Last month I attended a special dinner at Rialto featuring dishes from Fabrizia Lanza’s wonderful 2012 COMING HOME TO SICILY. Everything was cooked by the Rialto Team, under Fabrizia’s direction, whom Jody had met years ago on a biking adventure in Italy. You may know Fabrizia as the daughter of Anna Tasca Lanza, founder of the famed Sicilian cooking school Case Vecchie. Art historian turned passionate cook and cultural advocate for her native land, Fabrizia now leads Case Vecchie, writes about Sicilian food and is building a video archive of Sicilians engaged in culinary traditions increasingly imperiled as the outside world seeps into island life.
As usual, I got held up, arrived late for the dinner, and slid into my chair with a longing glance toward everyone else’s empty appetizer plates. At that moment Fabrizia, a slender patrician woman who looked as though she might have as easily discussed the subtleties of Botticelli’s brush technique as she did the culinary pleasures of wild fennel, was giving the room a brief introduction to Sicilian cuisine and I didn’t want to cause a stir by asking anyone to explain what I’d missed. The menu card next to my plate simply identified the course as Panelle. A waiter took pity on me and few moments later set a saucer with two triangles of something in front of me. Without my glasses I might have mistaken them for shortbread. I took a bite. A rich toasty flavor at once comforting and tantalizing elusive filled my mouth. The triangles had thin crispy edges and a bit of creaminess in their thickest part, the center. “What are these?” I asked Jody, who said hi on her way back into the kitchen with Fabrizia. “Chickpea flour,” she said. “And water and salt.” “That’s it?” “That’s it,” she said, “Amazing, aren’t they?” And that is how I had my first taste of the subject of this week’s post, Panelle.
I’m going to skip the discussion of chickpea flour–how its use in Provence differs from its use in Liguria and how neither resemble what the Sicilians do with it–and simply hand you over to Fabrizia.
One of the easiest and most enduring things that my grandfather and his chef Mario introduced to our table was panelle, a kind of chickpea fritter. Panelle are pure street food; no one would ever eat them in a private house. But what my grandfather wanted, he got. Mario was loyal to the original street food model and made thick soft panelle. Later, my mother and I came up with a different sort of panelle; more delicate, much crisper, and meant to be eaten like a chip. We spread the hot batter on plates, so that the edges are a bit thinner than the centers, and when they hit the hot oil, the panelle puff up slightly. Their hearts stay ever-so-soft, while the edges get nice and crunchy. It is a kind of homage to the panelle you still find in Palermo’s streets, but much sexier.*
She might have added these are meant to be cooked, and eaten almost immediately.
COMING HOME TO SICILY is the kind of cookbook that seems increasingly rare to me, almost extinct, a collection of recipes in a narrative context, deeply embedded in a food culture of place, and the life of the narrator, the kind of geographic food memoir that used to be popular back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Imagine Patience Gray’s HONEY FROM A WEED set in Sicily, rather than in Greece; now transform Patience into a Sicilian and illustrate her narrative with hundreds of Guy Ambrosino’s gorgeous photographs depicting the food, land and people of Sicily. That’s what I’m talking about. Enjoy. Ken
*Fabrizia Lanza, from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza with Kate Winslow. Sterling Epicure, New York. 2012.
Makes about 20 – 24 panelle
- 2½ cups chick pea flour
- 3 cups water
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups vegetable oil
- 3 or 4 different salts–we used saffron salt, smoked paprika salt, fleur de sel and a Peruvian sea salt.
- Set out 4 large salad plates, preferably with a raised pattern. You will use these to form the panelle.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the chick pea flour, water, Kosher salt and pepper. Whisk vigorously until smooth.
- Turn the heat to medium and whisk constantly until the batter has thickened. It will take about 5 minutes. Continue cooking and whisking until the batter thickens even more and pulls away from the sides of the pan, another 3 minutes or so.
- Working quickly, put a mound of batter in the center of a plate and spread it over the plate in a layer ¼-inch thick, tapering at the edges to become slightly thinner. Continue until all the batter is used up. Cool.
- Peel the sheet of panelle off one of the plates, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges. Or, simply score the panelle into wedges on the plate and peel off the individual wedges.
- Heat the oil in a deep sided pan to 350ºF. Fry the wedges in batches until golden and crispy. They will take about 2 minutes on each side.
- Transfer cooked panelle to a rack set on a brown paper bag to collect the grease. Keep in a warm oven or under a heat lamp, if you have one, while you continue cooking the remainder. Serve warm, with a variety of salts.
Fabrizia and I met during one of my first cycling adventures in Sicily some years ago, when she hosted us at her cooking school in Case Vecchie. What a treat to be able to repay the favor at Rialto last month. She taught us this recipe. We’ve been making thick stick-shaped chick pea fries for years, and we love them, but they’re a little clunky compared to these light crispy little numbers. She’s right – hers are sexier, especially if you use a variety of patterned plates to make them. It’s really incredible how good panelle taste with so few ingredients. We happened to have a handful of unusual salts sitting around waiting for their purpose in life to reveal itself, then the panelle showed up. We’ve altered Fabrizia’s recipe slightly, mostly to combat New England humidity. She doesn’t use a thermometer – we do. It’s important to keep the oil hot so the panelle just crisp on the outside without becoming soggy. Next time I would use a bigger pot so I could cook them in larger batches, finishing the recipe as fast as possible. We also prefer using a cooling rack over the paper towels, another step to help keep things crispy. Last of all, we kept finished panelle warm in the oven, after draining, one more piece of insurance to preserve crispness.