The closest I have been to Sicily was racing out of a mountain tunnel on the way to Reggio di Calabria, and there, spread out before my eyes, was the entire island. Through the haze of smoke pouring from the chain-smoking driver was the Strait of Messina, and beyond that the great island that has meshed thousands of years of an amazing jigsaw of African, Middle Eastern and European cultures. Sadly, I never made it across that narrow strip of water, but I did get to know all about the food history and the recipes of Sicily via Pomp and Sustenance (Alfred Knopf, 1989), Mary Taylor Simeti’s master work that describes gently, in beautiful words and experiences, 2500 years of Sicilian cooking.
The first words of this book are humble, yet evocative: “I first learned to cook in Sicily,” she wrote. She had visited Sicily as a volunteer—ex New York—in the ‘60s, married a local and has made the island her home. She learned to cook as generations before her had done: “In the early seventies, my husband and I restored his family farm, and began to spend our summers in the country. It was there that I learned how olives are gathered and pressed into oil and how grapes mature and become wine, and there that I talked to shepherds as they made ricotta and to peasant women who were bottling the year’s supply of tomato sauce.” The cuisine of Sicily, she writes, “introduced my palate to some novel tastes: to the exotic aromas of earlier epochs—ancient Greek, Arabic and Norman—and to the familiar yet often unrecognised ingredients of more recent times, those of hunger and faith, of pride and jealousy and joy.”
Simeti describes the cooking of Sicily as a mix of “pomp and sustenance”, and the Thermomix allows each personality—and opportunity—to come to the fore. This recipe, heavily modified from the Simeti original—sourced from the period pre-1200—has a melodic tone when provided in the Italian as pasta con acciughe e mollica. The flavour of the anchovies is subtle rather than sledgehammer; but, as always, the better the anchovies used, the better the outcome. The use of breadcrumbs as flavour and textural hit is something that can, and should, be used more often in simple pastas, and salads.
The method of cooking pasta in the Thermomix might sound bizarre but it is, in the end, triumphant, not just for this recipe but for a multitude of sauces to be added similarly. Why is this so? The small amount of water, relative to the weight of the pasta retains the starch drifting from the pasta, concentrating its effect, and providing a brilliant grip for any of the sauces you wish to try.
- Toast the breadcrumbs in a heavy pan, in the tablespoon of olive oil, stirring until golden brown. Do not overload the pan—depending on the size of the pan this may be best done in two batches. You’re looking for a similar outcome to that of your morning toast. Set aside.
- In the Thermomix bowl, add the 30 grams of olive oil, and garlic, and cook 8 minutes/100 degrees/speed 1.
- Add the tomato paste, water and anchovies and cook 10 minutes/80 degrees/speed 1. At the end of the cooking period, whizz 10 seconds/speed 8. The anchovies and garlic will have dissolved into the sauce. Set aside.
- Without cleaning the bowl, add 700 grams of water and, with the MC off, bring to the boil 4 minutes/Varoma/speed soft.
- With the lid on, MC off, add the spaghetti through the hole in the lid, and cook according to the time recommended on the packet. For spaghetti this is typically between 8 and 10 minutes. In our case it was 8 minutes/100 degrees/speed soft. Test the consistency of the pasta: it should be cooked al dente. Drain pasta, return pasta to the bowl, add the anchovy sauce, and cook 1 minute/100 degrees/speed soft.
- Toss a handful of the breadcrumbs through the sauce and the chopped herbs, and serve with the extra breadcrumbs on the side.