Rachel Roddy’s Sicilian fry-up
One way to prepare for a meal at Sakalleo, a restaurant in the southern Sicilian town of Scoglitti, is to visit the docks at about 3.30pm to watch the second catch of the day – your dinner – being brought ashore. Having moored in the sickle-shaped marina, large boats load their catch on to smaller ones, which are then rowed, burdened with the crates, to a concrete jetty. There they are unloaded for l’asta del pesce – the fish auction – which takes place in a blue and whitewashed concrete building next to the dock.
Anyone can join the boisterous auction, although only some of the fish does, much of it already destined for local restaurants and other towns, most notably the blood-red prawns and black lobsters still thrashing furiously. What is to be auctioned is loaded on to low trolleys supervised by men in shorts and Adidas flipflops, who then sell whole plastic crates of kite-like skate, coral and white mullet, coils of spatola (silver scabbardfish) and mackerel with tiger stripes, to the best bidder.
We have bought fish here on occasion – the last time being an entire crate of mackerel, which I then tried and failed to preserve under oil – but mostly we come to watch. Standing at the back with our toes in puddles, we hope to see what we will be eating that night, as the owners of Sakalleo – one of whom is a most striking woman called Giada – supervise the arrival of the crates from their own boat. Later, while you wait for dinner with a luminous spritz, bowl of peanuts and a saucer of sausage rolls made with that typically Sicilian, almost sweet, pastry, you can watch Sakalleo’s boat bobbing in the marina against a campari-coloured sunset.
I have written about Sakalleo, and Giada, before – and probably will again – because it is one of my favourite places to eat. This favouritism is muddled up with the fact that it is in Sicily and associated with Vincenzo’s family and long summers, with warm nights after hot days, during which we do very little. Mostly, though, it is because Sakalleo serves exceptional food – which can’t be said of some of the other places in this seaside town. At Sakalleo, fish just hours from the sea is prepared by a family of staff in a way that manages to be as elegant and homely as the place itself. Even those other restaurants in town will tell you that it was Sakalleo and Giada’s late father, Pasquale Ferrara, a hair-dresser-turned-mayor-turned-restaurateur, who began the now-common local habit of having a set antipasti menu. Having been welcomed by Giada, you pay a reasonable set price, and then it begins – a seemingly endless stream of dishes: plump red prawns with fat flecks of lemon zest and local olive oil; anchovies cooked in three ways; sauted clams in a puddle of liquor; whole fried mullet with a relish of sweet onions … If you wish to continue after the antipasti, you can – to pasta and braised octopus. But that is a whole other column.
While eating there is an experience not to be missed, Sakalleo is also inspiring for the home cook: the way they use orange and pomegranate juice to flavour and marinate; serve fried fish with sweet-and-sour onions, pair cheese with preserved anchovy, or fried egg with bottarga. Last year, I brought home the idea of almonds and breadcrumbs on grilled fish; this year it was these pistachio and cuttlefish fritti served with a spritz of orange. It is a rather unusual, odd-sounding dish, I know, but the flavours – the milky, mealy nuts, the firm but delicate fish, the orange – mingle beautifully. And they are fried – and fried things are a delicious pleasure.
The process is much the same as the fishballs from a few weeks ago: you’re using egg to bind, herbs for fragrance, cheese for seasoning and breadcrumbs
for bulk. Like all the best fritti, these should really be eaten standing around the stove, the first ones blotted and eaten while still hot enough to sizzle in your mouth. If you are frying, then really go for it (or delegate to someone like me who doesn’t mind getting smelly hair) and make the most of the hot oil: throw in some small fish or battered sage leaves, a handful of chips or matchsticks of courgette. Just make sure you have a sunset spritz, beer or sparkling wine to hand.
Cuttlefish and pistachio fritti (Polpette di seppia e pistacchio) Makes about 15
800g cuttlefish or squid
40g pistachios, shelled
40g pine nuts
100g pecorino or parmesan, grated
A small handful of fresh basil and parsley, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper
Sunflower or peanut oil for frying
Orange wedges to serve
1 Clean the cuttlefish and chop or mince the flesh into small pieces.
2 Using a pestle and mortar or a blender, pound the pistachios and pine nuts to a paste. Add the cheese and herbs and pound/pulse again.
3 Tip the mixture into a bowl, add in the cuttlefish and beaten egg and use your hands to mix into a consistent mass. Add breadcrumbs as needed – the mixture should be neither too wet nor too dry.
4 Break off large, walnut-size pieces of mixture then, using wet hands, shape them into round, slightly flattened patties. Leave them to rest for 15 minutes.
5 Heat about 3cm of oil in a deep frying pan or saucepan to 190C/375F. Prepare a plate lined with kitchen paper. Working in batches, a few at a time, fry the patties in oil until light brown, turning if necessary, then drain on the kitchen paper. Move to a serving plate, sprinkle with salt, if you wish, and serve immediately with orange wedges.
At the fish auction I bought an entire crate of mackerel, which I tried and failed to preserve under oil
Cook’s tip When shaping patties, wet your hands to stop the mixture sticking