06 June 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Sailor's Delight

SARONNO, Italy - The volcanic island of Pantelleria, is the largest of all the Sicilian islands. It’s a wild place, only 15 kilometers (9 miles) long in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, closer to Africa than to Italy.  It is a place of contrasts, a place with spectacular beaches, where lush olive groves thrive and dark, rocky volcanic landscapes that make you think you have landed on the moon.
 Beautiful Panelleria
There have been people living on this island since the Bronze Age. Because of its unique position between Africa and Europe, Pantelleria has seen more than its share of sailors as it was the perfect place to stop and rest, and restock their ships. Remember these were ships which traveled by the power of the wind, or if there was no wind, by the power of the men who manned the oars.  

One tribe that came from the sea were the Sesioti. But they didn’t come to Pantelleria to rest, they came to extract a special black stone, Obsidian. This rock-glass material was used to produce sharp-edged knives, cutting tools and arrow points, and was a precious in prehistoric times as gold is today. What the Sesioti left behind were their dome shaped burial tombs, called sesi, a World Heritage treasure which are still there for all to see.
Sesi Prehistoric Burial Tomb found on Pantelleria
 But the strongest influence was left by the Arabs, who arrived in Sicily first in 827. The Berbers of North Africa named the island al Quasayra; the little one, and some still call it that. Other Africans called the island Bent-el-Rion, daughter of the wind. Both names are perfect for Pantelleria as both are true.

GRAPH The Arabs contributed the most to the culture and cuisine of Sicily and it’s islands. You hear their influence still in the Sicilian dialect of today which contains numerous words of Arabic origin. Many of these words have passed from Sicilian into standard Italian, words such as: zaffarana (saffron), sorbetto (sorbet, originally sharbaat), carciofi (artichoke, from al-khurshouf),  zucchero (sugar, from sukkar), and coucous (kuskusu). 
 Sicilian Couscous Festival
Couscous is the perfect mate for whatever meat or vegetables are available, or as the Italians say, it marries well with many things. Being an island in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s logical that the couscous served in Pantelleria is most often paired with fish. In the past, couscous was a staple of everyday life on the island, but today it has moved from the fisherman’s table to the most elegant of restaurants.

Here’s a recipe I found in an old Italian cooking magazine. Give it a try, or use it as a starting point for your own couscous creation.

Fish Couscous
Cuscus alla Pantesca

Ingredients for 4-6 people

320 grams cuscus (precooked)
600 grams mussels
600 grams red snapper (or any similar fish)
400 grams shrimp
250 grams tomatoes
2 onions
1 hot red pepper
1 garlic clove
Extra virgin olive oil
Small bunch of rucola
Clean the mussels and heat them in a casserole dish or pan until they open.

Then filter the juice and set aside. Peel the tomatoes by first dipping them in boiling water for a half a minute, then remove the seeds and rough chop.

This recipe calls for cleaning the whole fish, but it’s a lot easier if you buy fish that is already clean.

Peel the shrimp.

Finely chop the onions and garlic and fry them along with the hot pepper in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for 4-5 minutes. Then add the chopped tomatoes, and after 5 minutes add the juice you reserved from the mussels and 1 liter of water.

Bring that to a soft boil and add the red snapper, and let it simmer until cooked (about 10 minutes), adding the peeled shrimp about two minutes before you take the pan off the heat.
You can also add fried eggplant, zucchini or a handful of peas to this mix if you want.

In the meantime, prepare the couscous. Calculate 1 glass of water for each glass of couscous (or 1 cup water for 1 cup couscous).  Bring the amount of water you need to a boil, add salt, and then pour it over the couscous, turn off the heat and let sit for 8 minutes. When the couscous has absorbed the water, mix it with  a fork and add a little of the broth the fish had been cooked in. Serve the couscous with the fish and seafood and garnish with the rucola.

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