From Messina on the Northeast corner of Sicily to Trapani on the west coast, Sicily has, over many centuries, felt the infl uences of Greek, Roman, and Spanish culture. That minestrone of civilizations has had quite an impact on the cuisine of this fabled island. Often the term cucina povera, or the cooking of the poor, is ascribed to Sicilian cuisine, but that in no way downgrades the pleasure and ingenuity that is so much a part of Sicilian cooking. In fact, Sicilian cuisine bursts with color, flavor, fragrance and goodness.
The gist of this article –– Sicilian pasta sauce –– is but a small dot on the culinary canvas that defines Sicilian food. Important to Sicilian cooking are creations like arancini (crunchy rice balls) and ingredients like sardines, anchovies, tomatoes, eggplant, crushed red pepper, olive oil, olives, clams, mussels, squid, capers, garlic, selected cheeses and fruits (like blood oranges and lemons). But, it is the simplicity of Sicilian cooking that makes it so approachable.
I am putting forth a challenge to every operator reading this article. Add some dishes –– pasta, pizza, appetizers –– with a Sicilian subtext and watch how fast those specialties fl y out of the kitchen. The time for Sicilian cooking to get its due has arrived. So let’s get started with some delicious Sicilian pasta sauces and go from there and see what else we can do with them.
Sicilian Pasta Sauce
Sicilians love to use ridged pasta like rigatoni, ziti and penne, so in this recipe I use an imported rigatoni known as “rigatoni gigantica” because I like the way it flattens after it has been cooked.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (scale up in direct proportion)
1 pound mild Italian sausage with fennel
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound lean ground beef
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups canned plum tomatoes with juices
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound rigatoni
½ cup grated Romano cheese
Remove casing from sausage (discard casing). Warm the olive oil for one minute in a large sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add the sausage (breaking it up with a fork or spoon) and the ground beef. Cook and stir for 6 to 8 minutes until the meats are no longer pink.
Add the onion, garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, oregano and pepper flakes.
Bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the sauce for an hour or more until it has reduced, stirring occasionally.
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling water (that has been salted) until al dente (about 14 minutes for large rigatoni). Drain well.
Divide the pasta among six heated pasta bowls. Spoon some of the sauce over each portion. Sprinkle a portion of the romano cheese over each serving.
Chef’s notes: sauce can be made ahead. Cool slightly before covering and refrigeration. Cooled sauce can then be used on pizza. Spread a small amount of the sauce over a pizza shell. Top with grated romano or a blend of mozzarella and provolone. Bake as you would any other pizza.
Pasta alla Norma
This classic Sicilian pasta dish dates back to the late 1800s and was named after Bellini’s opera “Norma.” Eggplant is used frequently in Sicilian cooking. This is a very versatile sauce, so check out the extended possibilities under my Chef’s Notes.
Yield: six servings (scale up in direct proportion)
½ cup olive oil
2 small, firm eggplants (about 2 pounds), trimmed (but not peeled), cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a garlic press
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste) 6 cups canned plum tomatoes with juices
1 cup torn basil leaves
1 pound ridged ziti or rigatoni
1 cup crumbled ricotta salata (a salted, dry ricotta cheese)
Warm the olive oil for 1 minute in a large sauté pan set over medium high heat. Add the eggplant and cook and stir until the eggplant softens a bit. Add the onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook and stir until the onion softens.
Crush the tomatoes by hand or use a hand-held blender. Add the tomatoes to the sauté pan with the eggplant and onion. Add the basil leaves. Simmer the sauce for an hour or more to reduce.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is al dente. Drain well. Divide the pasta among heated pasta bowls. Spoon some of the sauce over the pasta. Sprinkle some of the ricotta salata over each portion.
If ricotta salata is not available, top each pasta portion with dollops of regular ricotta.
Also, this sauce and method can be used as a pizza topping. Cool the sauce before spreading it on a pizza crust. Bake the pizza. After baking and just before sending it out, top with ricotta salata or dollops of regular ricotta.
Batches of this sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered, in the cooler. Use with pasta or pizza as suggested.
Small, firm eggplant (also known as Asian eggplant) does not need to be salted. Eggplant with a lot of seeds can be bitter unless it is salted and pressed to get rid of the bitterness.
Once this sauce has been made and cooled, it can be used for an appetizer of eggplant bruschetta. Simply spoon a small amount of the cooled eggplant sauce over toasted or grilled ovals of bread. Top each portion with some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and/or a chiffonade of fresh basil.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.