When you see a queue in front of a food shop, it is usually a good sign. It is even better, if you can sneak a peek into what other people are coming out with from that shop – brown paper bags in which they bite with gusto. You know you can’t miss it, when the rest of the town is pretty much deserted.
You join the queue and, after a surprisingly short wait, go in, and you travel back in time twenty years, at least. Probably more. The smell of it makes you travel to your childhood, a long lost smell. A salumeria – selling all sorts of hams, cheeses, salami and various pickles, all on display behind the glass counter filling most of the space of the tiny little shop. A choice of drinks to go with your panino. The walls of the tiny room all covered with packed food items, trying to condense a supermarket’s choice, often even more, in the limited space: a drogheria. No delis here: the choice on the walls is pretty much supermarket fare. The display beneath the glass is more interesting (we are in Sicily, after all) but nothing fancy.
Your turn is approaching all too quickly. You listen to what the people in front of you order and frantically think of a couple of tasty-looking combinations out of the possible thousands. The lady takes orders with huge calm, asks ‘Abbondante?’ as the only confirmation (abundant), and proceeds to cutting your choice of cheese and cold cuts. Passes them over to the man, who fills the bread with your choice of vegetables (olives, sun-dried tomatoes, aubergines, artichokes, all conserved under oil and maybe vinegar), the freshly cut slices, wraps it up in brown paper and takes the payment from you.
Two euros and a half. Did he forget to add in the bottled water? no he didn’t. The panini cost a euro each, barely covering the price of bread in Northern Italy. The whole process took less than a couple of minutes. You are rushed out of your nostalgia mode, plunged into the ugliness of yet another neglected town, to hurry up to a train. Which was cancelled, no reason offered. And then you sit to wait for the next, after hours, which is too crowded and deadly slow and takes hours to make a handful of kilometers.
But you don’t mind. You are in Sicily and you just had a panino, like you did not have since when you were a child. Not quite exactly the same for me, because the
bread is different – we use crunchier bread, made only with soft flour, up in the north, while in the south bread flour is mixed with some durum wheat flour and the result is a little softer. But still, fantastic. So good you are half heart-broken when, after the train has been cancelled, you go back for more, only to find out that they have finished the bread – and the nice guy queueing in front of you offers you one of his.
And then you finally make it to Palermo, and you are so tired, and Palermo is even more beautiful than what you remembered and so blissfully full of people on the street, after the gloom of Germany. And for dinner, you are too tired to go anywhere and just walk to the shop at the corner, offering more panini – tonight it is a posh one, with roast beef, pink and soft and perfect, dressed with lemon juice whose aromatic taste is actually predominant over the acidity. I bet no one else in the crowded shop would have noticed apart from me: that is just the way lemon is supposed to taste.
And the day after, the sky is blue, you walk with just a t-shirt on, and Palermo is breathtaking – pure life and chaos, a city somewhere between Europe and Africa, between a great past and a lost future. You walk in the streets, following the signs for Ballaro’, one of the historical markets. And.. you’re in. You just so badly wish you could actually cook with it – the tiny aubergines, almost black or light purple, the tiny cuttlefish you could bite into raw, the huge squids, the olives, the fresh bunches of spinach, chard and herbs, the little red tomatoes, the mountains of grapes. You know you can’t bring any of this at home with you and you know you can’t even taste it, but there is consolation, oh yes. You stop in front of a stall and buy pane e panelle. Another euro. Bread, again, this time sprinkled with sesame seeds; crunchy outside and soft and smelling good inside. Filled with panelle – imagine a polenta made with chickpeas flour, spread thinly, and fried. You know you don’t want to eat much – you have an Italian wedding in the evening, and ok, probably it was worth it. You cannot go to an Italian wedding and not eat at your best - which I did. But the street food, oh my. It worth the visit as much as Palermo is for its sheer beauty.
This happened a little while ago – about a month. We went there just for a weekend and it looks like a completely different planet now. I have been meaning to recreate panelle, before the accident, but I have realized that this is just not the right thing. There are things you just can’t make at home. You could try to make panelle I guess, and quite successfully, but that is not the point. The bread won’t be the same. The sun won’t be the same. Also the panino I had in the salumeria, in theory yes, you can make it at home. But you have to buy it in a salumeria, a proper one, to have that feeling. Broetchen here are very good, as much as sandwiches in the UK were on average awful. But they are different fare: they are not my ‘home’ panini. And I eat a lot of panini in these days: when I am home alone, since I cannot carry things with my hands, I have found that the best option is to make myself a panino in the kitchen, wrap it in paper, stuff it in my pocket and then move to eat it somewhere comfortable. Hooray to panini!
