During a recent tour through Sicily, we visited a most interesting archeological site on a large estate in the southwestern city of Agrigento.
This splendid archaeological park consists of eight ancient Greek temples (and various other remains) built between about 510 BC and 430 BC, and includes the monumental Temple of Concordia, one of the most intact Greek temples anywhere. It was absolutely breathtaking.
While there, I observed a Sicilian native eating a plate of red, ripe, juicy tomatoes. I immediately had a craving for tomatoes that I just couldn't shake off. I couldn't wait to get back to where we were staying and convince our hostess at the Villa Mandranova to make me something with tomatoes. After all, tomatoes are ubiquitous all over southern Italy and Sicily. One would think that Italians have been cooking with tomatoes since the beginning of time. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The tomato is native to South and Central America. Native versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit. The late 18th century in Italy gives
the first recorded evidence of tomato sauces and preserved tomato pastes. In the 19th century, in the south and especially Naples leading the way, comes pasta al Pomodoro (with tomatoes), along with the now familiar pizza Margherita.
Italians started growing tomatoes as early as 1550, as well as other European countries which considered them only as ornamentals. It was the Italian physician and botanist, Pietro Mattioli, who first coined the term Pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato (pomo meaning apple, and d'oro meaning of gold). The golden apple. He also came to the conclusion that it had aphrodisiacal properties.
Despite their appeal, it still took 200 years for the Italians to start using tomatoes in their cuisine. And was only at the beginning of the 20th century that tomatoes started being widely used regularly in Italian kitchens.
When we returned to the villa, constructed from the first railroad station in the area, I asked Silvia, the owner, as we strolled through the ancient, verdant olive groves, if she could show my group how to prepare a dish incorporating tomatoes. Silvia is well known in the area for producing her own olive oil and olive oil-based products, as well as products made from her organic almond grove. Moreover, she is a marvelous cook.
Sylvia also gives cooking classes and put one together for us. She did not consider herself a chef, just a simple cook and her husband told me not to let her know that I was a chef, as it would make her nervous. Funny thing is however, that she could probably run circles around most chefs I know in town, including myself.
Everything Silvia created with us that evening for the class reflected both the freshness of her ingredients and the simplicity of Sicilian cooking.
The majority of some of the best dishes in Sicilian the repertoire are based on only a few simple ingredients. However, the catch is that all of the ingredients have to be at their peak of freshness and of the highest quality.
While there, our group learned a lot about Sicilian culture and food thanks to Silvia. Of all the dishes that were shown to us, my favorite was not only the simplest, but it also satiated my craving. Silvia showed our group something my mom and dad would prepare at home when I was a child, and which is also a dish that I prepare at my restaurant as an appetizer or as an accompaniment to dinner -- savory stuffed tomatoes.
She did a stupendous job of preparing them with us. I became so excited when preparing and devouring them, I had trouble falling asleep.
I wasn't quite sure whether the excitement came from savoring their incredible flavor, or due to the above mentioned conclusion of Pietro Mattioli.
Stuffed Tomatoes Mandranova
4 ripe Roma tomatoes
1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, homemade or panko
1/2 cup of Parmigiano cheese coarsely grated
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs, such as Italian parsley, mint, or basil
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small clove of garlic chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste
Set oven temperature to 375 degrees.
Cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds and pulp. Mix all other ingredients together, adding extra olive oil as necessary to keep mixture moist. As with most dishes of this nature, start with the basic amounts, then modify to your personal taste. After mixing well, stuff each tomato half. Rub a little olive oil on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes or until tops are golden. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 8.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, can be reached at email@example.com.