Only one thing could be better than shopping for lunch at Ballaro market:
And that would be trolling the glorious vegetable, fish and meat stalls in the company of Fabrizia Lanza–who will, of course, ensure that you don’t miss the chance to taste musso, or boiled pig’s snout, after which you will go to church. Seriously.
Fabrizia is the very cosmopolitan author of Coming Home to Sicily, a beautiful cookbook that celebrates the island’s magnificent flavors and dishes as they are made at Case Vecchie, her late mother Anna Tasca Lanza’s cooking school at Regaleali, the family’s estate in central Sicily. The recipes in the book evolve with the seasons, from wintertime Cedro Lemon and Fennel Salad to autumn’s Pan-Roasted Rabbit with Vino Cotto. Along the way, you get tantalizing glimpses (or should I say tastes?) of delicious ingredients such as fresh ricotta, extra virgin Biancolilla olive oil and sweet vino cotto, all made on the estate. (Regaleali is also one of Sicily’s largest wine producers.)
Fabrizia, an art historian and former museum curator, now runs the school, but she occasionally gives a private cooking class in Palermo to foolish foodies who can’t squeeze a few days at Case Vecchie into their travels around the island.
That would be B and me.
So early last May, we were at our window in Palermo, enjoying the catcalls of touts for the seafood restaurants in the street below, when Fabrizia arrived at the door, laden with gorgeous homegrown lemons, swordfish from her favorite vendor at Vucciria market and a present: three tiny jars of homemade estratto (sundried tomato paste), mulberry jam and quince jelly. Tall, with curly silver hair and a penchant for big jewelry and colorful clothes, she is boho-elegant, cheerful and very down to earth.
We were going to make a late spring Sicilian lunch—panelle or chickpea fritters, artichoke caponata, homemade cavatelli with tomato sauce and ricotta salata, a salad of lettuce and fennel, fresh seared swordfish, drizzled with mint, garlic and olive oil, and lemon curd for dessert—but first, we had to go shopping.
Around 11:30 AM, Ballaro market was in full swing, the narrow streets so crowded with shoppers that we could barely squeeze through, while vendors conducted raucous conversations with their customers. “This is a real people’s market,” said Fabrizia. “Everyone in Palermo comes here because you can get a lot of food for little money.” If that day was any guide, it’s also a place where a smart shopper can ferret out good meat, fish and produce. Also clothes, but that’s another story.
I fell in love with these beautiful purple Sicilian artichokes, even though their spines were sharp and “menacing.” As Fabrizia notes in her cookbook, they are “smaller and narrower than the round globe artichokes produced in the U.S. We grow and eat them all spring, until the last ones are harvested sometime in June.”
Later that day we made Fabrizia’s signature dish: a crisp-tender, sweet-and-sour artichoke caponata with red onion, celery, green olives and capers, that she piles on a platter like a pyramid. “A caponata is like architecture,” she explained, as we poached the celery and its leaves in salted water. “You cook all the ingredients separately and then combine them.”
Oh, and just look at those glorious tomatoes on the vine…
This bundle of green leaves and curly tendrils, known as tenerumi, comes from the zucca trombetta or trumpet pumpkin, which restaurateur Giorgio Locatelli describes as a “long, curvy pale green kind of cross between a zucchini and a squash or pumpkin that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, with seeds.”
In his cookbook, Made in Sicily, Locatelli admits that he had no idea what to do with the greens the first time he saw them: “Fortunately the guys in the market didn’t know I was a chef… They told me blanch it briefly, then heat some olive oil in a pan, add some garlic, chili and chopped tomatoes, put in the tenerumi, let it wilt like spinach and serve it with pasta and it was so good.” Tenerumi can also go into a fish soup, with clams, calamari and mussels.
In the upper right corner, you can just glimpse another Sicilian squash, the cucuzza which typically grows about three feet long. The flesh is mild and slightly sweet; it can be stewed with tomatoes, potatoes, basil and pepperoncino, or chili pepper, and served with pasta.
Even though winter was long gone, several stands at Ballaro market were selling late season Tarocco blood oranges, still luscious and full of juice. In Fabrizia’s cookbook, I found a recipe that would brighten any winter day: Insalata di Arance, Cipolle Rosse e Olive Nere, that combines blood orange segments with escarole , red onion, oil cured black olives, and anchovy fillets in a vinegar and oil dressing spiked with red pepper flakes and wild dried oregano.
