November 27, 2012

Blog theTwentieth: On Saracens, Sugar, & Sicily

… with two recipes for 
Red Peppers Tangy ‘n Sweet
I’m just not sure what to think about Saracens.  On one hand, they threatened my people (on my father’s side) with extermination, for refusing to surrender themselves and their Christian faith.  On the other hand, Saracen traders brought Sicily sugar, which was experimented with in the culinary arts before it found its natural place in the confectionary arts, bequeathing to South Italy its repertoire of sweet-‘n-sour dishes, in which vinegar mixed with sugar gives the tangy effect.  It works great on red peppers, which look great on a holiday plate. 

Saracen in late antiquity meant Arabian, more or less, but by the  Middle Ages it generally meant Muslim to most Europeans, as Venetian meant European to most Muslims, in each case no doubt by the metonymy of naming a people by its foremost emissaries, its traders.  The Saracens menacing my Sicilian forebears were probably Moors from North Africa, the kind Orlando Furioso fought.  In any case, it goes to show what a cosmopolitan place the coveted island of Sicily was, that the Sicilians those Saracens were menacing were of Norman extraction, to which earlier Norman invasion of the island I trace my half-Irish niece’s and nephew’s red hair (on my sister’s side of the recessive gene pair, that is). 

It’s easy for me to make light of the Saracen expedition against Sicily because it failed, thanks, on at least one occasion, to the warrior Madonna.  Yes, the warrior Madonna, and, no, she’s not some pagan syncretism of Sicilian Christianity.  I learned about her from my Sicilian uncle, who is a martial arts black-belt that invented his own Sicilian martial art, which he named after himself—Liobú—formalizing into an art‑form an old Sicilian tradition of street fighting with tree limbs whittled smooth into rods.  He is also a poet of the Sicilian dialect, who has published books of poems translated on facing pages into Italian. Okay, so maybe my Sicilian uncle is syncretistic.  But Sicily’s warrior Madonna is not.

He read about her somewhere, and conscripted me while I was visiting Sicily to go with him on a three-hour car ride into the interior of the island, to cull matter for a poem from the annual small town feast in honor of its patron Madonna.  What an anthropological adventure!  The whole town turned out in its Sunday finest for the feast, and a dramatic reenactment was staged of the miraculous intervention at the heart of the feast, by boys dressed in costumes of silk finery as fine as any you may see in a Renaissance museum (I imagine). Boy‑warriors were wheeled to the stage on massive wood ships, from which they streamed to the explosions of a live band and fireworks, doing battle before our eyes! 

Boys dressed in Norman silks had earlier tried to reason with Saracens in silks, but to no avail, and rather than renounce their faith, the outnumbered Sicilians armed themselves for a martyrdom of inevitable defeat at the hands of implacable enemies.  Hoping against hope, they advance into battle callling on the Blessed Virgin Mary for aid, and who should appear at the head of their army to lead them, but the Blessed Virgin herself, mounted upon a white war steed!  Need I say who prevailed that day?  Could words do the wonder justice, if they fail even the drama?

My uncle and I visited the church’s statue of the warrior Madonna, seated gracefully upon a rearing white steed, aloft a vast corona of fresh flowers.  We were studying the statue when an old Sicilian sidled up to us.  Hearing that we had come from afar to learn first‑hand of their town’s patroness, he decided to confide a grievance to us.  It turns out that the glorious corona of fresh flowers had a motive not of devotion, but of hiding a black Saracen cringing under the hooves of the Madonna’s rearing steed.  Apparently the curate had pronounced this ancient depiction inappropriate and had it flowered over, so to speak.

My uncle composed a poem about this matter, taking the censor’s viewpoint, not out of piety [because he’s anything but], but out of political correctness [I figure].  What’s next?  Will there be animal-rights protests against Mary Immaculate trampling the serpent of Genesis underfoot?  Will Satanists protest images of the archangel Michael trampling Satan underfoot?  Must even angels fear to tread where censors do?  Or are the demons a group not protected against demonization, like rich white guys (it's still okay to stomp them down, if only verbally, isn’t it?)
Look, I’m all for loving our enemies, but it seems to me that there won’t be much supernatural merit in it, if it’s not natural in the first place to hate them.  Nor will loving our friends make much sense naturally, if it makes as much sense to love our enemies.  Even forgiveness won’t make much sense, if justice doesn’t keep making sense too:  what is it to forgive someone, after all, if not to forgo your just claim against them? 

The reason given in Scripture for not taking vengeance on evildoers is not that vengeance is wrong, but that vengeance is the Lord’s.  So I figure that, even short of God’s final judgment, if you’re resisting an extermination attempt, and you have the Virgin Mary on your side, you likely have God on your side too, and so a prima facie case for justifiable violence against your would-be exterminators (whatever their ethno-racial profile)—and even for a bit of glorying, if God gives you the victory that day.

