Recipe below: Fusilli with Swordfish, Eggplant, and Almonds
I’ve seen only one photo of Errico, my Sicilian grandfather, taken somewhere in Westchester I believe. If others exist, I wouldn’t know where to look for them. Errico, later Eric, who I’m named for, is a person I know little about. My mother and her sister never talk about him unless prodded, and even then I never get much. My aunt Pat, when I recently asked, referred to him as a “bandito.” That was the first time I heard that word used for him. I’d previously heard him described as a tap dancer, a pastry chef (he baked cassata for my mother’s birthdays), a bookie, or all three. My father mentioned that Errico had been in prison at some point. Once my mother had come home from school to find that police had ripped the phone from the wall (I learned this from my Dad, not from her). Aunt Pat said “he was involved in various things, on a low level.” He has no gravestone. I know because I looked.
That photo, which has somehow now disappeared, showed a young man, maybe mid-thirties, prominent nose, brown eyes, lanky build, dark skinned like a North African, and prematurely bald. He is standing to the side of a group of people I don’t recognize. He’s not smiling. I wonder if he knew then that he didn’t have many years left. My grandfather died in his forties. His wife, my grandmother, followed not long after. My mother and her sister lost their parents early, which is terrible. But they also, for some mysterious reason, decided to cut ties with their father’s family, a group that included, I believe, eight siblings. I recently learned that my great grandfather, Eric’s father, lived into the late 1970s, and not far from us. I can’t begin to understand this complete blackout. I know almost nothing about my Sicilian background. I sometimes let myself think about the ifs. If Errico had lived a long life, maybe, just maybe, I could have heard stories, cooked with him. My mother says he made spaghetti with lobster, and ravioli filled with ricotta and cinnamon, on Christmas Eve. Are you kidding me, and I missed this? If only my mother or aunt or someone had kept a door open, a phone call now and then, Christmas cards, I would have a more intimate connection to the island I’ve grown to love. But unfortunately it’s a place that remains almost as much a mystery as my mother’s ghostly family.
Tracing my grandfather’s roots has led nowhere. The more I grill my mother the pissier she gets, and I’ve been at her for forty years. I’m now at peace with this, kind of. I keep looking, no longer with names of distant relatives or clues to an ancestral town but with the island’s intricate food, which has a pull on me like no other. When I cook caponata or pasta con le sarde I see my grandfather’s Moorish good looks staring back at me. And I sometimes even feel his hand guiding me in the kitchen. I have no idea what his voice sounded like. A New York accent tinged with an Italian cadence, I assume. I think about that from time to time.
My extensive research into Sicilian cooking has revealed many alluring but at first thought and sometimes first taste odd flavor combinations. Sardines with fennel, anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, and saffron; sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon encasing a savory filling of lamb and pecorino; pumpkin with honey, vinegar, and mint. Eggplant and swordfish first struck me as an odd couple, but it makes perfect sense to Sicilians. It’s natural that cooks on the island would find a way to bring together two of its most traditional foods, and pasta is the perfect medium for softening the blow of those two seemingly dissonant ingredients landing on the same plate. I think the dish works beautifully. I’ve added almonds, another classic Sicilian product, one of many brought to the island by the Arabs. If you’ve never tasted the almonds grown in Noto, in southeastern Sicily, you really need to. I’ve always wondered why no almond I ever knew tasted like almond extract. Well, now I know it’s possible. (If you’re interested in tasting these extraordinary almonds, you can order them from www.gustiamo.com, as I did for this pasta.)
I make variations on this swordfish and eggplant theme often, and I’ve grown to love it. While cooking this particular version I fantasized about having a conversation with Errico, asking what he thought of the eggplant I chose, the texture of the fish. Is there enough sauce, too much? Does it taste real? Maybe he would have left out the mint, and just gone with basil alone. I’ll never know.
Fusilli with Swordfish, Eggplant, and Almonds
(Serves 4 to 6)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, cut into small dice
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, cut into cubes, partially skinned
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 allspice berries, crushed to a powder
About 20 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 splashes of red vermouth
1 pound fusilli
1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into cubes
A big pinch of sugar
About 5 large sprigs of mint, lightly chopped
About a dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped
A handful of blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil.
In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the eggplant and the shallot, and sauté until the eggplant starts to soften, stirring it every so often, for about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt, allspice, and black pepper, and continue cooking until the eggplant is lightly browned and just tender, about another 4 minutes.
Add the cherry tomatoes, and sauté until they just start to give off juice, about 4 minutes longer. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it bubble for a few second. Turn off the heat.
Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water, and drop in the fusilli.
In a smaller sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Season the swordfish with salt and the sugar. Add the swordfish to the smaller pan, and cook quickly, just until tender, about 3 minutes or so. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it bubble a few seconds. Add the swordfish to the eggplant, and give it a stir.
When the fusilli is al dente, pour it into a large serving bowl, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water. Add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, the mint, and the basil, and toss quickly. Add the swordfish sauce and enough pasta cooking water to allow the sauce to lightly coat the pasta. Toss again, tasting for seasoning. Garnish with the toasted almonds.