Close to Nature

Even on a cold December morning the beauty and bounty of Mother Nature is on full display in Catania, the big city lying in Etna’s shadow on Sicily’s eastern shore. In piazzas paved with black lava stones and on streets below black baroque buildings, a market offers gorgeous foods every single morning of the week. Tantalizing my eyes, ears, and nose, it lures me into its seeming chaos.

Fish fresh enough to be still alive are displayed, and hawked loudly, by the fishermen who were out in their tiny, colorful boats a mere few hours before. An ambulatory parsley vendor makes his way through the crowd selling a bunch here and there, pausing for an animated discussion and gesticulating madly with a bright green aromatic bunch. Plump, coral-colored mussels are heaped together with a few bright yellow lemons; clams spit the water they’re soaking in; crustaceans are displayed in all their lurid pinks; and spatola (scabbard fish) and calamari are carefully arranged or held aloft to show them off to their best advantage.

Fruits and vegetables coming in from nearby fields are piled high and looking beautiful. They’re roughly harvested and arrive at the market with stalks and foliage intact; reminders that they came from the earth, nourished by rainwater, sunlight and the minerals of the very soil. The disconnect present when confronted with a piece of food individually shrink-wrapped or sitting on its own personal Styrofoam tray is a distant memory in my American brain.

The multi-colored cauliflower and broccoli are enshrined by their elephant ear leaves. Artichokes come with three feet of stalk (the stalk is great sautéed with rice, lemon zest and olive oil) and mountains of grey-green spiky leaves. This being the dead of winter there is citrus everywhere and palming a Sicilian tarocco, the one with the silky orange flesh flecked with purple, is like being handed a warming ray of Sicilian sunshine. Garlic and onions with chunks of soil dangling from their roots are stacked tall. Heaps of the Sicilians’ beloved bitter greens are on display: chicory, chard, leafy cabbage and mustard greens. These last ones leaving me wondering if my Sicilian grandmother felt nostalgia for her terra sicula when she encountered them in her adopted Mississippi, as they’re doing for me. But it’s in reverse – nostalgia for the fertile Mississippi River delta of my home place when spied in a Catanese market in my adopted Italy.

Though Sicily’s chefs may have one up’d us on their use of the mustards. Instead of boiling a mess of greens half to death with a piece of fatback, they’re more likely to stir them into a pasta asciutta with some chili pepper, creamy pungent sheep’s milk ricotta and olive oil. Or as Ciccio Sultano did for me a few weeks back, turn mustard greens into a spare, bright green sauce to pair with sea urchins as a balanced counterpoint underneath handmade spaghetti alla chitarra; the harmony completed by a sip of a citrusy champagne.

That’s the sort of perfection that helped Ciccio earn his multiple Michelin stars. But, when you take away the fancy table linens, excellent service and chuckling chef, you’ve got a simple dish with no more than three ingredients, each of which were lying fresh and accessible on a market table not long before. Each bite he served to me during that hours-long lunch of creative dishes with clear, balanced flavors was amazingly good, creative, and fun – enough of all that to laugh at and swoon over. The fact that they were also healthy and good for me was like an after-thought, a happy extra.

A simple rule for eating well, which for me means eating food that tastes great and happens also to be good for you, is stick close to Mother Nature. She won’t lead you astray. Eat what she’s got to offer, a mix of flavors, colors, textures, when and pretty much where she’s got it on offer. Purchasing produce, meat and fish that is grown on a farm or in the wild, that is in season, harvested ripe and sold quickly, ensures you eat foods full of flavor, and also full of nutrients.

As for what to make, do like Catania’s deeply creative, esoteric, self-defined cook Carmelo Chiaramonte, who told me it’s easy to decide what to make, just open the door and breathe: what you smell, that’s what to make. Be led by your senses. One spring when the tuna were running, his senses led him to making an almond and saffron soup with clams, and turning out a flavorful slab of fresh ventresca of tuna with a pepperonata made not with peppers, but with wild strawberries. Standing there in the market in Catania being open to the colors, smells and sounds, the creativity started churning away, and recipes presented themselves without even thinking about it.

Put yourself in the right environment, shop where it’s easy to make good choices (hint: the farmers’ market), and don’t over-think it. The inspiration for what to make comes by itself when presented with truly good and natural ingredients, each one a full flavor in its own right.

If you can’t easily make it to a market, look for the best whole ingredients you can find at your supermarket. Do your best not to purchase or eat processed foods, those “edible food-like substances,” as Michael Pollan defines them in his excellent new book In Defense of Food. Like he says, if it doesn’t look like Mother Nature produced it, she probably didn’t. If a so-called food or its list of ingredients looks like it came out of a science lab and not out of your grandmother’s kitchen, then it probably did actually come out of a science lab. Who wants to eat that? Getting the best ingredients possible into the kitchen makes being creative with them easy, and it makes eating healthfully a happy by-product of eating foods that taste good.

Sicilians love to eat pasta with vegetables. Try mustard greens sautéed with garlic and hot pepper on pasta (that was boiled in the pot liquor) with a bit of creamy, tangy sheep’s milk ricotta. Try boiling broccoli in salted water, toss broken spaghetti or small shape pasta into the pot, when the pasta is done serve it like a soup with some strong Sicilian olive oil drizzled on top and a sprinkling of grated ricotta salata. Or sauté cauliflower with garlic and oil, maybe some currants and pine nuts, for pasta and top it all with some quick crunchy homemade breadcrumbs.