Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2┬átablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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Christmas Biscotti from Siracusa

I’m looking forward to a quiet, relaxing Christmas this year. During the weeks leading up to that day, I won’t be counting plates, cutlery, wine glasses, napkins, gutting rooms and borrowing chairs, moving furniture to make more room, ironing table cloths, emptying fridges, making lists and more lists, and anticipating an event for 29 or so guests. On the day, I may be sitting under a shady tree, eating some simply cooked fresh fish, followed by a few light biscotti, enjoying a conversation, good music, and a bottle of wine.

biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia
Biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia

Despite this once in a lifetime opportunity, or escapist retreat, the making of festive delicacies is, for me, very much part of December and still continues. Last year I enjoyed making Cuddureddi, a spicy little Sicilian tart. They were eaten in the weeks leading up to Christmas day or were given away to friends. This year, I am looking to Sicily once again for inspiration. What could be more tempting than chocolate, almond and cherry biscotti, usually found in the pasticcerie in Siracusa, Sicily?

Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliege
Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliegia

These little almond, cherry and chocolate bites can be thrown together very quickly and only take around 12 – 15 minutes to cook. They are soft centred, with the texture of a truffle more than a biscotto. They are gluten-free, dairy free and very moreish. Wrap a few in cellophane to give to your child’s favourite teacher, or give little gifts to loved ones during Advent.┬áDicembre e` un mese bellissimo, mentre il giorno di Natale puo` essere stressante!

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate cherry amaretti biscuits

  • 250 g finely ground almonds
  • 120 g caster sugar
  • 50 g dark ( 70%) chocolate, grated
  • 60 g dried sour cherries, chopped
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 extra-large egg whites, ( or three medium )
  • a pinch of salt
  • 30 gr icing/confectioners’ sugar

    bisoctti ready for oven
    biscotti ready for oven

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

Mix the almonds, sugar, chocolate, cherries and lemon zest together. Whisk the egg whites until firm and add to the almond mixture with the salt. Mix well. The mixture should be damp. ( Note- if you have used two egg whites and feel that the mixture needs a bit more moisture, beat another until stiff and add it to the mixture.)

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Form balls with the almond mixture then roll them in the icing sugar. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, approximately 12- 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20 balls. Note, my edited pics make the balls look rather large but they only measure around 4 cm.

biscotti di Siracusa
Biscotti di Siracusa. Amaretti con ciliegie e cioccolato

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno, 2016

For my dear friend Diane. Let’s spend next Christmas in Sicilia, cara mia.

Cuddureddi Siciliani. Time Travelling Biscuits for the Festive Season

Cuddureddi per Natale
Cuddureddi per Natale

‘To eat in Sicily is also to feel that one is tasting the very beginnings of Italian food history. The island has been conquered by virtually every dominant Mediterranean power of the last two or three thousand years’.┬╣

Inspired by two recent purchases of Sicilian cookbooks, I began to peruse the others in my collection with renewed interest. I have these books strewn about, moving from one to the other, excited by the differences and similarities and the historical references in each, some attributing Turkish and Greek influence to a style of biscuit, others noting the strong Arabic and North African legacy. So while the search is on for a make-ahead biscuit or bread for Christmas, I subject myself to a wonderful distraction as I travel back through that perfumed land of orange blossom and jasmine, the land of ancient Greek monuments, where the sea is never far away from where you are, that land of robust and exotic flavours: Sicily. I hear the words of the 12th century traveller, geographer and cartographer, the Muslim scholar al-Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi Hasani al-Sabti, or simply al Idrisi of Palermo, who was employed by King Roger 11 of Sicily. For 15 years, al Idrisi studied and journeyed, consulting other travellers to produce his great geography book,┬á A Diversion for the Man Longing to Travel to Far off Places.┬á The Sicily that al Idrisi recorded was an island of “carefully watered orchards and gardens where generations of Muslim technical expertise and commercial know-how had bequeathed a rich agriculture of lemons, almonds, pistachio nuts, cane sugar, dates, figs, carobs and more.”┬▓┬á I am there, back in that royal 12th Century court, where “Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and the dialects of Northern France could all be heard.”┬│ Did they also eat these delicately spiced Cuddureddi biscuits as they discussed the wonders of the world? One will never know. But as King Roger employed Muslim chefs, I have a fair idea that they did.┬á Cooking can be so distracting for a time traveller like me.

