One of the most historically convoluted cuisines in the world is that of Sicily. Volumes could be written about Sicilian cuisine, and in my book, “Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily,” I explore the folkloric cuisine of Sicily known as cucina arabo-sicula, a set of vestigial preparations and a style of cooking folklorically attributed to Arab influence resulting from the Arab era of Sicily that ended 800 years ago. While researching that book, I stumbled upon two curious little cookbooks in Sicily. Anna Chines and Antonella Pisa co-authored two strange little books indeed, “Cucina di Putiri Fari” (“Cuisine That Can Be Done”) and “Cucina d’un Putiri Fari” (“Cuisine That Cannot Be Done”).
From among the recipes “that can be done,” I included a doable one in my Sicilian cookbook. It was called polipi alla quartara, baby octopus in an earthenware jug. A quartara is an earthenware jug with a narrow neck into which you put the baby octopi, lots of garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and parsley. It’s corked, then sealed with plaster with a little metal vent sticking out. You place the jug in the embers of an open fire and cook it for about 45 minutes, shaking the jug every once in a while. One breaks off the neck of the jug and spills the cooked octopus out. It’s incredibly delicious.
The others “that can be done” in Chines and Pisa’s book were odd, but doable, such as budino di orzo, barley pudding made with barley, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, lemon, almonds, bread and fruit juice. These recipes that can be done were not meant ironically. Even the “doable” ones seem strange to us, but they are real folkloric recipes from Sicily, some of which would have probably fallen out of fashion.
But the recipes “that cannot be done” were truly odd, and truly undoable for a variety of reasons including taste. To this day I don’t know if they are real or not. I think they might be. The first was chocolate artichokes with anchovies, which at first blush sounds dreadful. One blanches about 2 ounces of almonds in boiling water. Then the almonds are fried in olive oil until golden brown. Meanwhile, a small piece of bread is soaked in some vinegar and it too is fried in the oil from the almonds. Everything is ground together in a mortar with about a quarter pound of sugar until a very fine paste which is passed through a sieve. Six anchovies are melted in some lukewarm olive oil and added to the sugar paste along with one cup of powdered cocoa. This is the sauce and it is finally mixed well. Six artichokes are boiled and cut in half and the chocolate sauce is poured over them and served with lemon wedges. I never tried making it but would be curious if some reader would. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Sicilian cuisine, it’s that the oddest combinations often work!
Now a truly undoable dish is called chicken in a pot of melted sulfur. Chines tells us, and her admonishing words leads us to believe, that these are real dishes, “do not try and cheat by substituting the sulfur with clay. In order to obtain this fragrant, delicious, slightly devilish dish, you have no choice but to use sulfur. If you have difficulties finding the melted sulfur, do not feel discouraged.”
Sicily was the world’s primary commercial source of sulfur-bearing compounds until about 100 years ago and the most important mines were in the provinces of Enna, Agrigento, Caltanissetta and Syracuse. Sulfur is known as brimstone in the Bible, and the ancients used it in smelting copper and making bronze. Sulfur is a yellow, nonmetallic element whose crystalline form melts at 241 F. I have never heard of its use in cooking. In this preparation a chicken is rubbed with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper and other spices. It’s wrapped tightly in grease-proof paper and plunged into a container of sulfur melted to 615 F. It’s removed from the container rather quickly and let to solidify. After about an hour, one breaks the cake of sulfur, now cold, takes out the chicken and serves it immediately. All I can say is: Don’t do this at home!
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.
Photo: Artichoke, almonds, chocolate and anchovies for an impossible dish. Credit: Clifford A. Wright