It was the most memorable lunch on a cruise ship in my three decades of lecturing on cruise ships. It was especially so because quite a few passengers took one look at what was being grilled in the open air and ran not-quite-screaming to the familiar indoor lunch buffet.
Somehow, while the ship had been docked on Sicily (near stylish Taormina and its towering Mt. Etna, I recall), someone had hooked a huge black swordfish. The fish in my memory is 10 or 12 or 14 feet long, but it must in real life have been at least eight. And now the chef, presumably after keeping it safe to eat all night in his massive walk-in cooler, had the fish displayed whole-with-head-and-sword on a board stretched between two overworked sawhorses beside a charcoal grill.
Each time a passenger dared to walk up and say “yes to swordfish,” the chef sliced out a glistening steak with a very large knife, coated the piece with lots of olive oil and tossed it onto the grill. I, of course, had to try it – it was incredible. But I heard many a passenger declare the sight “disgusting” and “gross,” thus confirming for me once again that we the people love to eat meat but hate to eat animals.
You probably won’t find a swordfish lying on a board held aloft by sawhorses at your supermarket. But you certainly can take the swordfish you DO find – cut into steaks out of sight, as though by magic – and celebrate Sicily’s special relationship with this fish. And you can do so by outfitting it with the traditional (and authentic) ingredients that link Sicilian cooking more profoundly to Greece and North Africa than to any part of Italy north of, say, Naples.
Sicily was founded as a colony of Greater Greece, most often called Trinakria because the island resembles a triangle. Long after such glory days, and according to Sicilians long after the Romans had stolen anything worth stealing, the island had succumbed to Saracen (Arab/Muslim) rule. To this day, any Sicilian dish named “a la Trapanese” not only hails from the town of Trapani but probably shows up not with pasta but with couscous.
Another surefire sign of Saracen domination is the huge role played by citrus. The invaders brought citrus trees from Africa onto what we consider European soil, to Sicily bigtime and of course to Spain. The fact that Spanish explorers thereafter planted oranges, lemons and limes in the New World – think long-Spanish California and Florida pre-Anita Bryant – only connects more dots of conquest and immigration in an intriguing way.
The bottom line for cooks: if your Sicilian food tastes just like your Italian food, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Sicilian flavors pop off the plate thanks to citrus. They often have olives (of which Greek kalamata are probably the best you can find easily, appropriately), raisins and/or currants, and a final sprinkle of pinenuts.
Sicilians even serve a swordfish stew made with the same “salsa” we make in this week’s recipe. That’s all well and good. Yet everyone loves grilled swordfish, going back to the chef with the grill beside the ship’s swimming pool all those years ago. That day at lunch, we could see Sicily fading beneath the sea’s horizon. On the other hand, the true melting-pot flavors of Sicily will never fade.
SICILIAN GRILLED SWORDFISH
This particular Mom’s sauce tastes like it’s most of the way to Sicily as soon as you open the jar. Still, the addition of golden raisins, olives and eventually pinenuts adds an exotic element that reminds us what happens when tastes we think of as “Italian” are actually more Greek and North African. And swordfish is especially popular in and around Sicily, mainly because it’s conveniently swimming nearby.
1 cup Mom’s brand Spaghetti Sauce with Whole Garlic & Basil Leaves
¼ cup golden raisins
½ cup sliced kalamata or similar olives
1 orange, cut in wedges
4 swordfish steaks
Salt and black pepper
Crushed red pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup pinenuts
Roasted new potatoes
Heat grill or stovetop grill pan to high. In a mixing bowl, combine the Mom’s sauce with the raisins and olives. Squeeze 1-2 orange wedges into the sauce and toss quickly. Season the swordfish steaks with salt, pepper and lemon pepper, plus crushed red pepper if using. Brush with olive oil. Grill the swordfish until medium rate, 5-6 minutes, turning once or twice for grill marks. Squeeze another 1-2 orange wedges on fish while it’s cooking. Serve swordfish with roasted potatoes, spooning the tomato-olive sauce over the top. Decorate with remaining orange wedges. Sprinkle with pinenuts and serve immediately. Serves 4.