The Mezzogiorno, a term used to describe Southern Italy, is “hot, dry and sea-girt, wracked by earthquake and eruption.” It is “the furthest part of Italy from Europe and the nearest to the rest of the world.” So opens Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, a chilling look at the role of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 20th century.¹ It’s odd, but when I see Pesce Spada or swordfish for sale at the fishmongers, I think of Midnight in Sicily and then I recall Palermo. These three things are always interconnected in my mind- fish, book, place. Before visiting Palermo in 2000, I had never eaten this species of fish. I do now, but only rarely, when the pale pink slices look seasonally tempting and I know the fish monger well enough to ask him to slice the steak horizontally into two much thinner slices. I like my swordfish really thin, a little like a large flattened schnitzel. They are then fried quickly and briefly and served in the Palermitano way, that is in salmoriglio, with a mere dribble of a sauce made from finely chopped oregano, parsley, garlic, capers, lemon zest and olive oil. In winter when fresh oregano is on the wane, I make a robust sauce of pounded rosemary, garlic, lemon zest, salt and olive oil. Served with a neat pile of lightly cooked spinach, a wedge of lemon and a few waxy potatoes, I’m back to Palermo again.
With the rest of my piece of Swordfish, as one slice is always too much for one meal, I concoct a little Spaghetti Puttanesca. There is much debate about the origin of this dish with its amusing name involving a prostitute. It seems that it was invented in the 1960s, not by the busy whore or puttana of the title, but by a restaurateur on Ischia, who, short of ingredients, threw this dish together, in response to some customers who demanded ‘Facci una puttanata qualsiasi.’ (make whatever rubbish you have).² Some essentials are garlic, some canned chopped tomato, but not too much juice which makes the pasta swim, a few chopped capers and black olives, parsley or basil, and anchovies. Sometimes I start my version with one finely chopped onion cooked down in olive oil, then I add the chopped garlic, and then small cubes of swordfish. When these components are just cooked, the odds and ends are added in order, then in goes the cooked pasta for a quick toss around in the sauce, then the chosen fresh herb. In the spirit of the original, it is thrown together. I am a working girl too, in cucina e nell’orto!
These two fish meals for two were based on 450 gr piece of swordfish (AU$11.00). After it was sliced thinly, the first meal was portioned at of around 135 gr each, and the rest went into the pasta dish the following day. Supermarket pre-cut portions of fish are too large, usually around 220 gr per piece. Fishmongers will usually oblige and cut your fish the way you like it which is another good reason to avoid supermarkets and stores with pre-packaged plastic wrapped food.
- ¹ Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb 1996
- ² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_puttanesca