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Posts Tagged ‘sformatino di cioccolato consalsa all’arancia’

One of my favorite detective novelists is Andrea Camilleri. His incorruptible police inspector, Salvo Montalbano, is a fully realized and totally satisfying hero, not the least of whose charms is a devotion to food. In every story we find him passionately consuming classic dishes of his Sicilian homeland. Reading the books makes your mouth water.

I was delighted therefore to discover a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. (The Secrets of Montalbano’s Table: Camilleri’s Recipes.) My Italian is OK for recipes, but there are also some essays in the book that I’m sure I’m not fully appreciating. They include excerpts from the novels where the various dishes are discussed, which at least are familiar to me from my English-language editions.

Inspired by the cookbook, I decided to celebrate this Memorial Day weekend with an all-Montalbano dinner party. For the menu I chose five dishes that had activated my – and the inspector’s – salivary juices in the novels:

Caponata di melanzane
Pasta col ragù alla siciliana
‘mpanata di maiali
Peperoni arrosto
Sformatino di cioccolato amaro con salsa all’arancia

I lined up some friends who also love Camilleri, food, and Sicily and warned them that this was going to be a very iffy evening. The meal would be a pure experiment, since there would be no rehearsals; and, more important, the recipes were all in the Italian sprezzatura style – that is, written more like a poem than a set of directions, with an airy unconcern for exact quantities, procedures, and cooking times.

Tom dug into his off-premises wine storage and came up with four different Sicilian wines to serve with them. And we both started cooking a day in advance. We remained nervous during the whole preparation time, but as the seriously appetizing aromas began accumulating, our confidence grew. The results were delicious. Here are the courses:

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Caponata di melanzane

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Caponata is a staple of the Sicilian table, and there are many versions of this eggplant-based vegetable antipasto. This recipe was like none I’d ever made or even tasted before. It called for half a pound of “white” olives (an unusually large quantity, for which I had to substitute the palest green ones available), a whole bunch of celery (I used six big stalks), 12 eggplants (small Sicilian ones, I assumed; I called it 1½ pounds), two ounces of capers (that’s a lot too), and only a cup of tomato sauce. Three tablespoons each of vinegar and sugar. And a quarter-pound of toasted almonds to sprinkle on the top before serving.

It was fabulous. I’d been worried that so many olives would be overpowering in the mixture, but in the cooking they traded flavors with the other ingredients and became very companionable. The whole ensemble tasted truly of Sicily. In several of the novels Montalbano eats great bowls of caponata, made for him by his devoted housekeeper, Adelina. Five of us got almost all the way through the portion supposed to serve eight; what was left went home with one guest whose husband had unfortunately had to drop out of the party.

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Pasta col ragù alla siciliana

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In the book in which this dish appears, Excursion to Tindari, the inspector goes to visit a witness, and “filtering out from under the door was a fragrance of ragù sauce that made Montalbano feel faint.” The aroma that my sauce gave off while cooking was pretty great too. It’s a simple enough recipe: aromatic vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, basil, parsley) softened in olive oil, ground beef (we used a piece of sirloin that we ground fresh), tomatoes, and red wine, all cooked together long and gently.

Maccheroncini  – narrow-gauge, rather short tubular pasta – are cooked almost done and layered in a baking dish with grated pecorino, the sauce, and thin slices of caciocavallo cheese. The dish then is finished in the oven, where the cheeses interact with the sauce to produce an intriguing new taste. And rich! This recipe for six would easily have fed eight – and we are all dedicated pasta eaters.

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‘mpanata di maiali
Peperoni arrosto

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Now, this recipe is not in the cookbook. It appears as a 200-word narrative in The Wings of the Sphinx, when Montalbano eats at a new trattoria: “This was the recipe … that the inspector asked the cook to dictate to him after he and Fazio had finished licking it off their fingers.” I was dying to try it from the moment I read it, so I made it the centerpiece of the dinner. At my table we used forks, not fingers, but our reaction was much the same.

The ingredients – cauliflower, onion, sweet sausages, potatoes ­– are cooked first separately, then together, with the addition of black olives. The mixture goes into a casing of bread dough, rolled thin and molded inside a springform pan, which then cooks in a very hot oven until the bread is done. It’s a rustic dish, weighty but immensely satisfying.

For a lively contrast, I served peperoni arrosto alongside the ‘mpanata. Adelina gives Montalbano this dish in The Shape of Water. Big red bell peppers are roasted, peeled, sliced, and dressed with olive oil, garlic, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper. No vinegar needed: the peppers’ own combination of sweetness and acidity takes care of that.

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Sformatino di cioccolato amaro con salsa all’arancia

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Not that we needed a dessert after all this, but a tiny sweet thing makes an appropriate finish to an elaborate meal. Montalbano ate this bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce in The Snack Thief, after a sauté of clams in breadcrumbs, spaghetti with white clam sauce, and a roasted turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon. After this he “went into the kitchen and shook the chef’s hand without saying a word, deeply moved.”

Chocolate, butter, sugar, flour, and eggs made for a dense batter, and I worried that the little tortes might not be willing to unmold. They made no trouble about that, but they did come out a bit dry. Perhaps I left them in the oven a mite too long. They were richly chocolaty, though. The garnish of orange peel and the sauce of orange juice boiled down to a syrup was unusual and very good on them. A dab of whipped cream wouldn’t have been bad, either.

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So there was my Memorial Day dinner – and memorable it indeed was. I’d like to think that Montalbano himself would have approved the menu. We certainly would have invited him – or his creator– had either been available.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays Montalbano in the excellent Italian TV series, and author Andrea Camilleri

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