Italy's Sicily Gets Its Day in the Sun

'Sun is the main ingredient on Sicily," says Anna Tasca Lanza. "It blesses everything that grows with intense flavor, and it shapes the daily life and beliefs of the people."

The Marchesa Lanza should know. She has lived on the Italian island, situated in the Mediterranean just south of the boot's toe, all her life. It's there that she founded the World of Regaleali, a cooking school on her family estate, a favorite destination of many of the world's chefs. And it's her passion for Sicily's glorious food and celebrations that inspired her to write "The Heart of Sicily," about her rich family life, and recently, "The Flavors of Sicily: Stories, Traditions, and Recipes for Warm-Weather Cooking" (Clarkson Potter, 256 pp., $30).

The time may be ripe for her stories of Sicily. Tuscany has not only had its day in the sun, it has been overexposed. And much as people enjoy pasta e fagioli (minestrone) or panforte (dessert made with candied fruit and nuts), they may be ready to learn about other regions.

So, just what foods are indigenous to this lesser-known region, site of the Oscar-winning film "Cinema Paradiso"?

First, it helps to know a little about Sicily's history. In her book, Lanza writes: "The abundant fertility of Sicily and, of course, its strategic position as the largest island in the Mediterranean, lying athwart all the shipping routes and situated off the coast of Africa like a stepping-stone to Europe, made it a crossroads of conquest since ancient times."

So what's known as Sicilian cuisine is derived from the contributions of foreigners: Olives were brought by the Greeks; wheat by the Romans; Arabs introduced citrus, rice, sugar cane, and even pasta; Spaniards grew tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, potatoes, and corn.

Other vegetables such as peppers and eggplant thrive there. Lamb and fish are common. Two favorite cheeses are caciocavallo and pecorino. Herbs are used extensively in cooking. And some say Sicily's sweets are unrivaled in Italy.

Lanza has always felt strongly about cooking with the seasons. And on her island, where a rainy day is as rare as a garden without basil, that doesn't involve too much sacrifice.

"We Sicilians share a certain philosophy of cooking," Lanza says. "We don't make a dish from a recipe; rather, we create it from what we have on hand, what is growing on the land at the moment. That way we never cook out of season. We use what is ripe, and we don't keep it for long."

Her first book was a huge success, and, of course, she wouldn't mind the same response to her latest work, a delightful culinary and cultural tour of her homeland during its most sun-drenched months, March through September.

But Lanza's first objective isn't to sell books. "I feel it is my duty to tell about my country, to help improve its image," said the elegant marchesa as she savored a bowl of fresh raspberries during a pause on her US book tour.

Whatever turmoil has beset Sicily, it's all offset by her joyful rendering of a place with wonderfully simple country food and a culture of enduring fascination.

********

Asparagus and Mozzarella Salad

1 pound fresh asparagus, ends trimmed

1 pound plum tomatoes

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-size pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and cool.

Cut any very long asparagus into 2 or 3 pieces. Cut the tomatoes into pieces about the same size as the mozzarella. Combine the asparagus, tomatoes, and mozzarella in a bowl. Stir salt and pepper to taste into 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a cup and pour on top. Turn to coat. Add more olive oil if needed, keeping in mind that this salad should not be too oily.

Transfer to a platter and pat the salad together into a mound. Sprinkle with the oregano. Serve at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

Anna's Pesto with Pasta

"This is my rendition of the famous Pantescan pesto, for which no two recipes are alike."

2 cups mixed herbs, such as mint, parsley, basil, and sage

2 cloves garlic

4 small ripe tomatoes, cut up

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt

Ground hot pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

1 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup slivered almonds (if they are very flavorful, use them as is; otherwise, toast them lightly to heighten the flavor.)

Combine the herbs, garlic, and tomatoes in a food processor and process until roughly chopped. Add the sugar and the salt and hot pepper to taste. With the machine running, pour in 1/4 cup of the oil. Process just until blended. Scrape into a bowl or jar. Pour the remaining oil on top. Refrigerate overnight to let flavors develop.

Just before serving, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Stir the pesto and toss with the pasta. Sprinkle the almonds on top and serve.

Optional adaptation: Add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan after adding olive oil.

Serves 4.

Lemon Granita

1-1/2 cups sugar (give or take 1/2 cup if you like it sweeter or more tart)

4 cups water

1 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Boil for 5 minutes to make a light syrup. Pour the mixture into a wide bowl and let cool in the kitchen or in the refrigerator.

Stir the lemon juice and zest into the syrup. Transfer to metal ice trays or a shallow metal pan and freeze for at least 2 hours. Stir every 30 minutes to break up the ice crystals. Serves 4 to 6.

- From 'The Flavors of Sicily' (Crown Publishers Inc.)

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