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 tablespoons 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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Aldo’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca with Pesce Spada

“Come on Friday night when we’ll have Spaghetti Puttanesca with added Pesce Spada,” cajoled Aldo, the waiter, host, and sometime cook of the old Abruzzo Club. Aldo ran that vast dining room floor like a master of ceremonies. He conned all the kids with tricks and riddles, charmed the coiffed Nonne with flirtatious compliments that only Italian men do so well, and had a ready risqué joke for the tables of older men. For us non Abbruzzese, he tantalised us with the promise of authentic Italian cuisine, future dishes, specials from the kitchen that weren’t yet listed on the menu. When Aldo and his son left the Abruzzo club, we never returned. The soul and life of that place left with them. Nothing would ever taste the same again. Good food is more than the sum of its ingredients.

When I came across a small slab of Swordfish at my favourite little market recently, I thought of Aldo and how he might make this dish. It’s a substantial pasta dish and requires a little more preparation than that required by a busy Puttana.

Friday night Fish and Pasta, forget the chips.

Aldo’s Spaghetti Puttanesca with  Swordfish. For 2 greedy serves, 3 regular.

  • 200 gr swordfish or pesce spada
  • 200-220 gr spaghetti
  • a small bunch of oregano
  • a pinch of sea salt flakes
  • 3  cloves garlic
  • EV olive oil, a goodly amount
  • 1 can of tomatoes, drained of juice, large pieces roughly chopped.
  • a small handful of pitted black olives, halved
  • 2 teaspoons of salted capers, soaked in water
  • black pepper
  • finely chopped parsley

Method

  • Make the marinade for the fish. Using a small mortar and pestle, add the garlic and salt and begin pounding, then add the oregano leaves, around 2 tablespoons, and continue pounding till a green paste is formed, then add around three tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Cut the swordfish through the centre, ie horizontally, to make two thinner pieces. ( most swordfish is usually sold in very thick slabs- by slicing horizontally, you should have two equal portions of around 1 cm in thickness). Chop these into small chunks of around 2 cm. Place in a small bowl and mix in half of the marinade. Leave for around 1/2 hour on bench.
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, salt well. Add the pasta and cook according to packet directions.
  • Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan to medium-high and add the remaining marinade to the pan. When hot, add the cubes of swordfish and toss around until just cooked. Don’t let the fish overcook as it tends to become quite tough.
  • Remove the fish and set aside. Add the chopped tomato pieces to the same pan, add a little juice to get the sauce moving but don’t flood it with juice as this dilutes the flavour of the other ingredients. Add the chopped olives and drained capers. Sir about until hot, then add the cooked fish. Add a little pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary.
  • When the pasta is cooked just al dente, drain, then add to the sauce, tossing about to amalgamate the ingredients. This second cooking in the pan makes the spaghetti really hot and brings the all the elements together. Add the chopped parsley and serve in a preheated pasta serving dish.

The Abruzzo club, Lygon Street East, Brunswick is now called 377 On Lygon. The restaurant has had a makeover. If you’ve been there recently, let me know how it went.

Got any bread?

A duck walks into a bar and asks: “Got any Bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, we have no bread.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, we haven’t got any bread!”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, are you deaf?! We haven’t got any bread, and if you ask me again and I’ll nail your f ***ing beak to the bar you annoying f***ing duck!”

Duck says: “Got any nails?”

Barman says: “No”

Duck says: “Got any bread?

I always think of this duck joke every time I pull more fresh loaves from the oven or when I see a family of wild wood ducks taking a fancy to our swimming pool. Both trigger a “Got any Bread” moment, but with entirely different emotions. At least it’s a lot better than the typically imbecilic jokes contained in Christmas bon bons. Who writes these Christmas jokes and why do we feel so compelled to read them aloud?

But you can keep your hat on.
You can leave your hat on!

Today’s festive olive bread is a super easy yeasted bread bound to stay moist. While dark looking and rustic in appearance, due to the olives, rosemary and olive oil worked into the dough at the first kneading stage, it is still a light bread. The recipe comes from Maggie’s Table.* I like the simplicity of this version, especially when time is precious at Christmas. You can make these lovely loaves in less than two hours with lots of resting time in between to indulge in a Christmas drop or two.

Olive and Rosemary Bread/ Pane con Rosmarino e Olive

15 g or 1 ½ teaspoons dried yeast

1 teaspoon castor sugar

300 ml warm water

500 g unbleached strong flour (bakers flour)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly chopped rosemary

190 g pitted kalamata olives

Combine yeast, sugar, and warm water in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Leave for 5 minutes. Then add the flour, salt, rosemary and olives. Mix with the paddle till the dough comes together, then swap to a dough hook ad mix for a few minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead gently for another five minutes. The dough is meant to be quite moist and sticky, however you may need to add a little extra flour along the way. Turn into a clean and lightly oiled bowl and brush the top with a little olive oil. Cover the bowl and leave until doubled in size ( about 1 hour).

Divide the mixture into two portions and shape into loaves. Brush a baking tray with olive oil and leave the loaves to rise, covered, on the oiled tray for a further 20 minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven to 220c FF. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180c and bake for a further 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before cutting. Makes two loaves, one for me and one for the freezer.

 

*Maggie Beer, Maggie’s Table, Penguin 2005.  Gifted to me by the Richard’s family after the fire. Thanks Christine and Peter.

 

Antipasto of Egg Salad with Parsley Pesto.

Essere Come Prezzemolo is a handy Italian expression. It simply means to be like parsley, and is applied to people who turn up everywhere, or are always there. ( Steven Fry comes to mind ) Thank goodness parsley is always in my garden as it forms the backbone of many a meal. It flavours stock, is the main star in tabbouleh and it is sprinkled over many a dish, like confetti at a wedding, or a last blessing from the kitchen. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This little salad always gets eaten first at any family gathering.  The young wolves descend on it.It is an economical starter, especially if you grow parsley which is really like a weed. Serve this with another salad, some herbed olives and a tasty bread for lunch.

Mt Zero Biodynamic olives, warmed with oil, garlic and herbs.
Mt Zero Biodynamic olives, warmed with oil, garlic and herbs.

The dish employs winter produce at its peak. Avocados, which are cheap in July and August, come from our sunnier northern states. Parsley is always prolific in the garden but more so in winter as it tends to ‘bolt’ in summer. The eggs are free range organic bantam eggs but any small sized organic eggs you can get hold of will go well as they are the star.

Antipasto di Uova, Prezzemolo e Avocado

  • 6 eggs ( small size)
  • 1 large avocado, or more as required.
  • 1 bunch Italian parsley
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • small handful pine nuts
  • sea salt
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Hard boil the eggs. Meanwhile make the parsley pesto in a mortar and pestle. Throw in the peeled garlic and some coarsely ground salt. Begin pounding. Add the pine nuts and continue pounding. ( Think of your least favorite politician). Add the leaves from the parsley bunch, a bit at a time. Continue bashing away until the parsley is broken down but still a little rough in texture. Add the oil, continue pounding, and add enough to make a green sauce, runny enough to drizzle. Arrange the halved eggs and avocado chunks on a platter, drizzle with the parsley pesto, and add another grinding of salt. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I usually reserve the term pesto for the classic basil pesto which I only make in Summer. This one is so similar, and the green is so vibrant, I’m allowing it to sneak into the pesto category.