Sicily is high up on my ‘must visit’ list. I’ve watched many travelogues and cookery programmes covering the opulent geography, the history crafted by the positioning of Sicily between Europe and North Africa, and the cuisine blending Italian and Arab influences in its own unique way. In Sicilia Ben Tish does a fine job in his short introduction of capturing how evocative the island and its Aeolian and Egadi neighbouring island groupings are for him which makes it a little disappointing – and odd – that there are literally no photos whatsoever of the country itself in the book.
Bright and busy sun-drenched photos of the food are enticing though, and I picked up on the mixed culinary historical influences in the ingredients for many of the dishes in Sicilia, reflected nicely in the bright blue cover and the old maps that make up the inside covers. Probably my favourite thing about the recipes is the short intros that beautifully set the scene for each dish, its history or background, its authenticity or otherwise. Each brings life and colour to rival the accompanying food photo and you get a true sense of the cuisine’s grounding in its landscape. Ben’s Sicilian-inspired restaurant, Norma, is pictured at the back of the book, and there’s a strong feeling that if you were to visit it would be to a place which imbued its food with the love Ben has for Sicily itself. If you want a visual peep at the area, no dice – however if you’re looking for a no-nonsense “here’s the recipe and its photo” kinda cookbook, this is going to be right on the button.
In that spirit, there are no fancy chapter titles here. We have: bread; fritti (fried things); pasta & rice; vegetables; fish; meat; sweets; granita & ice creams; and sauces & basics. Each chapter has a scant couple of pages on its subject (the pasta section also gets the luxury of some brief pasta-making tips) and how it fits into Sicilian cuisine.
There are some really gorgeous looking and sounding recipes. The Bread chapter has Bignolati, a Sicilian sausage bread ring with fennel seeds, or Scaccia, a Sicilian lasagna bread, and also Impananta Catanese, a cheese and cauliflower bread pie. I feel you could cook an entire feast from this section alone.
Some addictive Fritti with a cold beer would be equally tempting: from olives to asparagus to saffron arancini, everything looks and sounds inviting.
Tish’s restaurant classic, the eponymous Pasta Alla Norma makes an appearance in Pasta & Rice. It joins an attractive cast: simple Pasta with Lemon, Sage, Chilli and Parmesan sits alongside a Trapani-style Cus Cus (the African influence) and a more complex baked layered Anelletti Timballo or Rice Timballo.
I made Pork, Orange and Mint Ragù from this chapter, interested that it used only 200g of meat for 4 people and keen to use up some rogue fusilli that had found its way into my larder – could have been worse, at least it wasn’t the evil farfalle. Red wine, passata, orange juice and zest gave this a mouth-pop of tanginess and deep richness, with the mint layering a freshness on top: a very powerful dish.
The Vegetables chapter recipes range from preserved peppers through fresh Watermelon, Chicory and Salty Pecorino Salad to vegetable soups like Chilled Fennel and Broad Bean, and hot dishes such as Braised Chickpeas and Borlotti Beans. There’s a lot to love in this chapter, some unusual combinations and year-round interest.
I particularly adored the Aeolian-style Tomato Salad, a flamboyant riot of flavours and textures with a prizefighter’s punch of a dressing. A couple of huge, sun-warmed, sweet tomatoes couldn’t have found a better home, bunking up with anchovies, capers, oregano, basil, green olives and shallots.
The light, bright Chilled Green Beans was also a great textural mix and suitably crisp and fragrant for a sweltering day.
The Fish chapter encompasses quick bites, and crudo dishes as well as hearty main courses like Octopus and Chickpea stew, or Grilled Whole Mackerel with Spices, Almond Sauce and Kale.
I snaffled a beautiful piece of cod and I had random marsala that had last seen daylight for a mushroom risotto many moons ago, so I made Baked Cod with Courgettes, Rosemary, Marsala and Brown Crab from this chapter. It’s a dream of a dish really – my end result may not be quite as pretty as the photo in the book, but with a few ingredients and very hands-off cooking I created a light, luxurious and really special dish. The one thing I would change is to chop the rosemary. The whole leaves made for a slightly overpowering medicinal bite and we ended up fishing them out. With that minor tweak, I’ll definitely make this again and again.
It’s excellent to see a Meat chapter that covers things like Stuffed Lambs Hearts, lamb tartare, Sweet & Sour Rabbit and tripe, and makes me hopeful that as a country we’re re-embracing some of the delicious foods that have fallen out of fashion. There are also plenty of alternatives for those less inclined that way, like pork-stuffed aubergines, Polpette and Whole Roast Chicken Stuffed with Wild Fennel, Lemon, Garlic and Bay.
As bavette (flat iron) steak is comparatively cheap and flavourful, I chose Grilled Bavette with Braised Courgettes, Mint, Chilli and Gremolata from this chapter, a lovely way of keeping the courgette bright and fresh. The ingredients complemented each other beautifully and aside from a few hours’ marinade it was the perfect quick dish for an oppressive summer’s evening.
The comprehensive Sweets chapter covers biscuits, tortes, cakes, fritters and doughnuts as well as a lighter-weight Lemon Cream and an attractive looking Watermelon Jelly with Jasmine, Chocolate and Pistachios. It’s going to appeal to anyone fond of a “proper” dessert, lots to enjoy.
Forewarned that the ice creams in the Granita & Ice Creams chapter all require an ice cream machine to churn them. There are some slightly more unusual flavours, which is a pleasure to see: Pumpkin Seed and Fig Leaf were two that stood out. I did have a go at the Buttermilk Granita, one of five in this section, and it’s wonderful: a lactic tang through a creamy sweet ice. I served it over poached rhubarb but I’d happily eat it straight from the freezer over any number of fruits (I suspect figs would work particularly well).
The Sauces & Basics chapter covers a couple of pasta dough recipes and Sicilian versions of standards like Salsa Verde, Pesto, Alioli and Pan Grattato, well worth a look as accompaniments to simple griddled meats, veg and fish, in addition to their uses through the book itself.
And finally, there’s an excellent and satisfyingly comprehensive Index to finish the cookbook (admittedly I am a bit geeky about an index).
There’s plenty to inspire and engage in this balanced and wide-ranging set of recipes, from the simple to the more taxing of them. They’re well-written and the Arab-Italian flavour combinations are different enough to capture the imagination whilst still being very accessible in terms of techniques and ingredients. I’m pleased to say that it’s encouraged me to keep Sicily high on my list of places to visit.
Recipes from Sicilia
We have permission from Bloomsbury Absolute to share some recipes with you from the book: [coming soon]
- Aeolian-style summer salad
- Spaghetti with almond cream, fresh crab, chilli and marjoram
- Sicilian lemon cream with stewed mulberries or blackberries
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Sicilia by Ben Tish from publisher Bloomsbury Absolute. Recipe photography in this post by Nicky Bramley.