In late August, I visited the tiny island of Pantelleria, off the southern coast of Sicily. The island finds itself closer to the shores of Northern Africa than Sicily and it was here that I found some of the warmest souls on earth. I spent a short 5 days on the island and found myself headed back to America with a suitcase full of gifts, a journal full of memories and a heart filled with warmth. I went to the island in search of caper berries and the local island specialities and came away with these – and many new found friends. The cuisine of Pantelleria is heavily influenced by its proximity to Africa and is reflected in the local recipes which typically include capers, mint, wild fennel and oregano.
On my third evening, I was still searching for the local speciality of ravioli made with fresh ricotta (known as ‘tumma’) and mint. I had settled in at my now-daily table outside Caffe’ Aurora sipping a glass of local white wine and updating my journal on my daily activities. I found myself soon chatting with two locals, Angelo and Francesco, sitting at the table next to me and our two tables quickly became one as we continued our conversation. When they realized that I had not yet tasted the local ravioli treat, an invitation was quickly extended for a dinner at Angelo’s house in the country for the next evening. And sure enough – I arrived to find the local island specialities being prepared by our chef, Angelo. (That is our chef up there holding the fruit from his India Fig cactus plants (‘Fichi di India’) that of course, he insisted I taste.) I shared a wonderful evening with my new friends and came away with a notebook full of recipes (and stories) which I will share over the coming months. I am including Angelo’s recipe for Insalata Pantesca here – a salad made with their yummy local produce – potatoes, tomatoes, olives, capers, oregano. Angelo included dried salt cod (‘baccala’) in his rendition – but you can omit or use, as I have done here, qood quality canned Italian tuna.
Angelo also served the salad over a bread called ‘viscottu fatto con farina d’orzo’- making the dish into a sort of Pantescan panzanella. The bread was very hard and he first moistened and softened the bread with water. It was heavenly as the bread soaked up the dressing and merged with the flavors of the oregano, basil and vinegar. I have made this numerous times since returning from Pantelleria and every time, have received rave reviews – so whip up a batch and enjoy! I will pass along all comments to our Pantescan chef, Angelo….
4 large waxy potatoes, scrubbed (like red-skinned, new or fingerling; waxy potatoes stand up best in salads)
3 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
1 small red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons capers (drained if packed in liquid; soaked in water if packed in salt)
3 medium tomatoes, cut into cubes
1/2 cup black oil-cured olives, pitted
1 can oil-packed Italian tuna, drained (optional)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, diced (or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano)
1/4 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn or cut into small pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Stale bread – about 2 cups (crusts removed if you’d prefer; optional)
-Cook potatoes in boiling salted water until tender when pierced with a knife tip. About 20-30 minutes depending on their size. Drain and cool to room temperature.
-Place balsamic vinegar in a small shallow bowl. Add thinly sliced red onion and capers to the bowl and allow to marinate while preparing the rest of salad.
-Peel and cut the potatoes into 1-inch pieces and place in a bowl. Add tomatoes and olives.
-Remove onions and capers from vinegar and add to the bowl.
-Drizzle the olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the salad.
-Add the diced fresh oregano and torn basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper.
-Add the drained tuna to the bowl. Stir. Adjust seasoning to taste.
-Place the stale bread in a small bowl and cover with cold tap water – allow to rest for a few mins to absorb water. Squeeze bread to remove excess water.
-Place bread in individual serving bowls. Spoon salad on top and enjoy………
VARIATIONS: If making as a side dish or antipasto, omit tuna. Omit bread as well if you’d like.