Wednesday, December 03, 2008

An Authentic Frittata.

I have a change and a treat for you today. My dear friend Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, who lives in Melbourne, has agreed to do a guest post (several, actually – watch out for them in coming weeks.) Marisa is a fantastic cook and writer. She has written her own book Australian Fish, Sicilian Recipes and is patiently doing the rounds of the publishers. In the meanwhile, she is working on developing her own blog, and just as soon as she determines it is fit for making public, I will be sure to let you know. 

Marisa has so much to offer on the subject of Italian – and particularly Sicilian – food, that it was difficult to know what to choose from her suggestions. I am always interested in how one country choses to interpret (misinterpret, adapt, or bastardise, if you will!) the cuisine of another country, and what does authentic mean in relation to specific dishes, and how is the authenticity of a dish determined anyway?

I remembered being intrigued by the following recipe, from The Italian Cook Book, compiled By Maria Gentile (New York, c1919).
Curled Omelet (Frittata in riccioli)
Boil a bunch of spinach and rub it through a sieve. Beat two eggs, season with salt and pepper and mix with them enough spinach to make the eggs appear green. Put the frying pan on the fire with only enough oil to grease it and when very hot put in a portion of the eggs, moving the frying pan so as to make a very thin omelet. When well cooked, remove it from the frying pan and repeat the operation once or twice in order to have two or three very thin omelets. Put these one over the other and cut them in small strips that are to be browned in butter adding a little grated cheese. These strips of omelet, resembling noodles, form a tasty and attractive dressing for a fricandeau (veal stew) or a similar dish.

Is this authentic? The OED says that a frittata is “A thick, well-cooked Italian omelette, typically containing a selection of meat, cheese, potatoes, etc., usually mixed in with the eggs during cooking, and served open rather than folded.”

What does Marisa say? Here are her words:
 Every national cuisine has certain rules and customs. I always like to respect the original ingredients and methods of a recipe, which originates from another country, before creating my own variations.

One of the many Italian dishes that Australians have adopted is frittata, and because it contains eggs, it usually appears on restaurant menus in the breakfast section or as a light meal. In Italy a frittata is a common way to use up leftovers – usually it is made from the pasta (dressed or undressed) or the vegetable contorno (side dish of vegetables) from the night before, much like the English dish bubble and squeak made with shallow-fried left-over vegetables.

Frittata in Italy is usually placed between slices of bread and eaten as a panino (stuffed rolls or rustic shaped sandwich) or as a snack (spuntino).

This is where we get to the issue of variations.

How often have you seen recipes for frittata, either baked or browned under a grill?

This is the matter of respect. Frittata is always fried and never baked. It is called a frittata because it is fritta (fried) – derived from the verb friggere, to fry.

I have been researching and writing about Sicilian cuisine for a long time and I was intrigued to read that in her book, The Food of Italy, Claudia Roden states that ‘frittate are common throughout Italy, except for Sicily and Sardinia’.

If I may speak from my experience, Roden is wrong about frittata in Sicily. When I was in Ragusa last year, my aunt (zia) Niluzza made a simple frittata with fresh pork sausage and ricotta. Frittate (plural) have certainly always been common in my Sicilian relatives' kitchens, so in deference to Claudia I went back through numerous sources on Sicilian cuisine and was pleased to find many recipes for frittata.

The food of Sicily, like the food of Italy is very localised, but I found recipes from all over the island. Frittata seem to be particularly popular in rural areas where eggs were plentiful (but where chickens are reserved for special occasions) and generally they contain cooked or sautéed vegetables and perhaps a little grated cheese. Sometimes they contain a few chopped herbs or spring onion, or fresh breadcrumbs. Some recipes include cooked meat or fish, or slices of unripened, freshly made cheese (fresh pecorino or formaggio fresco) or ricotta (technically not a cheese because it is made from the left over whey).

How could Claudia have missed them? Sadly, some sources do not include them – perhaps because frittata were considered so basic, that they didn’t rate a mention? Or perhaps because in Sicilian, frittata is sometimes called other names – milassata and frocia are the most common.

