The province of Trapani on Sicily’s westernmost tip, has an identity all of its own, but local the gastronomy has been influenced by the culture and customs of the many peoples that occupied these lands through the centuries. You can lose count of the number of dishes that include almonds and yet never get tired of any of them. Almond trees dot the countryside, alongside date and citrus trees. Included in this week’s Tavola is a recipe for Trapanese Pesto which uses almonds. On the other coast of the island, Pistachio nuts from Bronte rule. They are used in everything, from gelato to pasta.
Fish is one of the staples of the diet and it is cooked in many different ways, with tuna as the favorite. In fact, Trapani holds an annual tuna festival each summer. As for pastries, as in all of Sicily, cannoli made with ricotta is a favorite, along with the mustazzoli from Erice and fruit from Martorana and Marzipan from Taormina. Among the wines of the province, make sure to try fortified sweet Marsala, Alcamo whites, as well as the Zibibbo and Passito dessert wines of Pantelleria.
Caponata di Melanzane
In Sicilian cooking, the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables and is the principal ingredient in this recipe. Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish that personifies Sicilian cuisine. This recipe uses an agro dolce sauce, which is both sour and sweet. Eggplants from Sicily are a major export as well.
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3-4 eggplants, dark skinned variety
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium-sized red tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ cup capers, salted or in brine
3/4 cup green olives, chopped
2-3 celery stalks with leaves
½ cup white wine vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eggplant into cubes of about 1” – do not peel. Place the cubes into large bowl of water with 1 tablespoon of salt. Allow the eggplant to sit for 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients.
Prepare the capers. If the salted variety, rinse thoroughly and then soak for about 30 minutes before use and then rinse again. Chop the onion. Cut the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves. Peel and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible.
Heat a large fryingpan over a medium flame with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil. Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside. Gently sauté the celery in the pan for 5-7 minutes and remove to the same bowl as the eggplant. Next, sauté the onion with a bit of salt and cook until translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook to allow the juice to evaporate. Add the capers and olives and cook for 1-2minutes. Add the vegetables to the bowl.
For the agro dolce sauce, add the sugar to the pan (already coated with the caramelized flavors from the vegetables). Heat very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate. Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the pan with the agro dolce sauce. Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary. Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Serve with toasted breadcrumbs as a side dish or over toasted bread as an appetizer.
Panelle e Crocchè
The Panelle e Crocchè is believed to be the oldest, classic example of Sicilian street food. The panelle has been prepared in this manner for a millennium. The crocchè came later to this dish which is traditionally served on a sesame seed bun at any hour of the day or night.
2 lb potatoes
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb chickpea flour
½ cup vegetable oil
5 sesame seed rolls
Boil the potatoes, unpeeled in salted water. Let them rest in the refrigerator until chilled, then peel and mash the potatoes until smooth. Add a pinch of salt, pepper, half of the chopped parsley and mix. Sprinkle your hands with some olive oil; grab a small portion of the mixture and give it the shapes of a crocchetta. Repeat for the entire mixture.
In a large bowl, slowly add 48 ounces of cold water to the chickpea flour and whisk to mix and remove any lumps. Cook over a low flame, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until you have a rather soft cream. Just before removing from the flame, add the remaining chopped parsley and stir. Spread the chickpea paste to a thickness of 1/4” onto dinner plates and allow to cool. Cut into the desired shape and remove from the plates.
Fry the panelle and crocchè in hot oil. When the color is golden, remove and drain on paper towels. Place 2 or 3 of each on a sesame seed roll and sprinkle with lemon.
Busiate with Trapanese Pesto
This dish is the result of a cultural interaction between the Genoese and Sicilians during the time when sailors used to trade across the Mediterranean and made frequent stops in the port of Trapani.
1 lb busiate pasta
1 ½ tsp salt
For the Trapanese Pesto
½ lb fresh tomatoes
2 cups water
1 cup fresh basil leaves
3 tbsp grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 cup roasted almonds
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
salt and pepper to taste
To prepare the pesto, make a cross cut on top of each tomato and parboil them in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. When the tomatoes have cooled slightly, peel each. Place the almonds in boiling water and parboil them for 2-3 minutes. This will allow you to easily peel them.
Traditionally, a mortar and pestle is used to avoid oxidization of the basil and produce a better result. If a food processor is used, place the tomatoes, peeled almonds, basil and garlic into the processor and pulse until you obtain a smooth sauce; otherwise, use the traditional method with a mortar and pestle. Once a smooth mixture is obtained, add the extra virgin olive oil, grated cheese, salt and pepper to taste and incorporate by hand.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until just al dente. Drain and reserve ½ cup of pasta water. Sauté the drained pasta in a pan with the pesto sauce for a minute. Add some of the reserved pasta water if necessary to smooth the consistency and serve.