I siciliani
I siciliani

One of the recent purchases, Sicilian Food, Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle by Mary Taylor Simeti, 1999, was introduced to me by Debi, at My Kitchen Witch whose recommendations I always trust and inevitably enjoy reading. They are books about cooking, but never contain glossy photographs. Simetti’s book is well researched, documented and timeless. The other, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, an Australian author with Sicilian heritage, came via a reminder from Roger ( not the Norman King of Sicily) at Food Photography and France whose blog is amusing and often outrageously so. I thank both of you for adding to my divertimento.

This recipe for Cuddureddi Siciliani biscuits comes from My Taste of Sicily by Dominique Rizzo, another Italo-Australiana, and was the most appealing of all the versions in my collection. Dominique learnt it from her Zia Nunzia. The biscuits contain all the essence of Sicily in one Christmassy filling: almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, figs, sultanas and currants, orange peel and marmalade, cinnamon and cloves, dark chocolate and vanilla, with a pastry moistened with Marsala. Eaten without savouring, they do resemble an English mince-pie, but are far more subtle and less cloying.

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Cuddureddi Siciliani; makes 20 biscuits

The Pastry

  • 260 g plain flour
  • 70 g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 125 g unsalted butter, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Marsala
  • 18o ml milk
  • 40 g icing sugar ( for dusting cooked biscuits )

The Filling

  • 150 g dried figs
  • 35 g slivered almonds
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
  • 100 g currants
  • 50 g sultanas
  • 3 teaspoons orange marmalade
  • finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ┬╝ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 45 g dark couverture chocolate (70 %), chopped or sliced finely.
  1. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then transfer to a food processor. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles course breadcrumbs. Add the Marsala to the milk, then with the motor running, add a little of the milk mixture to the flour at a time, processing until it forms a soft dough. Knead the dough on a floured board for 2 minutes, working as quickly as possible to prevent the dough from softening. Roll the dough into a ball, cover with plastic film and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
pastry for the cuddureddi
pastry for the cuddureddi

2. Cover the figs with boiling water and let them soak for 15 minutes. Drain, remove and discard the stalks. Finely chop the figs.

3. Preheat oven to 200c.

4. Place the almonds, pine nuts and walnuts on a baking tray and roast for a few minutes, and watch that they don’t colour too much. Remove and set aside.

5. Mix the figs, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, currants, sultanas, marmalade, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and chocolate in a bowl. Transfer half of the mixture to a food processor and process for 3 seconds or until it comes together to form a rough paste. Return to the bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.

6. Reduce the temperature to 180c. Lightly grease ( or paper) two baking trays. Briefly knead the dough, then roll it out on a floured work surface until 2 mm thick. Cut the dough into 7 cm rounds with a pastry cutter, then place 1 tablespoon of filling in the centre of each round. Top with another round and brush the edge with a little milk. Press the edges together to form a round pillow.

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7. Place the filled biscuits on the baking tray and bake for 2o minutes. Dust immediately with icing sugar and leave to cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature. These biscuits will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

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Notes:

  • I found 1 tablespoon of filling too much for the size of these biscuits and recommend that you lessen the quantity to fill the biscuits without splitting the pastry. Be guided by your intuition here.
  • You will probably not use very much of the Marsala/milk mixture to bring together the pastry. I suggest keeping the Marsala and lessening the amount of milk.
  • As the recipe is a long one, I suggest making the filling ahead, covering and storing it, then making the pastry and baking on a later day.
  • These are very rewarding biscuits to make. Other versions include honey, Vincotto and use durum wheat in the pastry. Other shapes are formed too, which I may explore in a future post.
biscotti eleganti
biscotti eleganti

Although not a book about Sicilan cookery, I drew heavily on the opening chapters of John Dickie’s book, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, Free Press, New York, 2008 which is still my favourite book about Italian food and doesn’t contain a single recipe.

┬╣ John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, p 15

2 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. p.19

3 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. P 23