Devotees of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective novels enjoy them almost as much for the hero’s eating habits as for his ingenuity in solving crimes. In every story, the police commissario in southwest Sicily takes time to relish the dishes of his region – most of all, those involving seafood – and the descriptions positively make the reader hungry.
They also make this reader want to cook them. I have a number of Sicilian cookbooks and general Italian cookbooks with Sicilian recipes, but when the Montalbano urge is upon me I turn to Stefanio Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. Twice in the last two years I’ve written about making recipes from that book (here and here), so I was due – overdue, in fact – for another indulgence.
Neither of the earlier experiments with the recipes included any seafood, and I was sure Montalbano would want me to make some of those. So, for a dinner party for Labor Day weekend, I chose this menu:
Alici con cipolle e aceto
Sauté di vongole al pangrattato
Pasta con le sarde
Granita di limone
Acquiring the necessary fish was a challenge. Fresh anchovies (alici) and fresh sardines (sarde) are rarely and unpredictably available locally. We haunted our fish store for weeks and almost gave up, but at last came a day when both kinds had just come in.
We bought them at once. Tom heroically undertook the job of heading, tailing, and boning the little critters – a lengthy and maddening procedure – and we put them in the freezer, crossing our fingers that they would still be okay when defrosted.
Truth to tell, we pretty much had fingers crossed about the entire menu, since we’d never made any of those recipes before and there was a lot of translating, modifying, and quantifying to do. It was a busy cooking day for both of us, but well worth it, as it turned out. The rewards were great, from first bite to last swallow.
Alici con cipolle e aceto
Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina leaves him this dish of fresh anchovies in The Terracotta Dog. They’re first “cooked” like a séviche in white wine and vinegar, then drained and layered with thinly sliced cipolline – small, flattish Italian onions – covered with olive oil, and allowed to marinate for a few hours.
They were gorgeous! Still fresh and sweet, with just the right balance of acidity and oil – perfect to pile on a slice of crusty ciabatta bread. Infinitely better than any prepared ones I’ve bought in this country. Even the cleaner/deboner says they were worth the trouble they took.
Saute di vongole al pangrattato
Montalbano “gobbled up” this sauté of clams with breadcrumbs one day at a restaurant in Mazàra in The Snack Thief. Small clams – vongole veraci – are steamed open in sparkling wine with some garlic and olive oil. Then they’re dressed with parsley, salt, and pepper; laid in a gratin dish, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes.
We can’t get those Mediterranean clams here, but New Zealand cockles are a reasonable substitute. (Small Manila clams will also do.) There is some Sicilian sparkling wine, but the Montalbano recipe calls for prosecco, so we used that and also served it for the aperitivo.
This too was an excellent dish. The cockles had a lively, briny sweetness that was heightened by the simple condiments, and despite the seemingly long cooking they remained tender and moist.
Pasta con le sarde
In The Terracotta Dog, Adelina tells Montalbano she’s going to make him pasta with sardines, to be followed by purpi (octopus) alla carretiera. “Exquisite but deadly,” our hero thinks, and gives her a hug.
This classic, rich Sicilian pasta dish really should be made with very feathery wild fennel, but that doesn’t occur here, so we have to substitute bulb fennel, with some crushed fennel seed to boost the flavor. The freshest possible sardines, cut in pieces, are sauteed in olive oil with chopped onions with some mashed salted anchovy. Cooked, chopped fennel is added, and then raisins, pignoli, and saffron. Bucatini, cooked in the water that boiled the fennel, are tossed with the sauce and the dish topped with toasted breadcrumbs.
I think this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever tasted (though Tom reminds me of a splendid one we had at a famous seafood restaurant in Rome – Carmelo alla Rosetta – some years back). All the flavors married beautifully in each mouthful, yet still retained their individual goodnesses. Fresh sardines are another animal entirely from the canned ones we all know, and they love the warm, gentle flavor of cooked fennel.
Here we departed from our seafood theme. Brusciuluni is Sicilian dialect for braciolone, a large stuffed and rolled piece of beef. In Un mese con Montalbano (a book of short stories that hasn’t been issued in English yet), one of the inspector’s detectives invites him home to dinner. Fazio asks if his chief would prefer fish or meat. Montalbano knows Signora Fazio is an excellent cook, but also that she comes from an inland town where fish is never available, so he shrewdly chooses meat.
The result is this brusciuluni: a butterflied piece of meat (flank steak, in our case) rolled around a stuffing of caciocavallo, salame, hardboiled eggs, raisins, pignoli, and breadcrumbs. It’s braised in a thin tomato sauce, taken out to cool completely, then sliced, laid out on a platter, and topped with the hot sauce for serving.
It was an attractive presentation, and a rich and filling course. One slice was all anyone could manage. Here the numerous flavors of the meats and cheese, eggs and herbs blended into an earthy, harmonious unity, an entity different from their individual flavors. Humble as the basic ingredients are, the dish derives from the cooking of the monzùs, the French chefs who served Sicily’s great houses in the 18th century.
Granita di limone
In contrast to that composed meat course, dessert was a matter of utter simplicity. Adelina regularly makes lemon ice for Montalbano. In The Terracotta Dog, we learn that she uses a one-two-four formula: one glass of lemon juice, two of sugar, and four of water. The inspector considers it “a finger-licking delight.”
We’d also had a cheese course after the brusciuluni, and the bracing granita was the ideal light finale to the meal. I’d made a test batch a few days in advance, and to my amazement, instead of turning into a mini-iceberg, the soft fluffy crystals retained their shape perfectly in the freezer. This is going to be a regular hot-weather dessert for us now, and a frequent reminder of our many debts to Andrea Camilleri.
P.S. If you’d like to know about the wines Tom chose to accompany each course of the meal, you’ll find his post about them here.