Sicilian food is very close to my heart. My grandparents on both sides emigrated from the island in the early 1900s along with droves of other immigrants seeking a brighter future. I was especially close to my maternal grandmother whose rustic cooking and love of good food left me with a deliciously savory taste that lingers until this day. Much of what she used to make was recreated in class with long time television host and cookbook author, Mary Ann Esposito.
What a thrill it was to see my culinary heritage come to life. The ambitious menu—which included sfincione, aranicini, pescespada (swordfish) with caponata, fennel and orange salad, and cream puffs—was prepared by the students for a public event being held in the evening. Mary Ann would be giving a talk and demonstration of the Sicilian specialties while we buzzed around in the kitchen, churning out platter after platter of small plates. It was our first time cooking for the public and we reveled in the excitement.
We broke into teams and mostly focused on one recipe each. My teammates and I were in charge of the sfincione, a Sicilian pizza with thick, fluffy crust. The quadruple batch of dough (we were cooking for 60 people!) was mixed by hand and left to rise while we prepped the sauce and toppings. Two different cheeses, sharp provolone and mellow mozzarella, were cut into tiny bits. Breadcrumbs were toasted and blended with dried oregano. Anchovies were chopped. And a simple sauce was made from onions and crushed tomatoes that were simmered in lots of Sicilian olive oil. After the risen dough was stretched onto full sheet pans, bits of anchovies were scattered and pressed in, a thin layer of sauce was smeared, and it was anointed with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and cheese. The ingredients weren't exactly the same, but this style of pizza was very similar to my grandmother's. Thick, tender crust with sparingly-applied but flavorful toppings.
Another team focused on the arancini—Sicilian rice balls with a meat ragu center and a crisp, breaded exterior. My grandmother used to make these every Easter and my mother now continues the tradition. For my family, it usually entails a 3-day process that begins with making homemade chicken stock, then creamy risotto. But today, the students made them from start to finish in a matter of hours. Mary Ann's method differs from my family's, but what I've come to realize is that iconic Sicilian dishes can vary slightly depending on the region or village. The recipes morphed even further when immigrants came to America and made do with what they had on hand (my grandmother colored her rice with a bit of crushed tomato instead of saffron). Regardless of the type of rice or filling, the balls—which are named for their resemblance to oranges—are always breaded and deep-fried.
Then there was the caponata, a vegetable dish I often make in the summer and have published in the Boston Globe. It consists of eggplant, celery, onions, capers, and olives that are cooked in oil, vinegar, and sugar. Used as an antipasto or topping, it has what Italians call "agrodolce" which means a sweet and sour flavor. Mary Ann's version contained an unexpected ingredient—cocoa. It acted like a mellow liaison for all the contrasting flavors. She explained that this was a traditional old-world ingredient brought to Sicily by one of the many cultures that conquered the island. Was it the Arabs? No. Must have been the Spanish.
I obviously had a special connection with the dishes that were prepared in today's class. It's funny, I think when you grow up with a strong connection to the food of your heritage, you develop a sort of elitism about how certain things should be made. I always assumed that the way my grandmother cooked her arancini was the only way to cook arancini. But subsequent trips to Sicily (and now this class with chef Esposito) have shown me the nuances of regional variations and personal adaptations. In the words of Mary Ann herself, "cooking should be about what you like."