When I am at home I have quite an array of panini that are regulars. I am classifying as panini anything you can eat by holding it with your hands. This of course includes hamburgers, which are totally foreigners to the Italian tradition (you don’t want me to mention the only place where you can get burgers in Italy). When we lived in Wales, the pub next door made great, huge, greasy burgers that were just perfect – just a pity it was usually closed way before I got back from the gym. We can’t find such good specimens here, and we are working on our recipe, but I have a feeling that is might be just like panelle, the real thing must involve a stinky pub and cannot be recreated at home. Not that I am not trying, mind you. The meat, we are not too sure about the mix yet; but the bread, this is the one. Perfect, like a lot of bloggers out there will confirm. I’m writing the recipe here just for my collection and to have it handy with metric proportions, which is what I use. It is a very good light brioche that I guess would work very well with pate’ and the likes, and we happen to love it with a burger. The recipe is not difficult but requires some experience in baking, making it out of reach right now.
On the other hand this recipe is a huge favourite right here and now. It possesses a lot of qualities that make it extremely useful: it is tasty, quick, forgiving, healthy, adaptable, filling. And it is also something completely different from what you’d get with a meat burger: no replacement meant here. What I love is the mix and match style dinner you get out of this recipe – a bit like with chilli, so much fun! The fillings vary a lot, but I end up always using the same spices for the lentils: for some reason, we crystallized on those we use for meat burgers and they just felt right there. It uses something I barely use these days, ready made curry powder.
Best brioche buns ever (8 buns)
3 tablespoon warm milk
2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/2 tablespoon sugar
360 gr bread flour
40 gr all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
37 gr unsalted butter, soft
Mix 200 ml warm water with milk, yeast and sugar. Stir and let stand for five minutes.
Mix the two flours with salt then rub them with butter, until crumbs form. Mix in the water and yeast and an egg. Mix well using a fork, until it stays together. The dough will be quite sticky but don’t be tempted to add more flour: if you work it enough it will stop sticking that much and it should stay soft. Dust a wooden board with flour, put the dough into it, and work it using a metal dough scraper, until very smooth and elastic.
Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and cover the bowl with a clean cloth. Let rise until double, about 1 1/2 hours.
Cover a baking sheet with non stick paper. Using the dough scraper, divide the dough into eight equal parts, roll them gently in a bit more flour to a ball shape, and arrange them on the baking sheet. Cover and let rise until they double again, about another hour.
Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius, with a bowl of boiling water into it. Beat the other egg with a little water. Baste the rolls with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cook in the oven for about 15 minutes, until golden. Take out of the oven and let them cool. They keep surprisingly well for a few days (you are going to lightly toast them before stuffing them, anyway).
Lentil burgers – buns included
200 gr puy or caviar lentils
150 gr bread crumbs – or a bit more
3 medium eggs
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon curry
cook lentils in plenty of boiling water until cooked, but retaining a bit of bite. Drain, add roughly chopped onion, parsley and the spices. Whizz it with a hand blender or a food processor until about half of the lentils are blended. You need to keep some whole to get a nice texture. Add in the eggs, salt and pepper, and enough bread crumbs to have a sticky but manageable dough. Heat a heavy based non stick pan over medium heat. Form the lentils into patties, and cook them on the pan. after about five minutes the bottom will be cooked and slightly brown; at this point you can easily turn the patties using a spatula and cook them for five minutes on the other side.
When both parts are brown, take the patties off the heat. Take a large, sharp knife and wet it with water. use it to cut the burger in half as if it were a bun. Rinse the knife between each burger because the inside is still moist and sticks a bit. Fill with your choice of vegetables and sauces, whatever you like. I am a fan of a few parmesan shaving with lettuce, tomato and some harissa, or some tahini and yoghurt sauce.
You don’t need to cook all the patties at once – the mix keeps well in the fridge for a day or two.