first visited Sicily two summers ago. Though I stayed just a week the sights and smells still tug at me as in a dream.
First stop Palermo. The day began at Vucciria, the twisting market, where vast fresh produce, herbs and spices spill from display windows onto outdoor tabletops. Inside, the market’s shops are dark and cool. Storeowners work in shifts to satisfy the masses. They duck inside just long enough to weigh a bundle of fresh oregano or a handful of Bronte pistachios.
Vucciria winds along several blocks. Look up and you’ll spot drying laundry, or see a wrinkled woman reeling it in and squinting down at the crowds below. She spots someone and wails in dialect. Her lilting words are both urgent and ordinary.
Look up again, and you see what were once windows, their eroded frames gnawing into old brick walls. Balconies sprout and cling, burdened with people and things that seem as through they don’t belong inside. Color is everywhere — red awnings, green and grey tarp walls; yellow, red, and orange bell peppers and buildings that match them. Surfaces ripple and peel, covered by decades of old and new paint.
We found an eatery nestled halfway below street level and ordered tuna steaks. I poured Nero d’Avola into water glasses and it splashed the paper tablecloth, staining it in purple droplets. Shoppers and merchants mulled around, their dusty ankles at eye level, their bags and bundles sometimes obscuring the view. Never before had my senses been so engaged.
The fish arrived freshly grilled and smothered in tomato sauce. Black olives shined like ebony eyes and sprigs of fresh mint withered in the heat of the steaming plate, or the sun, or both.
The next morning we sprawled on the golden beaches of San Vito Lo Capo. And yes, the water is a crystalline blue that no one believes, but I missed the sensual chaos of Palermo. We watched rows of happy, lazy people content to watch the sea sloshing and listen to the yelps of children and to eat simple things.
By noon I was starving. We snacked on freshly shattered coconut wedges. Late in the afternoon, famished and sunburned, we left our beach blanket and wandered into town in search of something more exciting to eat.
We trudged up and down the few main streets that led up from the beach and passed one restaurant after another, all closed until 8 p.m. We were about to settle for an ice cream when we rounded a corner and noticed a thick crowd around what looked like a ground floor apartment.
Then came the smell: fresh grilled fish, spices and citrus — along with the smoke of cigarettes glowing in the mouths of two women behind a deli counter.
We wedged ourselves inside and tried to get a look at the goods on offer. Curious and ravenous, we ordered something that looked like couscous, all packaged in aluminum containers to go.
When I peeled back the foil wrapping, I saw something that looked like bulgur, a nuttier cracked wheat more commonly known as tabouli. There were all kinds of herbs — basil, mint, parsley, and finely diced bell peppers. I took a bite. It singed a bit, but not enough to dull the bits of lemon zest (or was it orange?), and crispy bits of a tentacled sea creature.
We also tried frittelle di neonato (fritters made of newborn fish; their hundreds of tiny eyes looked like cracked black peppercorns). Delicious! We also sampled pannelle, pancakes made of chickpea flower, salty and oily and turning our napkins transparent.
We spent the rest of our holiday between beach and deli. If I couldn’t own Palermo, at least I could taste it. Other glorious meals followed later in the week. Pasta with tuna bottarga (cured roe), eggplant, and mint, pestos of every variety, and opulent marzipan desserts. And yet the tabouli remains my favorite dish to this day, a taste I carry with me.
RECIPE: Sicilian-style tabouli
I make this with seafood or on its own. Lately I’ve been using tuna, or swordfish when it’s available (The recipe calls for both).
The pleasure begins with the preparation: the dicing of the peppers, the mincing of the herbs, and the grating of the lemon rinds. Smells and colors fill the kitchen before any cooking begins.
Bold Sicilian cooking laps over into wine choices. A balanced red like the local grape Nero d’Avola is excellent, so long as it’s smooth and not too tannic.
Pino Noir works well too. Otherwise white blend of local varieties Catarratto, Inzolia (Ansonica), and Zibbibo. The intense fruit and floral notes exalt the aromatic character of the food.
Ingredients serve 4:
- 2 cups of crushed Bulgur wheat (tabouli).
- 8-10 oz fresh tuna or swordfish steak.
- 1/4 cup of minced leek or one cup garlic cloves.
- 1 red bell pepper.
- 1 green bell pepper.
- 1 small zucchini.
- Zest of one lemon.
- 1/2 cup fresh mint.
- 1/2 cup fresh basil.
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley.
- 1/2 Tsp (+ more to taste later) cayenne pepper/peperoncino.
- Olive oil.
- Boil three cups of water. Spread the bulgur in a pot and pour boiling water over it until it is just covered. Stir, cover, and set aside for 20 minutes.
- Finely chop the peppers, zucchini and fish until they are the same size. Finely mince the herbs. For a shortcut, put them in a glass and chop with scissors.
- In a large frying pan, heat three tablespoons of oil, peperoncino, and leeks or garlic clove. When the leeks have lightened or the garlic is golden add the peppers and the zucchini. Salt as you go.
- When the vegetables have reduced in size and are starting to brown slightly at the edges, add the fish and stir-fry.
- Uncover the bulgur and toss with a fork to fluff. Combine the bulgur, with the vegetables and fish in a pan large enough to handle a lot of stirring. Add the fresh herbs and lemon zest, and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir, salt and add peperoncino to taste.
White: Donna Fugata Anthìlia
Red: Feudo Arancio Pino Noir