While we bought a few plump heads of garlic, this gentleman carefully selected a single bunch of red onions for his own shopping bag.
This being Palermo, there was lots of fish at the market, but most fascinating to me was the tuna, which can weigh anywhere from 400 to 1,800 pounds. The traditional (now restricted) method of catching giant bluefin tuna by herding them into smaller and smaller nets is known as the mattanza, which comes from the Spanish word matar, meaning “to kill.” Typically the mattanza took place in the late spring as schools of the fish swam along the coastline on their way to the Atlantic.
As you can see from the cuts that are displayed, every bit of the tuna is used. Although fresh tuna steaks are a delicacy, the meat is also canned in olive oil, and the heads and fins used to make a ragu or stew, which can be frozen and eaten later. In her book, Fabrizia writes, “Nothing gets wasted… the tuna roe makes a fabulous topping for pasta, and… my favorite part, the tuna sperm dipped in batter and fried becomes a wonderful antipasto.”
And then there was pork. At this stall, whole hogs had been butchered into various cuts, including ribs and pig’s feet. As with tuna, thrifty Sicilians use every morsel of the pig, sometimes braising the feet in tomato sauce until the meat falls off the bone.
Speaking of pork we stopped by to see Fabrizia’s friend Pippo Gioe who has a small eatery right in the middle of the market. Over a gas burner, Pippo cooked boiled tripe with tomato and onion, and served it to B and Fabrizia at a little marble-topped table with…
musso, the boiled snout and tongue of a pig, with salt and lemon. B was in heaven.
We all felt even more angelic when we stopped in a beautiful little church that was practically next door.
“It’s late,” Fabrizia exclaimed, but as we were leaving, I was riveted by a basket covered with live snails. Locatelli says that the land snails that come out after a rain are best “around May when they have a chance to eat green grass that hasn’t yet been burnt in the heat.” They are sometimes called munchedde “after nuns in a closed convent who never come out!” There are four different types of land snails in Sicily: the white ones with a brown line running around the shells are known as babbalucci.
It’s not easy to cook snails: they must be purged, blanched, boiled and finally tossed with zogghiu, a sauce of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and mint, or some variation thereof. Or they can be sautéed after boiling with tomato, onion and chili flakes, a recipe you can find in Made in Sicily.
The ball of “red stuff” under plastic wrap is estratto, a vibrant tomato paste made from boiled tomatoes that are pureed and dried in the sun. As Fabrizia writes, “Even in Palermo, among the chaos of cars, noise, and smog, you will see roof terraces dotted with tables of tomato paste drying in the August sun. I can’t thing of anything more quintessentially Sicilian than estratto; its intense, almost sunburnt taste is unique.”
In her cookbook you can find wonderful photos that show the making of estratto at Regaleali, including one of the dried tomato paste “so thick that it can be molded like clay.” Recipes for dishes such as Polipetti Murati, or slow-cooked octopus, and Ragu di Tonna, or tuna ragu, both use generous dollops of estratto as a flavoring agent.
Other traditional seasonings include sun dried tomatoes from the town of Corleone, made famous by Mario Puzo in The Godfather, and salted capers from the island of Pantelleria. The intense flavor of these capers derives in part from the mineral-rich volcanic soil, and in part from the practice of preserving the capers in sea salt instead of brine. Be sure to rinse off the salt and let the capers soak a little before using them. They are typically used in dishes such as caponata, including the traditional version made with eggplant, celery and tomato. Locatelli uses capers in many seafood dishes, including Baccala agghiotta, or salt cod with pine nuts, capers, golden raisins and olives, and Braciolette de pesce spade, or swordfish steaks with bread crumbs, capers and pecorino cheese.
As we were leaving Ballaro, we passed this wall of kitchen tools. I wanted to take it all with me, from the red burners to the woven straw whisk for fanning the flames. Notice the three tiny molds at the top left of the photo: I wonder if they’re used for making marzipan fruit?
But we were in a hurry, and it was time to make lunch.
In a few days, B and I will be on our way to Bangkok and Bhutan, but when I return, I’ll post Fabrizia’s fantastic recipe for panelle. Why bother with bread when you can eat chickpea fritters? Really!