Monday, October 3, 2016

It’s Easy to Be Brave When You’ve Got GPS
What’s cooking? Zucchini Crudo and Caprese Salad

Before I launch into my story, I want to take a moment to thank Claudio Bisio and Patricia Thomson, of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours for their extraordinary knowledge and endless patience in putting together a most educational and thoroughly enjoyable experience for our group. If you’re interested in a wine tour through Italy, Sicily, Spain, or Portugal, check them out or drop them a line:

Until traveling there, I never understood the true nature of Sicily. I thought of it as an island, populated with dozens of tiny seaside villages. And what is an island but one long continuous beach? So I imagined my trip there to be designed for adding copiously to my collection of sand. I packed half a dozen baggies, figuring that every time we stopped, there’d be sand to collect.

This is about half of my collection. Another obsession. 

So imagine my surprise – and dismay – when Sicily turned out to be an island, yes, but an island of mountains. Steep, rocky mountains plunging headlong into the surrounding sea. According to a geologist friend on this trip, Sicily’s terrain developed from a complex plate tectonic region where three plates (a “triple junction”) collided in a furious mash-up of rock and soil. Hardly a beach in sight. And those tiny seaside towns were mostly clinging to the sides of the mountains or dug like fortresses into the tops.

The view from Taormina.
As our trip wore on, I became increasingly frustrated. From high on a rocky outcropping, I’d occasionally spot a strip of beach, but it was always too far away to reach, and not part of our itinerary, which focused on wineries and ancient ruins. I was thoroughly enjoying myself – but I kept thinking there’d be an opportunity for sand.

First, the wineries: Abbazia di Santa Anastasia is a 12th century abbey now transformed into a winery east of Palermo.

Nero d’Avola grapes at Marco de Bartoli in Marsala.

Learning about wine production at Alessandro di Camporeale winery.

Tasting the wines of Cusumano, at their cellar in Partinico, in a thoroughly renovated 19th century baglio (fortress home).

The Cusumano lineup. These highly innovative winemakers use glass corks.

And then the ruins: the medieval castle at Erice is part of a walled city 2,460 feet above sea level, in the region of Trapani.

The Kitchen Goddess always enjoys a good temple. This one is the Doric temple at Segesta, thought to have been built between 430 and 420 BCE.
More ruins: the Teatro Greco (Greek theatre) dates from the second century BC. Its original use was for gladiator shows.

Then on our last day, as my hubby and I drove back across the island to the airport, I convinced him to take the scenic route. In the back of my mind – ok, ok, in the absolute front of my mind – I figured I’d spot a little beach somewhere and coerce him into stopping for sand. How hard could it be?

I spotted signs for San Stefano di Camastra a full 14km ahead and started working on my mate. “It won’t be hard – we’ll just cut over to the SS113 and pop into town. It looks like the beach’ll be right there. And then Fanny [the name I’d given to the British voice on our GPS system] will get us back onto the Autostrada.” And so, against his better judgment, he took the exit.

It turns out San Stefano is not nearly at the bottom of the hill. But just into the town, I spotted signs for a hotel, the Playa Bianca – white beach?! I was salivating. We followed the signs, but the hotel was only halfway down the hill, so with more grumbling from my driver, we headed farther down. Back and forth the road wound, narrowing all the time. I could see the water coming closer and closer. We made the last turn, and there it was... a small, weather-beaten warehouse with a few boats. Nothing you’d recognize as a beach. Like many shorelines along the Mediterranean, what’s there is smooth rock on top of sand. Sort of like pretty gravel. In fact, a lot like pretty gravel.

But there was water, and wherever water meets land, I call it beach.

My husband did not. “This isn’t beach, Lee. And you can’t get down that incline without hurting yourself.”

I made him get out of the car and at least smell the salt air – which was amazingly lovely and fresh – and listen to the water lapping against the shore. These moments are good for your soul, and his clearly needed a tiny lift.

“Not bad,” he admitted. Then my prince headed back to the car, with a word of caution tossed over his shoulder. “Don’t expect me to come save you.”

How silly he is, I thought. I’m just going over to the top of the incline and collect some of these nice rocks and a bit of sand.

I bent down and had just reached out for a particularly pretty stone when I heard a soft clatter. My reading glasses had fallen out of my shirt pocket. They bounced a few feet down the incline. Oops. And every time I tried to slide a little closer to them, they bounced a bit farther. This will not do. I could feel my husband’s glare through the windshield. Finally, carefully, I stretched out my foot and nudged the glasses up toward my hand.

I was covered with dirt and sand when I made my way back to the car, but I had my glasses and I had my sand. With Fanny’s help, we reversed course – up the hill and back to the Autostrada. And now I have this story to tell.

* * *

With all the travel, I haven’t done much cooking. But many of the restaurants we visited offered a delightful Caprese salad, and there was one night at the house we rented when the Kitchen Goddess appeared and made what I call Zucchini Crudo. So here at the end of the season, when you can still get good tomatoes and basil and zucchini, here are a salad and an appetizer you should try.

The Caprese salad is originally from Capri, but it was literally everywhere on Sicily, so here it is. And keep your hands off that balsamic vinegar. This combination is a perfect blend of flavors with nothing more than good olive oil.

Caprese Salad

■ Get the plumpest, juiciest tomatoes you can find. Do not refrigerate them.
■ Also the freshest mozzarella. If you can find a grocer or cheesemonger who makes the mozzarella fresh each day – and plenty do – that’s where you want to buy it. You’ll be amazed at the difference in texture really fresh mozzarella offers. And don’t refrigerate it if you are serving it today.
■ A small bunch of fresh basil, firm and bright green. Not limp.
■ Kosher salt or sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
■ Best quality olive oil.

Slice the tomatoes and place them on a plate. Slice the mozzarella and sandwich it between slices of tomato, or layer it on top. Place basil leaves either around the plate or on top of the mozzarella. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil across the salad and serve.

And now for the appetizer...

Crudo means “raw” in Italian, so the term is the one used for sushi in Italy. I’ve applied it here to zucchini, as the vegetable is eaten raw, after briefly marinating in olive oil and lemon juice. It’s the Kitchen Goddess’s own take on a dish she once had in a restaurant. I love the fresh flavor, and it is practically calorie free, so you might want to have an extra plate of the stuff in reserve.

Zucchini Crudo

1 medium zucchini squash
half of a lemon
kosher salt or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1½  tablespoons good quality olive oil
1 tablespoon sliced almonds, lightly toasted and lightly crushed

Cut the zucchini into thin slices (about 1/16th of an inch) and arrange in a single layer on a plate. (This part will go faster if you have a mandoline, but mine was 2000 miles away.) Squeeze the lemon juice evenly over the zucchini. Drizzle the olive oil over all and add a light dusting of salt and pepper.

Let the zucchini marinate in the lemon juice and oil for 5-10 minutes, then sprinkle with almonds before serving. Set a supply of toothpicks (or small forks) next to the plate, as it’s too messy for finger food.

Kitchen Goddess note: When I went to make the dish for this post, I found that I had no almonds. What I did have were the toasted and salted apricot kernels I bought on my Danube trip earlier this year. If you, too are out of almonds, try substituting pine nuts or pistachios – just remember to toast them lightly and crush/chop them a bit before adding them to the dish.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for the mention of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours and our Discover Sicily tour, Lee. I'm sure Sicily has some beaches somewhere, but that's not its forte, as you discovered. But I liked very much the handful of gravel you managed to collect. And you lived to tell the tale! Brava.