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Sicily Gets Its Day in the Sun

June 06, 1996|JENNIFER G. WOLCOTT | THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

"Sun is the main ingredient on Sicily," says Anna Tasca Lanza. "It blesses everything that grows with intense flavor, and it shapes the daily life and beliefs of the people."

The marchesa Lanza should know. She has lived on the Italian island, in the Mediterranean just south of the boot's toe, all her life.

It's there that she founded the World of Regaleali, a cooking school, on her family estate, a favorite destination of many of the world's chefs. It's her passion for Sicily's glorious food and celebrations that inspired her to write "The Heart of Sicily" (Clarkson Potter, 1993) about her rich family life and, recently, "The Flavors of Sicily: Stories, Traditions, and Recipes for Warm-Weather Cooking" (Clarkson Potter: 1996).

The time may be ripe for her stories of Sicily. Tuscany has not only had its day in the sun, it has been overexposed. And much as people enjoy pasta e fagioli or panforte, they may be ready to learn about other regions.

So, just what foods are indigenous to this lesser-known region, site of the Oscar-winning film "Cinema Paradiso"?

First, it helps to know a little about Sicily's history. In her book, Lanza writes: "The abundant fertility of Sicily and, of course, its strategic position as the largest island in the Mediterranean, lying athwart all the shipping routes and situated off the coast of Africa like a stepping-stone to Europe, made it a crossroads of conquest since ancient times."

So what's known as Sicilian cuisine is derived from the contributions of foreigners: Olives were brought by the Greeks; wheat, by the Romans; Arabs introduced citrus, rice, sugar cane and even pasta; Spaniards grew tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, potatoes and corn.

Other vegetables, like peppers and eggplant, thrive there. Lamb and fish are common. Two favorite cheeses are caciocavallo and pecorino. Herbs are used extensively in cooking. And some say Sicily's sweets are unrivaled in Italy.

Lanza has always felt strongly about cooking with the seasons. And on her island, where a rainy day is as rare as a garden without basil, that doesn't involve too much sacrifice.

"We Sicilians share a certain philosophy of cooking," Lanza says. "We don't make a dish from a recipe; rather, we create it from what we have on hand, what is growing on the land at the moment. That way we never cook out of season. We use what is ripe, and we don't keep it for long."

Her first book was a huge success and, of course, she wouldn't mind the same response to her latest work, a delightful culinary and cultural tour of her homeland during its most sun-drenched months, March through September.

But Lanza's first objective isn't to sell books. "I feel it is my duty to tell about my country, to help improve its image," said the elegant marchesa as she savored a bowl of fresh raspberries during a pause on her U.S. book tour.

Whatever turmoil has beset Sicily, it's all offset by her joyful rendering of a place with wonderfully simple country food and a culture of enduring fascination.

ASPARAGUS AND MOZZARELLA SALAD

1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed

1 pound plum tomatoes

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-size pieces

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Cook asparagus in boiling salted water until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool.

Cut any very long asparagus into 2 or 3 pieces. Cut tomatoes into pieces about same size as mozzarella. Combine asparagus, tomatoes and mozzarella in bowl. Stir salt and pepper to taste into 3 tablespoons olive oil and pour on top. Turn to coat. Add more olive oil if needed, keeping in mind that this salad should not be too oily.

Transfer to platter and pat salad together into a mound. Sprinkle with oregano. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings.

ANNA'S PESTO WITH PASTA

This is Lanza's rendition of the famous pesto, for which no two recipes are alike. If the almonds you have are very flavorful, use them as is; otherwise, toast them lightly to heighten the flavor. If you like, add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan after adding the olive oil.

2 cups mixed herbs, such as mint, parsley, basil and sage

2 cloves garlic

4 small tomatoes, cut up

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt

Ground hot pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

1 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup slivered almonds

Puree herbs, garlic and tomatoes in food processor until roughly chopped. Add sugar and salt and hot pepper to taste. With machine running, add 1/4 cup oil. Process just until blended. Scrape into bowl or jar. Pour remaining oil on top. Refrigerate overnight to let flavors develop.

Just before serving, cook spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Stir pesto and toss with pasta. Sprinkle almonds on top and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

LEMON GRANITA

You might want to use 1/2 cup more or less sugar, depending on whether you like your granitas on the sweet or tart side.

1 1/2 cups sugar, about

1 quart water

1 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Cook sugar and water over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Boil 5 minutes to make light syrup. Pour mixture into wide bowl and refrigerate.

Stir lemon juice and peel into syrup. Transfer to metal ice trays or shallow metal pan and freeze at least 2 hours. Stir every 30 minutes to break up ice crystals.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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