I understand how a warring Virgin might offend the sensibilities of Christians weaned on image after image of a suckling one (notwithstanding how much more incongruous the latter is than the formeragain, naturally speaking).  To such devotees of maternal devotion, a warrior Madonna may well seem the aberration of a more barbarous Christian epoch.  But they should read the Bible. 

In Luke’s gospel, once the virgin Mary hears from the angle Gabriel that she is to bear a son of David whose reign will have no end, she runs off to her cousin Elizabeth, who at the sound of Mary’s voice fills with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  Mary exclaims in reply (among other things):  from age to age God has bared the strength of his arm to confound the proud in the conceit of their hearts; to cast down the mighty from their thrones and uplift the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.  Mary’s triumph song reechoes Old Testament triumph songs as ancient as the parting of the Red Seawhich later, recall, swallowed up the Egyptians pursuing the Hebrews.

And if you figure that the New Testament is non-violent, at any rate, you’ll have Revelation's apocalyptic vision of God’s final judgment on the Roman Empire to deal with.  I’m no fundamentalist in interpreting scripture, but I still think you’re going to need a hell of a lot of flowers.

In any case, God is able to bring forth good from evil, and from Saracen aggression my people ended up with their faith, sugar, and great recipes for sweet-‘n-tangy peppers to boot, so let’s count our blessings, and avoid talking politics at the table, especially the intolerable kind, lest we be disinvited by our Gentile in-laws, who aren’t as unconditional as we about tolerating intolerable family members. 

(I’ve always thought self-refuting that tolerance that declares itself tolerant of everything but intolerance:  doesn’t it delegitmize the alternative contrary to itself, which is just what it says intolerance is not to be tolerated for doing?  Seems to me that true tolerance allows that your opponent has a right to be wrong.)

As for intolerant food blogs, adopted here as a precaution against intolerance of intolerance is the plausible deniability of an official anonymity.  It is not I who here address you, Gentle Reader, but an electronic persona far more glib, far more sardonic, far more hyperbolic, than the writer would be in human company, knowing well the natural law that teaches him to avoid giving offense to his neighbors.  The maxim of table talk must be that, in matters of taste, there must be not be dispute [notwithstanding any mental reservation about the vanity of disputing with bad taste being the reason].  What you have in this blog, Gentle Reader, is but verbal sport, a bit of verbal roughhousing.  This I here is but an ass chewing his cud, and if from time to time he should spit it out at your feet, can you in justice blame him for your standing by when he does so?

Since you’re still standing by [okay, I’ll lose the impish grin now], let me offer you two recipes for sweet‑‘n‑tangy red peppers:  a fancier version with almonds from my father’s people, who grow almonds in abundance in Sicily and greet spring with festivals of the flowering almond tree; and also a recipe from my mother’s people, a simpler version with seasoned bread crumbs.  Gentiles love both.

The original Sicilian recipe uses a mix of both red and green bell peppers, which looks festive, but I use only red, because sweet‑‘n‑sour suits them better.  I’ve been told that red bell peppers are just ripened green ones.  Well, they may be the same species of vegetable life, but they’re not the same species of food.  Green bell peppers have a vegetal flavor that needs the counterpoint of lots of sweet sauteed onion to please most palates, whereas red bell peppers have a native sweetness that risks blandness without accents of salt, spice, or acidity.  As species of taste, they’re almost opposites.  It's as simple as the difference between red food and green food.  Get it?

Perhaps even better than the squarish red bell peppers are the elongated oblong reds, which are smoother and fleshier.  Either way, you want fresh, plump, fleshy peppers for this dish, and you want to cut them into thick strips.  First I turn the pepper upside down and slice it into sections along the fissures of its creases, pulling the sections away from the pepper’s seed-core and stem-crown.  I shake loose any stray seeds and slice away all the white pith at the edges, then slice the sections into thick half-inch strips.

I drizzle some regular olive oil to coat a pan, add the pepper strips to the pan with a couple of whole garlic cloves, shower them generously with salt (because sweet foods are bland without it), and drizzle the pepperrs generously all over with extra virgin olive oil.  Then I cover the pan and turn the heat up to medium/medium-high for an initial steaming, flipping the strips once or twice when I hear sizzling.  When the pepper strips are well sweated, I uncover and fry them at a lively sizzle, flipping them over frequently (and I remove the garlic cloves, if they start browning).  It’s important to fry red pepper long and lively enough to educe and toast its native sugar.  Some pepper strips will blacken here and there, which is desirable, to a point.  If they’re blackening too quickly or too much, the heat is too high; but if they’re steaming languidly rather than sizzling lively, the heat is too low.    

