Hello From Sicily – An Italian Cooking Class

I had thoroughly enjoyed my personal Sicilian history lesson provided by Alessandro Adorno, the Founder and Director of the Babilonia Language School. In addition he suggested that I attend one of the cooking classes organized by Babilonia that gives Italian language students an opportunity to create Sicilian delicacies first-hand.

Just a minute and a half from the language school is the home of Aurelio and Angela Ferrari, a couple who regularly host language students as part of the homestay program of Babilonia. Currently the couple have three language students staying with them, and they provide them with comfortable accommodation as well as three home-cooked meals a day.

Aurelio, now retired, has spent a life-time in the hospitality industry. He has lived and worked in different hotels and resorts in Rome, France and England and has held a wide variety of positions in the tourism business, including work in various hotel and restaurant kitchens and has gained a wide variety of operational and managerial experience. After all the years abroad during his international career he returned to live in Taormina, in the house where he was born. He said he loves living here, it’s beautiful, and it’s very safe since there is virtually no crime.

He explained that he loves Sicilian cooking and that he truly enjoys sharing his knowledge. Lessons are taught three times a week and they focus on Sicilian home-cooking, using all the fresh locally grown ingredients that this fertile island has to offer.

Today Aurelio and his two culinary charges, Marjolein from Holland and Takashi from Japan, were going to produce a wide assortment of Sicilian specialties:

– Pasta alla Eoliana

– Pesce all Messinese

– Pomodori Gratini on Crostini

– Caponata Siciliana stile Arabo

– Aciughe marinate

– Formaggio Fritto

– Insalata di menta con olivi

– Mele al Agrodolce

As you can imagine a proper Sicilian meal always consists of multiple courses, and after all the preparation the students, the master chef and his family get to enjoy the meal together. Aurelio, a real character, added that students often sing, or play the guitar or the piano which is located on the main floor of his four storey house. He also added that he always makes sure to ask his students whether they have any food preferences or allergies or whether they are vegetarian.

Tonight was going to be a real feast for the palate with two main dishes: Pesce alla Messinese, a local fish specialty, and Pasta alla Eoliana – pasta Eolian Islands style. Both dishes require a basic sauce made from tomatoes and eggplants, flavoured with local staples such as onion, garlic, olives, capers, mint, basil and oregano. Aurelio refers to these herbs as the “profumi di Sicilia” – the fragrances or aromas of Sicily. The fish, cut in rectangular pieces, is cooked for only 10 minutes on the stove inside the sauce to make sure it’s nice and tender. To round out the taste a bit of red wine is added to the sauce at the end.

Pasta alla Eoliana starts with the same base and Aurelio explained that the pasta that is added is called “spacciatella”, a type of pasta that is not normally available in supermarkets. Any type of longitudinal hollow pasta should be able to substitute for this pasta variety.

Several aromatic side dishes were to accompany our meal: Pomodori Gratinati (gratinated tomatoes), according to Aurelio, are a great way to use up old bread. You simply cut a breadstick into slices, create a mixture called “pane saporito” – breadcrumbs flavoured with parsley, garlic, salt, all mixed thoroughly in a blender, and spoon the mixture on top of the tomatoes and add pecorino and parmesan, topped off with some anchovies, and bake the small pieces of bread in the oven for ten or eleven minutes to arrive at a delicious side dish.

Sicily’s multicultural heritage manifested itself in the next dish: the “Caponata Siciliana Stile Arabo” – a sweet and sour culinary relic of the Arab period in Sicilian history. The ingredients for this dish include raisins, pine nuts, sugar, balsamic vinegar, onions and eggplants cut in small cubes, all of which come together to form a deliciously fragrant vegetable relish that makes for a flavourful slightly sweet addition to any meal.

Aurelio and his two enthusiastic cooking students continued with the next side dish: “Acciughe marinate” are anchovy slices that are marinated for at least two hours in vinegar, lemon and salt with an addition of hot peppers, parsley and oil.

For the cheese lovers among us Aurelio prepared “formaggio fritto”: ricotta slices, breaded in beaten egg and flour and then pan-fried on the stove top. With the leftover egg he created an omelette, adding that nothing ever goes to waste in a Sicilian kitchen.

A mint salad consisting of mint leaves, with an addition of “pane saporito” (the savoury breadcrumb mix), olives, oil and vinegar was next before our chef and his two assistants created the dessert: “Mele al agrodolce”: sweet and sour apples. For this dish apple slices were covered with lemon juice and sugar and topped with sweet prunes, a sweet and sour way to cap off an assortment of healthy dishes prepared from fresh local ingredients. Sicilian cuisine is very healthful, with lots of fish and vegetables and very little animal fat. Aurelio’s eight-course meal was a perfect example of the focus on simple yet flavourful local ingredients that come together to form a fascinating array of aromas.

After the meal was cooked we all carried the numerous containers two floors up to the covered rooftop terrace which featured a long table that could hold at least 10 to 12 people. Aurelio, always with a big smile on his face, graciously introduced all the dishes on camera, and all of us sat down to taste this smorgasbord of Sicilian cooking.

Aurelio and his wife Angela talked to us about their families and about life in Sicily, which they both greatly enjoyed. The entire evening and the cooking class was conducted in Italian, another opportunity for exposure to the Italian language and the cordial hospitality of a real Italian family. After a delicious dinner Marjolein and I left this wonderful get-together and stepped out into a warm, moonlit night. We spent a few minutes on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean and both commented what a special experience this time in Taormina.

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Self-Criticism – A Different Take

Browse the self-help aisle at the bookstore, or comb through the online material about self-esteem, and you’ll mostly find advice on how to take “conscious control of your self-talk,” to stop negative self-statements and replace them with affirmations, to love yourself, to conquer this or that experience, etc. In an earlier post, I discussed why such verbal techniques don’t work, but even for those people who do find them valuable, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching this issue.

These other techniques tend to view “negative self-statements” as if they were something almost alien to the person: internalized parental criticism we must identify and reject; perfectionistic standards imposed upon us by advertising, our peer group, society at large; mental tape loops that reflexively repeat horrible things about us, almost like a critic-virus implanted in our brains. Instead, you may find it more useful to “own” the critic and take a look at what it is that you (and not somebody else) actually expect.

Let me give a personal example. I play the piano, and sometimes when I’m confronting a new technical challenge and get frustrated, I can come down hard on myself. If I listen closely, I’ll be saying things like, “You’re a lousy player. What’s wrong with you? You should have mastered this piece already! You’ll never be any good.” Those thoughts aren’t merely critical. They reflect attitudes and expectations I’ve struggled with my entire life: 1. I should be able to master things quickly and easily. 2. Learning should not involve frustration. 3. I want to be the best at what I do; anything less is without value.

I am not the victim of these perfectionistic expectations; a part of me demands that my life conform to the way I expect it to be. When those demands aren’t met, it usually stirs up anger that I “can’t have my way”: on some level, it makes me furious that life and my experience don’t unfold exactly the way I want them to, and in this particular example, that I’m not the brilliant musician (a true genius!) that I long to be.

Self-criticism transforms into anger — my anger, and not a “negative self-statement” I’ve internalized from the outside. Knowing myself well, having been over this ground many times, I think: “Oh that again. Now be quiet and breathe.” I turn myself back to the long patient work of practicing and accept that, as much as I might hate the fact, I will never play Carnegie Hall.

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