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Easy Going

Travel stories + tips from seasoned explorers


July 7, 2016

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Although many regions of Italy boast superb cuisine, that of Sicily is uniquely steeped in history. A walk down the streets of a typical Sicilian town reveals a variety of vendors, selling not only typical Italian specialties (dried pasta, hearty bread), but also exotic fruits and vegetables, capers, tomatoes, eggplant, and a myriad of olives. While the Sicilians export many of their goods, they tend to shun imports, so most everything comes straight from the land. The exception: you’ll note a distinctly Greek feel on the volcanic Eastern side of the Isle, near the city of Catania. It’s more difficult to grow produce in this rocky ground, so some items are imported from Greece. On the Palermo side, cuisine is largely influenced by the Arabs, and couscous (both veggie and seafood versions) is popular. There is hardly a country in Europe that hasn’t influenced Sicilian cooking, and yes, even the African and Arab worlds have left their marks. Recipes have been passed down through generations of conquerors.

On a journey to Sicily, in addition to sampling all the amazing and often exotic fresh seafood options, we think these are five foods that you have to try:

Granita: Let’s start our grazing with a tiny cup of slushie heaven, the Sicilian granita. Hundreds of years ago, peasants stowed blocks of ice in the upper crevices of Mt. Etna, to be sold during the scorching summer as a refrigeration tool. Another use for Etna’s ice: granitas. Ice was historically carried down from the mountains, crushed, and flavored to create this hot-weather delight. The popularity of granitas has leaped beyond Sicily’s borders to many places around the globe. Have you noticed Starbucks afternoon specialty item this summer? You got it — granita! The most common flavors include almond (a native Sicilian crop), coffee, and watermelon. I will never forget my welcome gift to Ortigia, the tiny white pearl off the coast of Syracuse. Our driver left us in the car for a minute after we crossed over the short bridge to the island, disappearing around a white-washed corner of charmingly dilapidated buildings. Two minutes later he reappeared with a tiny “to go” cup of “coffee Frappucino” that would have made Starbucks blush with envy! In Palermo, granitas have a coarser, more crystalline texture, but in the east, granitas are as smooth as sorbet. In Catania, chocolate granitas are popular, while in the sunnier regions lemon is the most popular. Did you know that Sicilian lemons are much less tart than American lemons, which makes them better for flavoring foods?

Arancini: We move on to an amuse bouche now on our tasting journey … arancini. As a result of the many cultures that have left their mark on Sicily, different twists have been added to popular foods. For example, you may go to Sicily expecting to find risotto, as you do in other regions of Italy. While some Sicilian menus boast seafood risotto, the most popular use of rice is in arancini – a street food that is best sampled “hot in hand” while wandering one of the many food markets. Arancini are rice balls, gooey on the inside and deep fried to form a crispy exterior. They are a staple across the island. If you visit Catania, the arancini may be filled with ragu, peas and mozzarella. But, if you are travelling to the center of the island, you may find that they are filled with chicken and liver, and in the southeast, near Agrigento, look for tomato and mozzarella. Their content depends solely on the cultural influences and fresh options available.

Caponata: It’s time for a proper antipasto. The Sicilian relish appetizer, known as caponata, is said to have Spanish origin. Although it can be cooked many different ways, it always has a base of eggplant and normally has a sweet and sour profile, which is the reason I like it so much! Local vegetables are incorporated, lending it different personalities as you travel around the island. The Sicilian food authority Pino Correnti believes that the dish is derived from the Catalan word caponada, which is a similar kind of relish, and says it first appears in a Sicilian etymology of 1709. Many believe it was created long ago for sailors, who frequently used relish as a preservative. Records indicate that aboard many ships, a similar dish was served for breakfast. While the exact origin is unclear, the recipe has “evolved” and now is quite a popular antipasto in many countries.

Sfincione: Okay, the main course. Traditionally, this dish was served on New Year’s Eve and Christmas, but it is now popular in many of Sicily’s open-air markets. Very similar to American pizza, sfincione is famous for its thick crust and fresh tomatoes, topped with sautéed onions and, optionally, grated cacciocavallo cheese. Although many famous chefs describe the history of sfincione as starting in ancient times, it actually has only been around since the 17th century. We know this because one of its most important ingredients, the tomato, was imported from South Africa just a few hundred years ago, and has been cultivated in Italy only since the 16th century. Unlike typical Italian pizza, sfincione is baked in a square pan and always topped with sautéed onions, while cheese and anchovies are optional.

Cassata: I’m ready for one of Sicily’s famous sweets now! This dessert was first mentioned in Corleone in 1778, although it is believed to have debuted under Muslim rule during the 10th century. The Arabic word qus’ah, from which the word cassata in generally believed to derive, refers to the bowl used to shape the cake. Cassata is a ricotta-based cake, and a unique Arab celebratory dessert that also features pistachios and candied fruit. Sponge cake is normally moistened with fruit juices or liquor, and the cake is filled with a cream similar to that found in the cannoli. It is then covered with pastel icing and decorated with candied fruit, often depicting the citrus fruits that are so characteristic of Sicily. Did you know that Arabs introduced citrus fruit to the island 1000 years ago, together with intricate irrigation systems to help the plants flourish? Unfortunately much of their hard work was destroyed by subsequent conquerors.

Buon appetito; don’t forget your work-out clothes!