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When the garlic has turned golden and the anchovy fillet has sort of dissolved …

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Add the tomato sauce.

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Put the pasta into the boiling water …

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Add some salt …

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Add a pinch of sugar too … it is the sugar and the salt that really ‘add’ taste to any tomato sauce because both ingredients are enhancers of taste: i.e. both ingredients make any flavour taste better !  That is why a little bit of salt is added even to sweet dishes.

I defy any chef worth his or her hat to deny that salt has no place in the kitchen ! People are absolutely terrified of salt and this is very silly indeed.  The important thing is to use only a small amount … in fact, only the RIGHT amount.

And as for those who worry about high blood pressure and all that that entails … please take the time to google around on the merits of untreated sea salt versus the very nasty chemically cleaned sodium chloride (here is one easy link to get you started: http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/salt.htm ).

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As the sauce sputters away merrily, add a sprig of your herbs …

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Followed by the tuna, drained of the oil it was preserved in …

Give it a good stir, gently breaking up the tuna so that it thickens the sauce.

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When the pasta is almost ready (i.e. two to three minutes before the cooking time recommended on the packet), you can drain it directly into the saucepan …

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If the sauce is a little too thick, you can ladle in a little of the cooking water … and keep cooking the whole lot until the pasta has ‘absorbed’ all the sauce and is ready to be served.

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The reason I insert this somewhat unappealing photo is to show that a jar of tuna and a jar of tomato sauce and 500 g of pasta can go a long way !  It can definitely feed four very hungry people …

 

 

Ready to eat … and it took just over 15 minutes from start to finish.  (For your information, the above pasta is the kind that takes 12 minutes to cook.)

There is nothing like a plate of pasta to placate a hungry belly AND a brain that thinks it’s too busy to cook …

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Gurnard (Gallinella) … A Fish that makes a good pasta Sauce …

Let’s make fish ragù with Gallinella

 

This post is all about using fresh, caught fish to full ‘advantage’.   The fish in question is called ‘gallinella di mare’ in this part of Italy and translates as ‘tub gurnard’ in English.  I’d never heard of tub gurnard in English before and do not remember eating much gallinella whilst growing up in Italy.  But spurred as I was a few weeks ago, indeed almost driven, to just pop into a fishmonger’s and pick up whatever fish took my fancy that day, I opted for this strangely named creature of the sea.  My mother had given me a basket of her home made fettuccine just hours before and I thought I could cook up a wonderful fish stew (ragù) as the height of fresh egg-noodles accompaniment.

My first mistake was not following the fishmonger’s kind suggestion that he fillet the fish for me (Oh no no no no … quoth I to him …. I can do that at home, fish is very tactile and all that, and filleting fish kind be a very zen exercise).  The second mistake, or at least misunderstanding on my part, was to have blithely disregarded the cost of the fish.  The fishmonger handed over the gutted gallinella to me and smilingly conveyed the price: EU 42.  I almost did a double-take but meekly complied with the payment — after all, it wasn’t the fishmonger’s fault.

Hmmmm.  I got home and took more than just one photo of Mr Fish the Tub Gurnard cum Gallinella.  Take a look.

On a silver platter …

And here were my mother’s fettuccine …

She just has a way with the fresh pasta … Oh I am so envious ….

“You’d better taste good!” I said out aloud.   Then I proceeded to fillet it and cursed my hubris.  I had never dealt with these gurnards before and ‘tough’ doesn’t begin to describe how frightfully medieval-like-armoured-mail their whole demeanor is. I actually cut myself at one point and had to put my bleeding finger under running water and then bandage myself up before carrying on.  This was not boding well.  Why oh Why? Why why why?  Why had  I done it? What what WHAT had induced me to want to buy that silly fish?  Sigh.

And then, when I looked at the amount of flesh I managed to extract from the whole fish, I felt even worse!  There really didn’t seem to be much to eat for 42 euros!  Take a look!

Lovely colour, however, and definitely fresh fresh fresh.   And then the magic of pasta kicked in, and I reconnected to an atavistic will to make the most of what lay before me.  After all that fretting over the filleting, I was damned if I wasn’t going to come up with a fantastic ragù for my mother’s superb home-made fettuccine.  Hands on hips, hah!

For those of you who are really interested in cooking, read on.  For those of you who are fond of me and are my friends but don’t necessarily want to cook …. go straight to the end of this post!

MAKING FISH STOCK

Whatever I wasn’t able to use for the ragù, I used to make the stock.

I added water, some herbs, onion, a tiny amount of lemon zest, some pepper corns and … sorry, can’t remember.  Probably a bit of wine too. Oh yes, and a bay leaf.   Bay leaves are wonderful for stocks.

ADDING PEAS TO THE RAGU’

Can you see two cast-iron saucepans?  I sliced a big wedge of garlic from a whole head of garlic, into one slice, and put it into one of the saucepans together with a a healthy helping of butter — one large tablespoon’s worth.

I switched on the heat and added a long shaped pepper corn … look at the butter foaming gently as it cooks both the garlic and the pepper.

Add the peas …

Add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon full of sugar …

And since the fish stock has been bubbling for a while now, add a little bit of that too.  After all, this is going to be a fish-based ragù!  Give it a good stir and set aside.

THE TOMATO SAUCE

In another cast-iron saucepan, sauté some sliced up garlic with a few coriander seeds and plenty of olive oil, over a gentle heat.

Here are some cut up cherry tomatoes …

Add them to the sauté of garlic and coriander seeds and, again, cook over a gentle heat.

Season with salt …. and a pinch of sugar.

Add a small ladle-full of the simmering fish stock too.

Owing to the fact that I was short of fresh tomatoes, I decided to add a good squirt of concentrated tomato  purée, straight out of a tube.  Life saver …

As the tomato sauce was drying up, I added yet more fish stock …

Yes … now we are getting somewhere!  I wish I could convey the scent at this point of the cooking … it was very, very engrossing.

Add the fish stock, a little at a time and as necessary.

Glossy and simmering … taste and make sure the seasoning is right.

FINAL TOUCH

Time to add the previously cooked peas … and give everything a good stir.

Looking gorgeous, smelling divine.  I switched off the heat.

At this point … it was time to get the pasta cooking.

Once the fettuccine were cooked, I drained them and put them straight into the casserole with the fish ragù in it, having turned the heat on again.

The drained fettuccine went straight into the ragù casserole …

I added the last dregs of the fish stock, filtering it ….

And then put the lid on the casserole to get the heat going so all the ingredients would meld together nicely … if only for a few minutes.

DISHING OUT

I took the lid off and stirred the fettuccine …

In the servng dish …

A close-up ….

There was enough fettuccine and fish ragù to serve six hungry people … which in terms of arithmetics comes to Eu 7 per person/per serving for the fish alone.  Expensive? yes.  Worth it? Even more …

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