Recipe: Fennel and Fava Salad with Piacentinu Cheese
You know how you can discover a new food and it fascinates you even before you taste it? Bresaola was one of those foods for me. Cardoons were another. Piacentinu is a third.
Piacentinu is a cheese I discovered during my first trip to Sicily, about 12 years ago. It’s a very old and unusual-tasting cheese, dating probably back to medieval times. It’s a Sicilian pecorino from the inland area around Enna. Much like the island’s pepato, Piacentinu is studded with black peppercorns, but unlike pepato it’s infused with saffron, which gives it a beautiful golden color and a taste that might be what you’d call acquired. I’ve now acquired it. At first I wasn’t so sure. I was fascinated with its color, so I tasted it. This may have been in the fabulous city of Trapani. I was overwhelmed by its beauty—both the cheese and the city’s—and when I got home I tracked down Piancentinu in Manhattan, bought a hunk, and tasted it again. I found it strange, almost medicinal, but I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to taste it again, to keep tasting it. I’m not sure why, exactly. Something was telling me I loved this cheese but just didn’t know it yet.
Saffron is a spice I really had to learn to cook with. It has an alluring bitter edge, which can become less alluring when heated too long, or if you use too much, but in good hands (the hands I now have) it produces an exotic, bittersweet perfume. I believe Piacentinu cheese came into being at a time when saffron, like black pepper, was a sign of wealth and so was an extravagance. The fact that the cheese held on as most heavily spiced foods fell from favor in Sicily is a testament to what I now find to be its lovely flavor. That flavor, like other slightly bitter tastes that punctuate some Southern Italian foods, such as that of Amaro, is something I’ve worked to love. Now I even crave it.
It took me a while to come up with good flavor pairings for Piacentinu, but I finally found them. When I started thinking Arab, it all came together. Piacentinu, I discovered, tastes incredibly good with dates. It’s also wonderful with a glass of good dry Marsala. It marries well with sweet or slightly bitter fruits such as figs or pears, but maybe not so well with acidic ones like green grapes. To my palate it’s a little too rich to match with salumi products like soppressata. When I was looking for ways to incorporate it into a fully composed dish, I thought about some of the classic Sicilian cooking that includes saffron, and I finally hit on what I think is a right-on match for this unusual cheese: fennel. Saffron and fennel are often paired in Western Sicilian dishes, as they are in neighboring North Africa. Think of pasta con le sarde, with its mix of fennel, saffron, raisins, and pine nuts, and Sicily’s version of couscous, usually a fish concoction scented with fennel, bay leaf, and saffron.
I decided to include Piacentinu in a raw fennel salad, and I was extremely happy with the opulent results. I added pine nuts because Sicilians love pine nuts. And since it’s springtime, I threw in a handful of fresh fava beans and a little watercress. I hope you’ll like the salad, too. It is, I think, I nice way to coax your palate into spring, and a good way to make your acquaintance with Piacentinu.
Sicilian Piacentinu, flavored with saffron and black pepper.
Fennel and Fava Salad with Piacentinu
1 pound fava beans, in their pods
1 small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced, plus a few fronds reserved for garnish
About ¼ a red onion, very thinly sliced
A small bunch of watercress, the thick stems trimmed
A palmful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
About 10 big shavings of Piacentinu cheese
The juice from ½ a small lemon
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Shell the fava beans. Set up a small pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the fava beans, and blanch them for two minutes. Drain them, and then run cold water over them to stop the cooking. Now pierce the skin of each bean with your nail, and pop the bean out. The skins should slip off easily. Now you’ll have a nice pile of tender, smooth bright green fava beans.
In a small salad bowl combine the fava beans, fennel, red onion, watercress, pine nuts, and Piacentinu. Mix the lemon juice with the olive oil, and season it with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the salad, and toss gently. Garnish with the fennel fronds. Serve right away.