I was reorganizing a few cabinets the other day and came across some old photo albums – those old photo albums that many of us of a certain age 🙂 remember from childhood. (Peel back the plastic, stick on your photos, lay the plastic back on top.) The yellowing pages contained photos of my mother’s family at our frequent weekend picnics and parties – their smiling faces staring into the camera; kids romping in the background, food tucked into every possible corner of the tables alongside. How I remember taking many of those photos with my little Instamatic camera that had a four-sided flashbulb that popped in on top. (Remember those???)
So many happy childhood memories with my mother and her nine siblings. There were always plenty of cousins with whom we could play a wicked game of hide-and-seek. Invariably, my uncle Tootie, who was an opera singer, would get up to belt out a song or two. Talk would always turn to the food or a recipe that the others had to try. Gatherings lasting well into the fading light of evening.
Tucked into the pages of the album were a few Sicilian recipes, written on now yellowed paper, that I had collected from various aunts along the way – the ‘secret’ cannoli filling, pasta con le sarde, something they called parsley sauce. What struck me is how these recipes have easily made their way into my own kitchen; recipes handed down from one generation to another; roots reaching back to the distant villages in Sicily.
My maternal grandparents were born on the shores of Sicily in the little village of Santo Stefano di Camastra, a sleepy place with stunning views sweeping north across the turquoise blue sea. They braved the ocean voyage to travel to America to escape a life of poverty and brought with them stories that I cherish still to this day. Although poor by any measure here in America, their life was rich with family. Ten children later, they worked tirelessly to bring up a large family in the midst of the Depression in a little row house in New Jersey. They led a bumpy road with my grandfather dying quite young; leaving my grandmother to care of her ten children on the salary of a seamstress. Somehow they made it work – those ten children sharing one bedroom and one bathroom at the top of the narrow pie shaped stairs that I still remember.
When cooking in my own kitchen, I think back often to those times. I have since augmented my family recipes from Sicily with recipes from my numerous trips to the island. It is a magical place. Below are two of my favorite sauces that I make time and time again – whether with fish, chicken, or veggies. There are many variations of these recipes so I encourage you to make them uniquely your own.
The first, an agrodolce sauce, Italian for sweet and sour, is a sauce highlighting Sicily’s exotic culinary influences. Variations abound across the island but it is typically made with sugar and vinegar such as red-wine vinegar, cooked down until their flavors meld into a wonderful medley of sweet and sour. Here I have paired it with delicate rolls of eggplant filled with fresh ricotta studded with pine nuts and mint. (Feel free to swap out the pine nuts with other typical Sicilian nuts such as almonds or pistachios.)
The second, what my relatives called ‘parsley sauce’ is a sauce with a difficult name to pronounce, salmoriglio sauce. It is derived from the Italian word for briny (salamoia) and is a tangy sauce bright with lemon. The sauce is typically a whirl of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and parsley, although the ingredients can vary by village in Sicily. (Be sure to whisk vigorously to emulsify the sauce.) Here I have paired it with simply grilled fresh sardines to heighten and brighten the briny goodness of the fish.
I am hoping these simple sauces also find their way into your very own kitchen – enjoy!
- 2 large eggplants
- For the agrodolce sauce:
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 cup red wine vinegar
- ½ cup honey
- Dash red pepper
- 8 ounces fresh ricotta
- A few handfuls pine nuts, toasted
- A few sprigs fresh mint, plus additional for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Slice the eggplants into rounds about ½ inch thick. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Allow to drain for at least 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, vinegar, honey, red pepper and a healthy pinch of salt. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Turn to low and allow to simmer until the sauce is reduced and thick, almost like caramel, about 30 minutes. (The sauce becomes thicker as it cools so be careful not to allow to become too thick.)
- Make the ricotta: Mix the ricotta with about ⅔ of the pine nuts. Chop the fresh mint leaves and add to the ricotta. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Lightly rinse and dry the eggplant slices. Using an outdoor grill or grill pan, lightly coat with oil. Fry the eggplant slices until soft and browned on both sides, about 5 minutes each. Remove to a platter as you cook them.
- Take a slice of eggplant and fill with a few spoonfuls of the ricotta mixture. Roll the eggplant and place on a serving platter. Continue until all the eggplant is rolled. Drizzle the eggplant slices with the agrodolce sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining pine nuts and mint leaves and serve!
- For the salmoriglio sauce:
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup hot water
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 large clove of garlic, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon oregano, dried
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and finely ground black pepper to taste
- 12 fresh sardines, cleaned
- Extra lemons, quartered
- In a small bowl, whisk the oil and hot water briskly with a fork. Add in the juice from the lemons, followed by the garlic, oregano and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Prepare a medium hot grill. Spray or wipe the grill with oil. Season the sardines with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. When grill is hot, grill until fish are cooked through and nicely charred, only about 2-3 minutes per side.
- Remove from grill and place on a platter. Drizzle the sauce over the sardines. Serve the extra sauce on the side. Drizzle with fresh lemon juice. Serve with plenty of extra lemons on the side.