Given the number of different cultures which have influenced Sicilian cuisine, who was responsible for the frittata? Was it the Arabs who made the eggah, the Spanish with their tortilla or the French with the omelette? Most of my references seem convinced it was the Spaniards.

Having told you most frittate are simple affairs, here is a rich tasting and unusual Sicilian recipe with an interesting combination of ingredients – a milassata that combines pumpkin, artichokes and asparagus and the flavours of cinnamon, mint and parsley. 

Use 100g each of cooked asparagus, young artichokes (tough leaves removed and poached in salted water with a little lemon juice, till soft) and thin slices of pumpkin fried in hot extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the cooled vegetables to 8 lightly beaten eggs, (fresh free range for taste), 100g of grated pecorino cheese (parmesan is used in the north of Italy), 50g of fresh breadcrumbs, a pinch of cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh mint and 2 of parsley, salt and pepper.
Heat some olive oil into a large heavy-based fry pan. Pour the mixture into hot oil. Fry the frittata on the one side. Turn the heat down to low and, occasionally, with the spatula press the frittata gently on the top. Lift the edges, tilting the pan. This will allow some of the runny egg to escape to the sides and cook. Repeat this process until there is no more egg escaping.
Invert the frittata onto a plate, carefully slide the frittata into the pan and cook the other side.

Sicilian Children’s song and Italian translation:

Ole’ ole’ o lagna
a‘rrivatu u’rre di Spagna
a puttatu cosi novi
cosi ca vannu fritti cull’ovi

Ole’ Ole’ o lagna
e’ arrivato il re di Spagna
ha portato cose nuove
cose da friggere con le uova

Ole`, ole, o lament (could also be a sing song),
the king of Spain has arrived
he has bought new things
things that are fried with eggs.
Thanks Marisa!
Quotation for the Day … 

The olive tree is surely the richest gift of Heaven, I can scarcely expect bread.
Thomas Jefferson


~~louise~~ said...

Thank you for taking me down memory lane. Growing up in a Sicilian household we often had frittata on Friday because we didn't eat meat on Friday. Many times the bits and pieces of leftovers hiding in the fridge were brought back to life in this wonderful dish. Boy, what I could do with some leftover peppers and sausage. I was ten:) The very best part when cooking a frittata, to this day, flipping it over and keeping it opened. I always put a plate on top and just flipped. Now that I think about, it was dangerous but, I don't recall ever getting burnt. Whew!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, as always. The children's rhyme would certainly support your idea that the frittata of Sicily comes from the tortilla of Spain (which may occasionally surprise Americans, at least, who think of the Mexican tortilla). (You might like to correct the spelling error of "bought" for "brought," though a king, being rich, could certainly buy plenty of good ingredients.)

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. My family is also Sicilian and we use the word "frocia" 99 per cent of the time. In Sicily, the letter 'c' is pronounced very delicately and softly like the 'j' in dujour or the 'z' in azure. It's not like the rough Italian pronunciation of 'ci' which is hard like 'ch' in the word cheese. I have to disclose that most modern day Sicilians who speak Italian will also use "frittata", but you're more apt to find this written in a menu or a cookbook and not in the recipe-book or the language of old Sicilians or those who choose to keep using Sicilian (God bless them!). This could be why that other author said 'frittata' doesn't exist in Sicily. The word never existed in Sicily before, but certainly the food did. I just made a frocia 5 minutes ago, so I did a search on google to see what different people use in it, and then found your page. I prefer the word frocia to frittata, it's just so much more Sicilian. But be sure to keep it feminine, because the masculine form of frociu means a whole other thing.. he he he! :)

Anonymous said...

That's right nbmandel, the children sang that song because the frittata is the Italian version of the European tortilla (from Spain). The potato omlet has been the most Popular dish in the Iberian peninsula for centuries (no before 1492 as Europeans didn't have potatoes, neither tomatoes before this date)