Babilonia in Taormina, Sicily
For each of the next three evenings I have a cooking class at the home of Donatella. Two other students and I will help her prepare dinner and then we will all eat with the family. When I arrive at her home on time the other two students Adam, British and Jovanna, another young woman from Switzerland, are already at work, Adam chopping red peppers and Jovanna peeling eggplant. Donatella asks if I want to wash my hands and puts me to work chopping celery and red onions. I timidly ask what we are making and she explains in rapid Italian the names of the dishes, some sort of fish pasta and caponata and that she will give us the recipes at the end of the course. My eyes start to sting and tear up from the onions. Great, I’m in a strangers house; I can’t see what I’m doing; my nose is running and I don’t know the word for Kleenex. I try to explain my predicament in very broken vocabulary and am given a napkin to wipe my nose. A great start. I notice the strong scent of fennel – this word I know – and am told that the fennel steeping in hot water is also for the pasta dish. It is the leaves of the wild fennel that I have seen growing in the hills on my walks to Castelmola. After the vegetables are chopped Donatella starts to prepare the caponata explaining that the vegetables have to be cooked individually: first the peppers, then the eggplant, then the onion and celery.
Next she shows us how to clean the fresh anchovies. For the first cleaning, you pull off the head, run your finger up its middle and slide your fingers down the spine removing it from the flesh. For the second cleaning, with a knife you remove the tiny fin that remains between the two fillets and from each small fillet cut off a tiny section of bones. The fillets are then cut into three pieces. Adam and I are slow and there are about 30 fish to clean. While we are working on the fish, Donatella shouts out the rest of the procedures for making the caponata and we come over to the stove every once in awhile with gicky hands to watch. With the cleaned anchovies we make two dishes, one a pasta sauce and the second a fish polpetta (a sort of patty or meatball). For the polpetta, in a bowl containing half of the anchovies she has me crumble three slices of somewhat dry bread by rubbing them between my hands. (There is a specific word for this in Italian.) Then she adds: an egg, raisins that have been soaked in warm water, parsley, parmesan and a bit of milk to moisten the mixture. For the pasta sauce Adam sautés chopped onion, fennel and the rest of the anchovies, while Donatella shows us how to form and fry the fish patties. The final ingredients, raisins and pine nuts, are added to the pasta sauce and she then shows us how to mix the pasta into the sauce, pulling the sauce from the bottom of the pan to the top of the pasta until the sauce is evenly distributed.
Everything has finished cooking and we are ready to eat. Donatella has a son about 13 and another student from the school living with her, a young American from NY City. The conversation at first is rather stiff and people aren’t saying much. One, we are busy eating and the food is good and two, we don’t know each other very well and haven’t found a connection. I suddenly realize as I’m eating the pasta that I’ve had this dish before. It is the Pasta with Anchovies, Raisins and Pine Nuts, the first recipe I tried from my Sicilian cookbooks. I didn’t recognize it because I used canned anchovies and these are fresh, but yes, the rest is the same; raisins, pine nuts and fennel garnished with sautéed bread crumbs.
After diner the conversation picks up and Dontella talk about Berlusconi. Unfortunately, I don’t follow Italian politics and don’t know that much about him. She describes him as being quite the prima donna and talks about the bridge he wants to build between mainland Italy and Sicily as his legacy. No Sicilian wants this bridge and with so many other things sorely needed in Sicily it is a waste of money. The evening ends as the conversation winds down. We’ll return tomorrow for a lesson on aroncini, fried rice balls.