Dec 29, 2014

Why do Americans love ice so much?

I often get asked why other countries outside of the United States do not use ice as much.
But it's actually the strange ice cube obsession most North Americans seem to carry with them wherever they go that leaves residents of their destination country, Italy included, completely bewildered.

Americans want ice with tea, coffee, sodas, juice, liquor and water. I once ate at a restaurant that served ice just to cool down soup. Flying, I've watched people order an extra cup of ice to compensate for the melting cubes in their original drink. For some Americans, ice is a delicacy to chew on (my American father does this).
American waiters, many on autopilot, often have a hard time coping my request for water without ice.
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Dec 2, 2014

Sarde a Beccafico 2 ways

Some Italian dishes have the funniest names, and the richest history.

The "beccafico" is a curious winged creature. It's hedonistic nature demands it feed only of ripe figs. Becca– comes from the root beccare, the verb 'to peck', and –fico means 'fig'. Given their diet, the flesh of these fig-pecking birds is therefore fatty and rich. And very tasty.

Sicilian nobility would hunt beccafico and then feast on its prized meats, which were stuffed with their own innards, enjoying the voluptuous flesh, and gamey filling. This dish was sublime, but as a luxury comestible, alas unapproachable by the less fortunate.

The indigent, yet crafty Palermo citizens simply could not give up on this alimentary discrimination, and made do with what was most readily available and affordable to them – sardines – treating them as they would the precious birds. To replicate the sweet tang provided by the bird's original innards filling, low-income and artful Palermo cooks employed a mixture of breadcrumbs, citrus juice and dried fruits and nuts. Geniuses!

This traditional dish, originally born from the desire to replicate an unattainable delicacy, is still made in the "poor man's fashion" and sold in outdoor friggitorie (fryers), like the streetside ones in the beautiful Vucciria market. Other cities in Sicily besides Palermo also make sarde a beccaficu in their own versions, Catania in particular produces my favorite rendition.
According to area, in fact, these stuffed sardines can be either fried or oven-baked.

Since I couldn't make up my mind on which to describe here, I'm sharing the recipe for sarde a beccafico two ways.

Sarde a Beccafico Palermo-style
1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO + 3 tbsp
Bay leaves, 1 large sprig
Citronette: the juice of 1 lemon, equal amount olive oil, a pinch of salt and black pepper

Preheat oven at 150°C (300°F).

Clean out and butterfly the sardines, that is remove the central bone, heads and tails, leaving you with only the flesh of two attached fillets and no bones. There’s an easy video on how to do this here:

Toast the breadcrumbs and minced garlic in 3 tbps of olive oil, until lightly tanned.

Fold in the sugar, parsley, pine nuts, drained sultanas, and season with salt and pepper.

Add the half glass of olive oil and mix to coat well.

Divvy up the obtained filling on each sardine, and roll lengthwise, like a burrito, fastening each with a toothpick.

Place the stuffed sardines in a greased oven pan, alternating with a bay leaf between each.

Drizzle with the citronette and bake in the oven at moderate heat for about 15 minutes.

Sarde a Beccafico Catania style
In the volcanic city of Catania sarde a beccafico are prepared in a slightly different method.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
2 glasses of wine vinegar (not balsamic)
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO
50 g (1/4 cup) fresh caciocavallo cheese, finely minced
Flour for dredging
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying

Clean out and prepare the sardines as described in previous preparation, and soak in the vinegar for about 1 hour.

The prep for the filling is the same as described above, with the addition of small nibs of fresh caciocavallo cheese thrown in.

Smear the filling on each butterflied sardine and top with another to form "sandwiches", pressing down with the palm of your hand to glue together.

Dredge each sandwich in flour, dip in the egg wash and fry in hot vegetable oil, in small batches, until golden.

Place on paper towels to absorb grease and scarf piping hot.

Buon appetito!