Sicilian Broccoli Triangles, and on Cooking without Recipes

Today’s harvest: Broccoli, Spinach, Chard, Wild Herbs, Romaine lettuce, Fennel, Olives, Almonds, Walnuts.

Two things I can surely say about italian cooking: People love to eat according to it because it’s good, and people love to cook according to it because it’s simple.

I always found it funny how Americans follow every recipe to a tee. When I went to Whisk and saw measuring spoons for ‘dash’, ‘pinch’ and things like that, I almost had the urge to buy it so that I could make some genuine fun of these tools with my Italian fellows. But at the end of the day it’s just another way of cooking (and, more often than not, you will need to follow a recipe strictly if you want to get some good results).

Most Italians know that if a recipe calls for pasta, tomatoes, garlic, oil and salt, then, well, they’ll boil some pasta, eye the quantity of oil in the pan, and pretty much guess how much salt they’d like. Even my friends who aren’t great cooks can produce satisfying results by just eyeing everything. That’s the way we were taught to cook.

So, a crucial part of cooking italian food is learning to smell, taste and guess right along the way. There’s really no rocket science here (unless you’re baking), and these triangles are a perfect example of this italian cooking principle.With today’s recipe, I’d like to give a little lesson on cooking without a recipe.

Let’s play this game: I will only indicate the quantities that you really can’t guess, and you’ll have to eye the rest. Play along and learn something!

Before getting to the actual recipe, here’s a few pointers for cooking without a recipe:

Know a very good cook? Look at what they’re doing! ask questions and look at what their ‘pinches’ and ‘dashes’ look like.

Smell: Constantly. Smell. That. Pot! GOLDEN RULE! I learned this from a chef and she couldn’t be more right. At first it will feel like you’re just some idiot smelling things that do not really make sense, but you’ll get used to it and things will change. If you are close to experienced cooks, smell their pots as well.

Taste: It is always a good idea to start with less flavorings and add more along the way if you’re not satisfied. After a bit of practice, Chances are you’ll be tasting much less often. Check for salt only at the end! You can never be sure of saltiness unless whatever you’re cooking is fully cooked/developed/reduced. Make sure you don’t burn your tongue, or you could have a distorted perception of saltiness.

Consistency: The recipe says to cook it for 10 minutes, but it doesn’t look like it’s done? Well, cook it more. The recipe says the cake will be ready in 40 minutes, but at 30 it looks like it’s already about to be overbaked? Turn off that oven. The sauce is too liquid? Add a tad more thickener, or cook it down more. Trust yourself. Each kitchen is different and recipes could work differently for different people. This is why it’s always best to know the science behind cooking rather than just sticking to a recipe.

Ask yourself: Why? What causes cakes to rise? What causes sugar to caramel? Ask yourself questions and go look for answers. Knowing the general rule will prepare you for customization.

Can I substitute this? This might be a tricky one, but chances are that if the ingredient you want to substitute has the same consistency and depth of flavor, well, go for it. Can you substitute greek yogurt for cream cheese? I don’t see why not, since they have the same consistency and work well flavor-wise. Can you substitute coconut oil for butter? Yes, because the consistency is the same. Flavor will change, but that won’t compromise the end result. Can you substitute shrimp for meat in the stuffing for mushroom truffle ravioli? well, I’m not so sure that would work well flavor wise. And so on. Don’t be scared to fail. Think logically.

Don’t be scared to fail! This is really a life rule in general. The most common mistakes inexperienced cooks do is being too shy with condiments or ingredients. If you get it wrong, whatever: next time it will be better. And it surely will.

Today’s recipe takes advantage of the amazing harvest we’re having these days. Our broccoli are the most gorgeous vegetables I have ever seen and tasted. Too bad I can’t say the same about almonds and olives: if almonds were scarce this year, olives are a complete disaster. Almost every single olive of every single trees in the area has worms in them. Alas, these are the negative sides of organic farming. This year’s oil will be slightly more acidic.
Harvest aside, these Sicilian inspired triangles were born by just pulling some random jars out of the fridge, and it’s something everybody would be able to put together with no recipe at all. I used our gorgeous broccoli as a base, then built up from there. Broccoli go wonderfully with tomatoes and they are present in many sicilian recipes, so I added olives, dried tomatoes and capers for some umami.

triangles olives capers Sicilian broccoli pesto phyllo triangles

triangles olives capers Sicilian broccoli pesto phyllo triangles

A thing many Italians don’t consider (and that’s very wrong) are spices. Sicily, thanks to the influences of Morocco and North Africa, always had access to many spices that have been used much less in the rest of Italy. The smell, the aroma of those spices! They make me think of bright walls, the beaten roads and barren earth of that land that is so down south that it almost feels like another world.
Here I use a mix of spices that not many italians know, but that it has been used in many traditional recipes from years ago: La Saporita. This mix is not easy to find, and I only stumbled on it by chance in the amazing spice shop I buy ingredients from. I included the list of ingredients so you can make your own. This mix is used in traditional Sardinian baked goods, in meat sauces from Marche, and more.

