Our host Rita set about finding out what we were interested to do, and when I said I want to learn how to cook some authentic Sicilian recipes, she enthusiastically obliged.
We were invited to her mothers kitchen where it was clear that over the years, many gatherings have taken place in this kitchen. On the day we arrive, we enter the kitchen and already the family cooks were hard at work. Rita's mother and sister inlaw Mariella and her brother Bruno all had their places.
On the stove Mariella's job was to fry off the aubergines that had already been soaked in salt and water to extract the acid out then drained before frying. They also do this for the onions too before cooking and I agree makes for a more delicate flavour. A huge pot was on the table with the already cooked aubergines onions and celery. This is the start of the "Cabonata", Rita explains.
Rita's mother was hard at work assisting the coordination of all the recipes to ensure they are done right. Obviously a very proud cook and has passed on what she knows to her children, that of what we know she had learned from her own mother too. This cooking ritual is a clearly handed down craft. I know this to be the best place in which to learn to cook properly.
I feel very blessed to be seeing this, it brought back memories of my own grandmother who first instilled in me my love of cooking.
The typical ingredients of Sicilian cooking are very present, Aubergines, Olives, Oilive Oil, Onions, Celery, and the delightful family tomato sauce. It was clear that a huge banquet was being prepared. So I quickly took my place and rolled up my sleeves to help out.
On the menu for tonights dinner was "Cabonata" a dish that is one of Rita's specialties, made up of fried aubergines, celery, onions, olives, capers, a little salt, and the wonderful family tomato sauce, with some sugar and vinegar.
Rita explains that Sicilian cooking is derived from a mix of Arabic, Greek and Italian, but distinctively has its own sweet and yet zesty favours, sugar and vinegar are added to the dish to give the sauces extra zing.
Potato Gateau another of her specialities, which is basically mashed potatoes with butter, parmesan, parsley and salt, that is layered with ham and cheese, like a lasagne style bake, once the layers are finalised, the final potato layer is breadcrumbed before being baked in the oven. It is very nice and I can tell you that everyone swarmed to it, so you had to be quick to stake your claim on a piece.
Barbecued Mazzarino special sausages called "Salsiccia Di Suino" which means pork sausage was Bruno's job to prepare. Rita tells me the sausages are favoured around Sicily. You will find Mazzarino sausage on many menus. Bruno did an amazing job barbecuing them with some pork ribs on the coal fire for everyone.
Once the "Cabonata" was made we started the first preparation for one of the families favourite desserts, know as "Baby Arms". The recipe is made from a fried dough that is dipped in cinnamon sugar. The bowl seemed to empty as fast as they were cooked. All of the children just love them. They have a similar taste to a hot fried donut, but the texture is light and creamy, and not as bread like. I am sure I am going to master cooking these as they will be requested a lot in my kitchen that is for sure.
On the stove top in a large pan Rita first poured in 1 1/4 litres of milk with a little salt, gently heating before adding the flour. Rita uses a strong flour for this. There is no quantity she explains rather a texture and feel to the recipe that you can only learn by cooking yourself, she kept adding the flour when she was happy with the consistency. Another observation is that the handle end of the wooden spoon was used to stir the mixture rather than the spoon end. In this case Mariella, Rita's sister in-law stirred the pot while Rita steadied it and added the flour. Once the right consistency was reached I was invited to check it.
The dough was then left to rest and cool for about 1 hour.
In between we had some time to wait, so Rita took us to the family vineyards for a tour and show us where their wine produce was grown. The first vineyard nestled in a protected valley was their Chardonnay and Inzolia vineyards. Then some kilometres down the road towards Reisi we found their Nero D'Avola vineyards. Lovely well kept vineyards of which Rino (Rita's husband) has made use of the Guyot training system to train the vines, this is one of the less complicated and easiest to maintain systems that will restrain yields of vigorous varietals and is largely used in Burgundy for instance. The vintage harvest season will start at the end of August first with the Chardonnay, then the Nero D'Avola then lastly the Inzolia.
On our return to the kitchen it was time to finish off the "Baby Arms", on the table Rita poured a generous amount of olive oil onto the table in two spots. Two dough piles were put into the oil ready to knead, (only gently) until the oil was soaked into the dough. Then small pieces are broken off and rolled into long even logs, then smaller sections of about 10cm broken off and crossed over to look like a baby crossing its arms. On the stove Rita's mother had prepared the hot oil and once we had rolled them they were cooked in the bubbling oil until golden brown. Once they were cooked they were then tossed in the sugar and cinnamon mix.
I can tell you they are delicious and its hard to stop at just one.
With the days cooking done, everyone disappeared to get dressed for dinner. Once everyone was ready we all gathered at Rita's sisters house, just next door to her mothers house. As we sat and observed everyone coming, the group grew larger and larger. We were introduced to many of Rita's family and friends. We thought "wow" these people have a huge family, and thought how nice for everyone to gather together to eat, but we did not know this was a special occasion, the dinner was planned for a friend of the family of which was a surprise 50th birthday.
The food was to die for, and one experience you would never get staying in a 5 star hotel. Just magnificent!
Thank you Rita & Rino and all your family for inviting us, we had a wonderful time and feel blessed to have been invited.
Rita will be coming to Malta to share her recipes with us in Julesy's Kitchen at our new location in Cospicua, so look out for the dates via Julesysbnb.com or right here at Julesyskitchen.com.