I spent last week in Palermo, Sicily. Though I’m not Sicilian myself, I grew up in a part of America whose local cuisine was heavily influenced by all the Italian and Sicilian immigrants who came to Philadelphia about 100 years ago. Ever since I left, I’ve been finding it hard to cope with the lack of the Italian-American foods I grew up with – good pizza, baked ricotta, burrata (though now it’s getting more common), and cannolis*. Cannolis… So I was very excited to try the original versions of all my favorite foods. Perhaps they would be even better. And let me tell you: they were. The city itself is another story. I landed on Friday afternoon, and after spending three times as long in the train as I should have, it was Friday night. The streets were filled to the brim with people. Streams of jalopies – with one person hanging out each window – careened around the corners of busy intersections whose traffic signals consisted only of four blinking white lights. I met some Italian friends, and they showed me the epicenter of it all – a series of alleys between via Roma and the sea. It was amazing. Everyone was on the streets – I could hardly squeeze by. There were some bars with storefronts, but others only had a folding table. And here and there, there was a old-fashioned acoustic jazz band. Hoards of people sat in plastic lawn chairs sipping from disposable plastic cups, and everywhere there were foosball tables. Surrounding all this commotion, the city was in ruins. There is not enough money there to build new buildings or repair the ancient ones that have been crumbling since World War II. And so the vibrant life of Palermo continues to fill up its beautiful ruins. Amongst all the bars, were men grilling sardines, anchovies, and baby squid for a late night snack.
I brought back some cheese: burrata, ricotta, and ricotta al forno (baked ricotta). I think it soured a bit being out of the fridge, and it definitely got a bit squished, but it’s still delicious, and it still needs something to be put on. So I decided to try to make some grape focaccia, and it was perfect for the cheese. It turns out that the word ‘focaccia’ – at least in Palermo – does not refer to a kind of bread, but it must mean something like ‘sandwich’. We went to the only focacceria in town (which I would not recommend – bad service & bland food). My friend got the veal spleen focaccia, and I got the tomato, mozzarella, and anchovy focaccia. His came in a hamburger roll, and mine came in a split slice of un-topped pizza. But I’m going to take advantage of this focaccia-liberalism and make exactly the kind that I want. I tried Jim Lahey’s focaccia recipe from his book, My Bread. His recipe for pizza dough is of course amazing – the best homemade crust and the easiest homemade crust. The focaccia was very good, but not as delicious or easy as his pizza. Next time, I think I’ll use his pizza recipe (see Smitten Kitchen’s Lazy Pizza Dough if you want to do that). You can, of course, put whatever toppings you want on the focaccia, but I think it’s important to use blue grapes instead of the basic white or red grapes. They’re too watery to really turn out well when baked, whereas the blue grapes behave more like berries.
Grape, Olive & Rosemary Focaccia with Ricotta
- 1/2 cup (100 g) peeled, cubed Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1 1/4 cup (300 g) cool water
- 2 1/4 cups (300 g) bread flour
- 1 1/4 tsp (5 g) yeast
- 1/2 tsp (2 g) sugar
- 3/4 tsp (5 g) salt
- 1 bunch Concord, Sable, or other blue grapes
- handful Kalamata or other olives, minced
- leaves from 1 branch fresh rosemary
- olive oil
- rosemary or other salt
- ricotta cheese
- Boil the potatoes and water until the potatoes fall apart when pierced. Puree the potatoes and the water together.
- Mix together the flour, yeast, sugar and 3/4 tsp salt in a large bowl, and when the potato mixture is no longer hot, but still warm, add it to the dry ingredients. Mix it in with your hands or a wooden spoon until the it has the consistency of mashed potatoes. You may need to add a bit more warm water.
- Cover the bowl loosely and let rise in a warm place until it has tripled in volume, about 2-3 hours.
- Oil a cookie sheet, dump the dough onto the sheet, and oil the dough. Gently spread the dough out over the sheet.
- Let rise until doubled in height, about 45 minutes – 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
- Stud the dough with the grapes, and sprinkle it with the olives, rosemary, and salt to taste. Drizzle with more olive oil.
- Bake for 30-45 minutes until nicely browned.
- When it’s cool enough to touch, tear off a piece, put some ricotta on there, and eat it!