An extraordinary spring preparation I first encountered in western Sicily while researching my first cookbook “Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily” is called frittedda. I consider making it every June. Frittedda is an expensive dish to prepare because farmers markets have premium prices for excellent fava beans, peas and artichokes. It’s also labor intensive, so I need to consider who I might be feeding in June to reckon who might be worth the effort (sorry, that’s an important consideration in my kitchen — no appreciation, no labor intensive cooking). About every four years I make the dish because I have found extraordinarily good deals on the vegetables and very appreciative friends who will be entertained.
Frittedda is a thoroughly Sicilian dish, however its roots might lie with the Arab kharshuf wal-ful, the artichoke and fava bean preparation served as a meze in Syria. Whether that connection is modern or rooted in the Arab-Sicilian era of a thousand years ago is impossible to know. In western Sicily, where frittedda was born, it is served as a grape u pitittu, an expression meaning something like “opener of the mouth,” or tidbit, that is more philosophically related to a Middle Eastern meze than an Italian antipasto.
Pino Correnti, a leading Sicilian food authority, believes that the name comes from the Latin frigere, because it is prepared in a large frying pan. Although none of the Sicilian authorities I’ve read make the claim that frittedda is a part of cucina arabo-sicula, the popular Sicilian folkloric cuisine founded on vestigial Arabisms in food and cookery, I believe there is circumstantial evidence for the Arab roots of this dish. The Arabs introduced the artichoke and the scallion to Sicily, in fact the word “scallion” (in Sicilian and in English) comes from the Palestinian Arabic for the name of the town most famous for scallions, Ascalon. Scallions were known in Sicily as “onions of Ascalon.” Frittedda has the sweet and sour trademark (although the dish is admittedly not sweet-and-sour) resulting from the addition of sugar, another Arab introduction to Sicily, that so many Arab-influenced dishes have and, finally, it comes from western Sicily where so many Arab-influenced dishes found their home. That’s all much too circumstantial to say anything historical, but it does make for a nice tale.
The young artichokes needed for this dish are very tender and have not yet developed chokes, but I use the larger fully mature ones for simplicity’s sake. Because this dish is affected by the age and size of the vegetables, you will have to judge for yourself the right cooking time and how much salt, pepper and nutmeg you want to use — so keep tasting. This beautiful preparation is typically made in the late spring and your guests should and will appreciate the work and love you put into it.
Makes 8 servings
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photos, from top:
Raw ingredients for frittedda.
Credits: Clifford A. Wright.