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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A very Sicilian stuffing

Slices of aubergine sizzling....
 Day 3 of the chest infection and I am at a very low ebb. I staggered out for a bottle of Benylin earlier and the effort half killed me, so nothing else for it but to cook very slowly and ponderously.

When I was getting the cough mixture I picked up some sardine fillets on offer and thought I might make Beccafico - these are sardine fillets stuffed with a rich mix of nuts, sultanas, herbs, spices and cheese. The same stuffing can be used for aubergine involtini, or stuffed rolls.

These are both great examples of Sicilian "cucina povera" - the cuisine of the poor. The Sicilians have the most amazing tradition of making exceptionally sophisticated and complex meals from very cheap ingredients. Breadcrumbs, chilli, garlic, fennel, tomatoes, raisins, spices and lemons feature strongly. The original Beccafico were little game birds who fed on figs and which, roasted and stuffed with a sweet and spicy breadcrumb mix, were a great delicacy amongst Sicilian noblemen. The working class used the same stuffing to fill sardines and in doing so created a dish even better than the original. They are like a very rich and exotic version of rollmops and indeed I'm sure you could treat herring the same way.

I spent one of the best holidays of my life in Sicily about ten years ago, touring the island with my new partner. We returned a few years later for our honeymoon in Taormina and the island holds a very special place in my heart. So no surprise that when I'm feeling a bit down and need cheering up with some cheap and sunny food that I turn to Sicily.

Involtini & Beccafico happily co-existing
The involtini are every bit as good as the sardines and both can be cooked together in the same dish if needed (though you may find they need separated if you have a vegetarian to feed). I'm scarfing the lot so I don't care. You can use the same stuffing for chicken or pork escalopes or very thin slices of swordfish or tuna too.

Involtini stuffing
6 slices of bread from a pan loaf made into breadcrumbs
1 onion, finely chopped or grated
25g sultanas
15g each fresh mint, parsley & dill, finely chopped
Either 2 tablespoons of Muhamarah or 1 tbsp toasted pine nuts, 2 cloves of garlic (mashed), 1tsp chilli powder and 1 tsp garam masala or similar mixed together with olive oil to bind.
75g Parmesan or Pecorino
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper

Fry the breadcrumbs,onion, sultanas and herbs in a very little olive oil on a medium heat until the mixture is golden - about 15 minutes. Cool, add other ingredients and use to stuff vegetables, fish or meat of your choice. Sardine fillets just need stuffed and baked for half an hour. Aubergines need cut lengthwise and griddled first, then drained on kitchen towel to remove as much oil as possible. The stuffing recipe above filled nine sardine fillets and two large aubergines cut lengthways into 13 slices. The whole lot packed neatly into a standard lasagne dish. Excess stuffing was sprinkled on the top and it was baked at 180oC for 30 mins. Sprinkle the Beccafico with lemon juice before devouring. These were all extremely delicious and rich and this amount would feed six people as part of a Sicilian menu with some salad, bread and a pasta dish. As it is the two of us will be wading through them for a few days.

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