Once they are fork-tender and glistening but not yet limp (one or two will have started to lose its peel), I add raisins and toss.  I associate raisins in Italian food with Saracens.  I don’t know why.  Maybe sugariness is associative.  The original recipe calls for regular dark raisins.  I prefer golden, or better yet, currants.  For 5 or 6 peppers, I sprinkle a quarter-cup of raisins over the sizzling peppers.  After a bit, the raisins plump up charmingly, presumably rehydrating themselves on the steam of the sizzling peppers.  It’s fun to see. 

Now it's time to make them sweet 'n tangy.  This is when I sprinkle them generously and evenly all over with big pinches of sugar, and then flip to mix.  I then sprinkle vinegar evenly all over them.  The original recipe calls for red wine vinegar.  I like to use white vinegar, whether white wine or white balsamic vinegar.  My mother prefers ordinary white vinegar. 

Do not flip the peppers after adding the vinegar.  Wait for the vinegar to heat up to a lively sizzle before flipping to mix, or else it will make the peppers soggy.   The vinegar fumes will be unpleasantly pungent until they cook off.  Likewise, the vinegar will taste too pungent before the dish cools down a bit, but you still need to taste and correct for sugar and salt while the peppers are still hot.  If the peppers seem bland, even if pungent, they need more salt.  If they seem pungent but not also sweet, they need more sugar.  Keep in mind that such sweet‑‘n‑sour dishes are meant to be eaten tepid, not hot, and they may seem a bit too pungent until they cool down.
Once most of the vinegar has cooked away and the peppers start to sizzle anew in the oil, it's tme to finish them off with a cup of roasted almonds.  The almonds need to be roasted in advance, completely cooled, and slivered or roughly chopped.   I fold the almonds in and toss them over and over with the peppers, so as to saute them a bit in the pepper's oil and coat the peppers with almond flavor.

Roasted almonds are a staple of my antipasto offerings, so I roast my own, and everyone remarks on how much yummier mine are than store-bought (although in a pinch I don’t hesitate to spring for Blue Diamond).  But usually I have my own on hand, because I roast a batch almost weekly.  I attribute my high-off-the-charts “good” cholesterol to how many almonds I eat and how much red wine I drink.  (Oh, and I guess there's all that olive oil too.)  I let nature do her thing—I’ll take her help over medicine’s any day.       

To roast raw almonds, I dump a bag of Trader Joe raw almonds into a pan and spray them all over with regular olive oil or peanut oil (but not extra virgin, which smokes unpleasantly at high temperatures).  Then I set my oven to a low broil, and put the pan of almonds on the bottom rack, so that the almonds are browning from above and I can easily spot any burning.  They generally need to be flipped after 5 minutes, and again in 5 minutes, and then in 3 minutes, and so on, until you smell the almonds browning, hear them popping, and see some cracking, at which point, they’re done.  Dumping the browned almonds onto a wooden cutting board or paper towels, I shower them with coarse salt (fine salt won’t stick—I wonder why?), and let them cool.  They won’t get crunchy until they’ve cooled a bit (if they don’t, you didn’t roast them through, or they were stale), and to stay crunchy in storage they need to cool completely before being stored in an air‑tight container.

For 5 or 6 peppers and a 1/4-cup of raisins, I sliver a cup of roasted almonds lengthwise with a chef’s knife, securing a couple at a time with curled finger tips.  That’s a lot of trouble, I grant you, and my mother would justly call that “playing house”.  You could of course just chop them coarsely, maybe even with pulses of a food processor.  Maybe you could toast pre-slivered almonds, or even buy toasted slivered almonds.  But I don’t.

Sweet-‘n-sour dishes can be hard to get the knack of, because they’re all about balance, and the desirable balance is somewhat a matter of taste.  My father prefers more vinegar in such dishes than I do, and my mother less sugar.  Trial and error is the only way for you to figure out what you like.  Similarly, these peppers are easy both to overcook and to undercook.  Undercook them, and they lack flavor.  Overcook them, and they reduce to a mushy pile.  Cook them right, and they are plump, sinuous, sweet, bright, aromatic, and exotic.  Somehow they say Saracen.

And what if you don’t have time to play house, or are on a budget?  Then do it my mother’s way, forget the almonds and raisins, and go buy yourself some 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs (in the black and white canister).  Once the peppers have fried up tender and sweet, add the sugar and vinegar, as above.  When the vinegar has cooked into the peppers, then sprinkle the seasoned bread crumbs evenly all over the peppers.  Flip the peppers over to mix in the bread crumbs and moisten them with oil, and then toast them for a minute.  After a minute, shut off the heat, but continue flipping, gently, to finish toasting the crumbs with the residual heat of the pan.

My mother got this recipe from her aunt Rosina, who loved to cook for those she loved, and so cooked a great deal, and her every dish brimmed with her love.  But she was in truth not the best of cooks.  This dish is a memorable exception.  In this dish, her maternal love coupled with a just judgment of culinary art to bequeath us an enduring recipe, and we remember her love fondly every time we enjoy its finest culinary fruit. Love justly, and bear enduring fruit.