Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Island idyll

The sunfilled streets of Marettimo
I have just returned from Sicily, the small island at the foot of Italy so overflowing with historical significance, multi-cultural influence and gastronomic experience that no holiday could be long enough to explore its abundant delights.  The island is a veritable, edible treasure trove and during the course of my all too brief visit, I ate some of the best pasta, gelati, fish, granita, figs, foccacia, jam, aranchini, melons, nectarines and tomatoes, that I have ever tasted.  I was inspired by unusual combinations (mouth melting aubergine with tuna), local specialties (fish couscous with tomato broth) and a dreamy array of pastries, each showcasing Sicily's superb homegrown produce, including oranges, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, watermelon and pinenuts.  The finest and most unexpected of the pastries were Cassatelle, a sweet pillow of light pastry filled with creamy ricotta and studded with dark chocolate drops, which had surely been created by angels. 

I came home armed with ideas and recipes to try, modify and perfect over the winter. After a long period away, the garden was looking avant garde but alive, thanks to the watering efforts of my not-as-naughty-as-she-used-to-be little sister. She had enjoyed a staycation in my absence, and had been rewarded for her diligence by the best of this summer's produce: tomatoes, French beans, rocket, chard, padron peppers, borlotti beans, lettuce, aubergines, apples and rhubarb (her timing was impeccable, my timing of leaving my lovingly tended garden less good).   Encouraged, by me, to eat as much as she wanted (the product of guilt towards the garden and gratitute to her for looking after it), she had taken me at my word and by the time I arrived home, the garden was bare, stripped clean by her voracious appetite.  Bare that is, except for the chicory, which had been saved from my naughty little sister's jaws by its serrated leaves, which, she deduced, resembled those of the dandelion and looked like it might be poisonous (despite being encourage to grow prolifically, and in neat lines, in my vegetable bed...).  The chicory was therefore the last man standing in an otherwise barren landscape. 

I discovered chicory two years ago in Puglia in southern Italy.  There it is braised and eaten with fava, dried broad beans which are soaked, cooked and pureed and served with a generous drizzle of new season olive oil.  It is peasant food, combining the taste of summer gone with a warmth and heartiness so comforting during the long winter months.  Inspired by the honest, simple food I ate in Puglia, I sourced and sowed chicory seeds on my return.  Coming home to London after two glorious weeks away, fava and chicory was the perfect dinner for my first night back: a recipe discovered on a previous trip, sourced from the garden and bridging the chasm between the southern Italian summer sun and England's autumnal hue. 

Fava and chicory

150g dried broad beans (fava), soaked overnight
Olive oil
1 garlic glove, peeled and sliced

Drain the broad beans and rinse in clean water.  Cover with water and cook until soft (approximately 25 minutes).  Drain but retain a cupful of the cooking water.  Puree the beans with three tablespoons of olive oil.  Add as much of the cooking water as is needed to make the puree smooth and silky.  Season to taste.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan.  Gently fry the garlic but do not let it brown.  Discard the chicory stalks and add the leaves to the frying pan with a ladleful of water.  Cover and cook until the chicory is soft.  Serve the fava and chicory with a generous drizzle of olive oil.