Every time I read a new Inspector Montalbano mystery from Andrea Camilleri or look at a DVD in the excellent Italian television series, one of its pleasures is discovering, along with Montalbano, whatever his housekeeper, Adelina, has cooked and left in the kitchen for him. I’ve already written posts about 10 of the Sicilian dishes mentioned in the books, but there are many more to tempt me. So this week, I tried two new-to-me recipes from I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano.
Pasta fredda con pomodoro, passuluna, e basilico
Early in The Snack Thief, coming home after an afternoon of investigation, “in the refrigerator Montalbano found a plate of cold pasta with tomatoes, basil, and passuluna olives that gave off an aroma to wake the dead.”
All the other recipes I’ve ever made or seen for pasta with uncooked sauce call for dressing the pasta when it’s hot. So this, which is dressed cold and served cold, is what I’d call a pasta salad. Of course, Adelina finishes her day’s work long before Montalbano gets home, so when she leaves meals for him they’re either something to heat in the oven or something to serve right out of the refrigerator. But this recipe isn’t quite like any other cold pasta salad I know.
The cookbook’s directions are minimal: For four persons, you cook 400 grams of penne rigati and dress them with “fresh tomatoes cut in pieces, as many black olives as you like, abundant basil, a few capers, olive oil, and salt” [my translation]. No quantities are given for any of these: a grand example of the fine Italian culinary phrase quanto basta – i.e., as much as is enough.
I consequently dithered a bit about quantities, but that wasn’t a real problem. The only trouble was the passulune. Apparently these are a variety of extremely ripe Sicilian olives that are purely air- or salt-cured. No vinegar or oil. Not a kind that makes it to New York City, even nowadays. The nearest I could get was oil-cured Moroccan black olives, which I soaked briefly in warm water to remove some of the oil and dried carefully.
So I did all that, making half the amount of pasta (seven ounces) for two, and tossing with the amounts of other ingredients that seemed basta to me:
1⅓ cups cut-up Cherokee tomatoes
⅓ cup black olives
⅓ cup chiffonade of basil
¾ teaspoon drained and rinsed capers
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus a little extra)
½ teaspoons salt
The bowl then had to sit in the refrigerator for several hours. I must admit, when mine came out at dinner time, it didn’t really give off an aroma to wake the dead. Except for the basil, it wasn’t very fragrant at all. Refrigerator too cold? Or only passuluna olives would do? Who knows? Nevertheless, it still made a very nice picnic-style dish, ideal for warm-weather dining.
While it didn’t achieve a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, they were all extremely good parts, and all the flavors complemented each other nicely. I’d even say that they worked better with cold pasta than they would have with hot.
Pollo alla cacciatora
In Rounding the Mark, Montalbano returns from a boat trip feeling “irresistibly hungry, his appetite swelling inside him like a river in spate.” At home he dashes into the kitchen, looks in the oven, and finds “rabbit alla cacciatora, as unexpected as it was ardently desired.” He eats it with his hands – which, if Adelina’s dish even remotely resembled my version, had to be a very messy proposition. Livia would never have approved.
I should of course have made the dish with rabbit. But I’d just cooked a rabbit recently, I had some good chicken in the freezer, and alla cacciatora is a classic preparation for chicken too. So I made the substitution. It came out very well, and different from any other cacciatora recipe I’ve ever had.
Starting early, I began by making what the recipe calls the condimento. I put finely chopped onion, chopped celery, cubed tomatoes, green olives, and capers into a pan and sauteed them in olive oil. It was a huge amount of olives: about 30 of them for only 2 portions (half the recipe). The hunter must have shot his rabbit out of a tree in the middle of an olive grove! I felt sure we’d never eat that many.
After 15 minutes I stirred in half a cup of broth, brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pan, and set it aside.
Toward dinner time I slowly sauteed chicken thighs and drumsticks – salted, peppered, and floured – in olive oil in another pan until they were completely cooked. Off heat, I poured on ¼ cup of wine vinegar in which I’d dissolved ½ tablespoon of honey, turning the chicken pieces a few times to let them absorb the flavors.
I brought the condimento back to a simmer, transferred the chicken and all its liquid to the condimento pan, cooked everything gently for another 15 minutes, and served.
It was brilliant. Rather than a cacciatora, I’d call this dish an agrodolce, because of how the chicken and sauce were intriguingly imbued with the vinegar and honey. While the onions had completely melted into the sauce, the celery stayed pleasantly crunchy. And those olives were wonderful. They’d blended flavors with the other ingredients and become vegetables in their own right. I’ve never eaten so many olives at once in my life, or enjoyed them so much. Brava, Adelina!
P.S. You can see my other culinary adventures with Montalbano here, here, and here.