Even in its Easter celebrations, Sicily is culturally and culinarily a world apart from every other square inch of Italy. The fact that so many impoverished Sicilians left the island for America gives us a false impression that the foods we grew up eating in “red sauce Italian” restaurants, from spaghetti and meatballs to pizza, are actually the foods of all Italy.
Fact is, we can never get more exotic, or unexpected, than celebrating Easter with authentic Sicilian flavors – this most important day on the entire Christian calendar welcomed with spices memorializing centuries of occupation by Arab Saracens. Who were, of course, Muslim.
Food is the ultimate melting pot. Over the centuries, populations leave their old lands and embrace new ones, old populations welcome (if not always with a smile or open arms) new immigrants. As I learned to say long ago in my melting-pot hometown of New Orleans, people jockey for position, argue, come to blows, roll around in the mud – and then marry each other’s sisters. All that has happened, most of it every other week, in the long history of Sicily – going back to original settlement by the ancient Greeks, who took one look at the island’s triangle shape and named it Trinakria.
The fact that the Christian world, when it showed up centuries later, figured those pagan Greeks somehow were thinking of the Holy Trinity only adds to the theological fun.
As elsewhere, Easter is a springtime celebration, just as Christmas is a winter one. And by this time of year, with the weather warming and blue skies replacing gray, nature is starting to awaken. Two of the most beloved gifts of nature, lamb and green peas, figure in many Sicilian Easter dishes – even if the final flavors seem far removed from the Easter of ham and decorated hard-boiled eggs in America.
Those flavors come from a host of sources specific to the Arab world, and even more precisely to the North Africa that Sicilians will assure you time and again is closer to them than Rome. Lemons and other citrus are profound legacies of the long occupation, along with such things as figs and the pine nuts known as pignoli.
Though some people’s taste buds reject the notion, one final bit of borrowing has to do with spices. The Arab world formed the lion’s share of ancient spice routes and conducted multinational and multilingual trade with spices as valuable currency. Cumin and paprika are familiar in many Arab savory dishes, but so are cinnamon and nutmeg. As in Morocco, biting into a savory dish in Sicily can be quite a surprise.
The result is a cuisine as layered and unexpected as any on earth – and, as with Sicilians themselves, a whole lot more complicated. If you and your family are not ready for an entire Easter menu of Sicilian favorites – though we all might try one someday – these puff pastry meat pies will give you a preview of the wonders still to come.
SICILIAN EASTER LAMB PIES
In addition to at least two springtime favorites, lamb and green peas, this suggestive dish combines the spices of a true cultural crossroads. There’s no question that centuries of occupation by Arab Saracens left their mark on Sicily, making sure the island lives, breathed and especially cooked unlike any other corner of Italy. Easter is one of Sicily’s favorite holidays.
1 sheet puff pastry
1/2 pound coarsely ground lamb
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced red bell pepper
¼ cup minced spring onion, white and green parts
2 tablespoons minced celery
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
¼ cup green peas
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cumin
½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Whole Lemon Fig Marmalade
1 egg, lightly beaten
Defrost the puff pastry. On a floured work surface, roll out puff pastry just big enough for 4 7-inch circles. Cut out circles, layer with parchment and refrigerate while making filling. Make the filling by thoroughly cooking the ground lamb in the olive oil. Stir in the garlic, bell pepper, onion, celery, pine nuts and peas, cooking until softened. Stir in the tomato paste and lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, lemon pepper, paprika and cumin. When mixture is heated, add the marmalade and stir until incorporated. Let mixture cool.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Remove puff pastry circles from the fridge. Divide filling evenly between the four circles. Fold circle in half, into a half moon shape. Using the tines of a fork, gently seal the edge together. Beat egg and brush on the tops of each hand pie. Bake on parchment lined baking sheet. Turn oven to 375 after putting pies in oven. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Serves 4.