This recipe is vegan and quite healthy: olive oil packs some amazing nutrients – just make sure you don’t heat it too much. Spices are full of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, and they should be a staple in our diet. If you steam the broccoli and stir fry it very quickly, like in a wok, they won’t lose too mmuch of their beneficial properties. Finally, phyllo dough is amongst the best pastries out there, as it is not too calorific and you could choose to use more water and less oil to brush it, to reduce calories a bit more.

I have only seen, smelled and lived Sicily through the eyes of my father, who has been there in his two years in the army.
This is the heat and brightness I imagined as he spoke, a welcomed interim in the cold of late autumn.

Sicilian Inspired Broccoli Triangles
Makes 6

6 strips of Phyllo pastry, cut into 2.5″ x 12″ strips
One medium head of broccoli
Several pinches of Saporita mix – recipe below
1 gram of Saffron powder*
Garlic, Olive oil, salt, for cooking the broccoli
Olive oil, the preserving oil of the tomatoes, and water, for brushing.
Almond slivers

For the Pesto**
3 dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil
6-7 capers, rinsed
A handful of brined Olives.

For the ‘Saporita’ mix
(NOTE: You can make this out of whole spices and grind them yourself. Toast them in a pan preheated over medium-high eat, until they release their aroma. It is better to toast each spice separately)
A teaspoon each of the following ground spices:
Coriander
Cinnamon
Caraway
Cloves
Nutmeg
Star Anise

* I understand that Saffron is very expensive, so if you don’t want to use it here, I’d substitute Turmeric, to be added to taste. I’d use at least a teaspoon.
**Try to look for italian-style jarred goods, which are usually preserved in olive oil (this is very important) and sometimes flavored with garlic and herbs. If you get jars with no flavorings, add a clove of garlic to the mix.

Trim and cut the broccoli into florets, then steam them until tender.

In the meantime, heat a good glug of olive oil (don’t be too shy) in a pan with a couple of fat crushed garlic cloves. You can also mince them if you like more garlic flavor. Make sure the cloves don’t color and the oil doesn’t sizzle too much, because we’ll have to re-use it. Drain the olives and fry them until flavorful (remove the pits if they’re not pitted, of course). Give them just a very quick stir fry, or they’ll turn bitter. Less than a minute is all you need. Keep the pan with the oil.

Prepare the spice mix by mixing all the spices together. Prepare the pesto as well: rinse the capers and drain the tomatoes, then chop everything to a fine paste along with the olives. Soak the Saffron powder in a tiny bit of water, if using.

When the broccoli is done, reheat the oil in the pan add them to the pan where you fried the olives. Add salt and several pinches of Saporita mix, to taste. If using Turmeric, add it now. Stir fry until everything is flavorful and coated with oil and spices. At the end of the process, the broccoli should be quite mushy. If using Saffron, add it now. Check for flavor, and adjust the amount of spices and salt to taste. Discard the garlic cloves if you used them crushed.

Preheat the oven to 180 C˚ (350 F˚).
Prepare your workspace: add the two oils and water mixture (all three in equal parts, I’d say) to a small cup, and take out your phyllo strips. If you have space, work with three at a time. Brush them with the oil mixture and add a teaspoon of the pesto, spreading it in the upper right corner. Add an abundant tablespoon of the broccoli mixture, and start folding. This video explains the process very well.
At the end, brush the triangles closed with the mixture again and sprinkle with almonds. Note that the almonds, if touching a wet surface, won’t burn in the oven.

Arrange them on a baking tray lined with paper, and bake until crispy and slightly browned. For me it took about 15 minutes, but keep an eye on them constantly, as they might take more or less. If they look ready, lightly touch them with your finger to check for crispiness.

Done! You could even sprinkle more spices on top, or serve them as is with a light soup and salad for lunch. They are great party food, as you could double or triple the quantities and serve them at a buffet. I find them to be good cold, as well.

Other shells, aside phyllo
You could use puff pastry or something similar, though it’s much more calorific than phyllo and I wouldn’t classify it as healthy. For more unhealthy option, you could use this filling with fresh pasta sheets, make triangles or ravioli and deep-fry them (!) though I would not recommend it. You could use some thin rolled bread or pizza dough and make sort of empanadas, which would also be delicious.

A non-vegan filling option
Try making a different filling with stir fried chard, spinach or herbs in garlic, ricotta and the Saporita mix. It’s delicious, and another easy crowd pleaser!
If you are a cheese kind of person, substitute the pesto for some smoked cheese, like smoked Scamorza or Provola. It goes really well with broccoli! In this case, reduce or omit the amount of spices.

More shapes for the phyllo dough
I love these little triangles, but phyllo dough is really versatile: you could try a skillet pie, cigars, parcels, or everything else you might fancy. Experiment and, most of all, have fun!

Sicilian broccoli pesto triangles

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