Simple Sicilian inspired winter lunch

Agrigento's Valley of Temples is one of Sicily's most popular tourist destinations. This spectacular Ancient Greek site is set against a backdrop of incredible trees; almonds, olives and Sicily's ever present citrus fruits. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Sicily's unique cuisine without them. While there are a large number of differnt types citrus fruits grown across Sicily, Agrigento's main crop is the navel orange, called 'Brasiliane'. 

The province of Agrigento stretches from inland Sicily to the coast. As such, the food of this province of Sicily has a good deal of spectacularly varied produce to choose from - navel oranges included. Sardines and anchovies are some the most favoured seafood, enjoyed fresh on the coast and in times past, preserved in salt to also be enjoyed by those in the more inland region of this province. 

When we recently visited Agrigento, I had the good fortune to be able to try some of the spectacular local sardines. Whenever I see fresh sardines on the menu, I can just imagine their silvery shimmer and I know I am going to have to order them - even before I've usually read the detail on how they have been prepared. In the case of our visit to Agrigento, the preparation for these sardines was 'sarde a beccafico', a well known Sicilian dish, popular across all of Sicily, not only in Agrigento. 

The term 'beccafico' means 'fig-pecker' and refers to a small songbird favoured, historically, across many Mediterranean countries. In regard to this particular dish, the upturned tails of the sardines, when rolled, are supposed to bring to mind these little birds. A poor man's version, if you like, of the traditional game dish available in times past to only a privileged few. The stuffing used to fill the sardines is also the same as that traditionally used for the birds: breadcrumbs, onions, pine nuts, raisins, fennel and of course, plenty of citrus zest

Back home in Australia, we seem to be having a bumper citrus crop. My father in law's garden was full of bright orange pops of colour across a blue Sydney winter sky - with plenty of super juicy navel oranges, blood oranges and his favourite variety, the enormous Washington navel orange. Dad gave me a huge back of citrus to take home and I had the perfect idea for how to use them. When we were in Agrigento, I was given a recipe for a simple winter salad of navel oranges, fennel and olives. It's similar in many ways to the Ionian recipe I have for an orange and onion salad, but the Sicilian twist is a punchy parsley and lemon dressing, complete with toasted aromatic fennel seeds. The classic Sicilian flavours in this salad were a perfect match to echo those in the sarde a beccafico. All in all this little Agrigento inspired lunch was a great way to bring a little bit of Sicily and enliven the incredible memories of the Ancient Greek site of the Valley of the Temples on a cold Sydney winter's day. 

Sarde a beccafico (serves 4)

1 kg of sardines, cleaned and butterflied 
50 gr raisins 
50 gr pine nuts, toasted 
1 orange
2 lemons 
1 small onion, finely chopped 
fresh breadcrumbs
fresh parsley, finely chopped 
fresh fennel tops, finely chopped 
juice and zest of 1 lemon
bay leaves 
olive oil

1. Take the cleaned and butterflied sardines and marinate them briefly with juice of half a lemon, salt pepper and a little olive oil. In a separate bowl, soak the raisins in lukewarm water. After a little while, when the raisins are plump, drain and finely chop them. 

2. In a skillet, toast the fresh breadcrumbs with a few glugs of olive oil until golden. Transfer them to a bowl and add the chopped raisins, the onion, the toasted pine nuts, the parsley, the fennel tops and the zest from the orange and one of the lemons. 

3. Take the remaining lemon and cut into slices. Place these in the bottom of a lightly oiled baking tray. Then returning to the sardines, take a teaspoon of the filling mixture and place on the inside of each of the sardine fillets and then roll it up. Place the sardines side by side, tails sticking up, in a well-oiled baking tray. Tuck a bay leaf between every two or so sardines. Then, scatter a little of any of the remaining breadcrumb mixture over the top sardines. Finally, sprinkle a little olive oil over the top of the sardines and then place in a hot oven (about 200ºC) for about 10-15 minutes or until cooked and golden brown. Serve warm. 

Agrigento style orange and fennel salad (serves 4 generously)

2 fennel bulbs with fennel tops, sliced very finely
1 blood orange, peeled and sliced
2 navel oranges, peeled and sliced 
a handful of good olives, green or black

for the dressing:

extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of sea salt
1 tablespoon of fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of fresh fennel tops, finely chopped 
1 teaspoon of roasted fennel seeds
1 teaspoon of smoked chilli flakes 

Toss the fennel, orange slices and olives in a bowl and combine. In a small bowl, whisk to combine the dressing ingredients and season to taste. Dress the salad with this mixture and garnish with some extra fennel tops. 

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Maira Gall