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The Sweet-and-Sour Soul of Sicilian Cooking

The food of Sicily has been influenced by centuries of invaders: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards

Fine Cooking Issue 45
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Agrodolce (ah-groh-DOLE-chay)—Italian for sweet-and-sour—is one of the signature flavors of the Sicilian kitchen. Most often created by simmering capers, pine nuts, raisins, fresh mint, wine vinegar, and sugar with meat, fish, or vegetables, variations on agrodolce are made all over the island. The most memorable version I’ve ever tasted was in a family-run trattoria in the Baroque town of Noto, in the southeastern corner of Sicily. (Sicilian food, like Sicilian architecture, is a fantastic mix of cultures and influences that somehow meld together beautifully; see the discussion below.) That dish was made with rabbit, which is the equivalent of our chicken in Sicily, meaning everybody cooks it. Here I adapt that recipe for chicken, which works very well as long as you stick to the legs, which are more flavorful than the breast meat and don’t dry out when braised.

The ingredients that give agrodolce its complex appeal

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of agro­dolce, and I’ve discovered much disagreement among culinary historians. But the sweet-and-sour sauce in my recipe seems to borrow a little from many of Sicily’s culinary influences. Sicily’s cuisine developed over the centuries in successive waves, with each new invading culture—Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Saracen (Arab), Norman (French), and Spanish—adding its own touches. The combination of pine nuts with raisins may be originally Arab, for example, and many agro­dolce vegetable dishes, such as caponata (a sweet-and-sour appetizer usually made with eggplant), are thought to have both Arab and Spanish ancestors.

Capers
The Sicilian islands of Pantelleria, Salina, and Lipari produce the best capers in the world. They are salt-packed and have a beautiful floral flavor, lacking the harshness of many of the vinegar- or brine-packed varieties. The ones from Pantelleria are my favorites. They’re now fairly easy to find in gourmet and Italian specialty shops (try Zingermans), usually packaged in plastic bags and able to last almost indefinitely. To prepare them for cooking, take out as much as you need from the bag and soak them in several changes of cool water for about 20 minutes. Give the capers a final rinse and drain.

Olive oil
Ravida, an old Sicilian family estate, produces a special, elegant oil pressed from green olives; it’s available from Zingermans. It’s light-textured but has a spicy and very fruity finish. I save it to drizzle uncooked onto finished Sicilian dishes and salads. U Trappitu, sold by Esperya,  is another highly recommended artisanal Sicilian oil. Biancolilla and Coluccio are good, medium-priced Sicilian “supermarket” brands that I use for cooking.

Olives
There’s an astonishing variety of olives for sale at Vucciria, the overflowing outdoor market in Palermo (Sicily’s capital). In the U.S., you can  buy imported Sicilian olives, but the options are limited. I find the cracked green types most often in Italian markets; usually they’re flavored with fennel or hot pepper. My favorite green olives are from Castelvetrano, a town on the African side of Sicily; these are very good to cook with. I also like the brownish-green Nocellara olives I find in Italian markets here. They’re used for pressing but also make good eating olives.

A popular variation on agrodolce includes green Sicilian olives. Called sugo alla stem­perata, it’s made most often with rabbit or quail, but also with tuna or swordfish, the two best-loved fish from local waters. You can easily change the recipe here to a stemperata by increasing the celery to three small ribs, omitting the pine nuts, and adding eight pitted, chopped green Sicilian olives (preferably without added flavorings) to the sauce when you add the capers and raisins.

Vinegar and sugar
As I’ve noted, there are many versions of agrodolce found in Sicily, some containing almonds instead of pine nuts, some basil instead of mint, some made with red wine and red-wine vinegar, others spiked with saffron or anchovy, and some containing hints of orange-flower water. The constant through all of them has been the cooking down of vinegar and sugar until they infuse the meat, fish, or vegetables with their combined sweet but slightly sharp flavor.

Books on Sicilian cooking

Some of my favorite books about Sicilian cooking include:

Pomp and Sustenance by Mary Taylor Simeti (Knopf)
Foods of Sicily and Sardinia by Giuliano Bugialli (Rizzoli)
The Flavors of Sicily by Anna Tasca Lanza (Clarkson Potter)
La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene (Knopf)

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