A friend asked me the other day, so, how was Sicily? And I was happily babbling about the place and the landscape and the weather and the food and the wine, when she interrupted me and said, ok, but what have you learnt? It was a course, right? You must have learnt something?
I was a bit nonplussed at that, because "what have you learnt?" is one of those questions, like "are you happy?" that aren´t as simple to answer as they are to ask.
I don´t count recipes. Recipes can be picked up from a cookbook or a website, but watching someone cook, and hanging out in their kitchen, and peeking into the spice cupboard to see how it´s organized, and noting what small utensils make it into the all-important top drawer, that´s where you learn the useful stuff, the things that you take with you into your every day cooking.
So here, in no particular order, are a few of the tips, factoids and tricks recently incorporated into the messy space at the back of my brain.
1- Sicilian cooking uses very little garlic. Remember that scene in Goodfellas? That´s New Jersey, not Sicily.
2- Vegetable oil for deep frying is perfectly ok, no, it´s better than olive oil. Less strong, doesn´t burn easily. Not that I fry, myself, but it´s good to hear it said out loud without all the establishment raising a hue and cry.
3-Starting dishes with chopped onions in cold oil. The onion scent seeps into the oil, and the onions cook later, with all the rest of the stuff.
4- Meyer lemons are not all they´re cracked up to be.
5- Anything going by the name of ricotta is but a sad, sorry travesty of the heavenly stuff we consumed in great quantities at Case Vecchie.
6- Valentina of Chez Munita showed me the sound a loaf of bread makes when it´s ready. This is beyond my writing ability to reproduce, but she assures me the internal temperature should be 100ºC., and now that I´ve heard the noise, I will have no more stodgy, unfinished loaves.
7- And since we´re on noises, a perfectly finished, ready sponge cake makes a squidgy, irresistible sort of noise when you squeeze it.
8- To poach eggs, crack them into a ladle, and then into the water. It´s tricky to balance the ladle at first, but then much easier to slide them into the hot water.
9- The Italian word for lizard is lucertola. To me it sounds more like a mezzosoprano with lots of pearls, but that´s Italian for you. I learnt this after many a sun-drenched siesta in a spot much favoured by lizards.
10- It is possible to have eight people cooking at once, each a different dish, and have the outcome be a balanced, beautiful menu.
That´s it, for. I´m having another gnocchi session on Sunday, and by then I hope to have practiced well enough to write the recipe here. Until then, Happy Easter. You can while away the wait by having some torrijas, which are very like French toast, and typical at this time of year. Just deep fry the bread after soaking, and dust with cinammon and white sugar.