World Chefs: Lanza savors return to family school in Sicily

NEW YORK Tue Dec 4, 2012 6:16am EST

NEW YORK Dec 4 (Reuters) - For Fabrizia Lanza, the author of the new cookbook "Coming Home to Sicily," preparing meals is not just about recipes but also about gestures and a way of life.

"It's the way you put yourself in front of the table, how you add the water," said Lanza, who returned to Case Vecchie, her family's cooking school in Sicily, after years as an art historian in northern Italy.

"It's living according to a very natural rhythm."

Her cookbook contains 100 family recipes from the school, which is situated on one of the island's oldest estates. Guests, amateurs and top chefs alike, are encouraged to harvest the vegetables and observe the cheese-making even as they learn to cook in the Sicilian manner.

Lanza, who joined the business in 2006, spoke to Reuters about the pleasures of starting over, living off the land, and being blessed with "a good fork."

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: "I wanted to introduce myself to this world. My first career was as a museum curator and art historian, so I'm quite new to all of this. It's my way of seeing, of cooking, and my way of getting into coming back to Sicily."

Q: Why did you return to Sicily?

A: "I was doing this art business for many years and I was a bit fed up with living in the north (of Italy). I really wanted to eat a good salad and a good tomato and I was bored with the grey sky ... I felt if I did not leave I would never leave. There are points in your life when you feel you can start again."

Q: How did you learn to cook?

A: "I think in Italy all of us have some basics. We've all spent time, in the kitchen. Italians talk continuously about food. I never really learned from my mother, nor did she learn from her mother. We were just around food all day long. It's another way of learning. It's not instructions and rules, but it's from your body."

Q: What do the people who visit your school find there?

A: "I offer mainly an experience. We make everything from scratch, including the bread. I get my flour from the local mill. I make my yogurt every morning. Everything is done there and it's done as it's always been done. We grow everything. The lamb is from there, the cheese is from there. It's living off the land and also having a cultural understanding of why this wheat is grown here instead of there, and why is this vinegar made this way?"

Q: How does Sicilian cuisine differ from the rest of Italy?

A: "Sicily has different ingredients because we have different vegetables. Sicily is really diverse, with an amazing variety of landscapes, of terroir, of soil. Few foreigners realize that. We have this small island, so you think well that's it, but when you travel to Sicily you realize how different the food and cultures are."

Q: Is there a typical Sicilian ingredient?

A: "A very special ingredient is wild fennel. It's not the domestic fennel you grow in vegetable gardens. It's a wild version that grows in the mountains. I've seen it growing here (in the United States) only in California."

Q: Does your art history experience inform your life at the cooking school?

A: "This is one of the wonders of life: that nothing was wasted. The art historian comes up all the time in my life. (Coming home) I was overwhelmed by the pleasure, the beauty, how much I had missed. I was captured by the freshness of tradition and the stories behind the food."

Q: What do the Italians mean when they say someone has "a good fork?"

A: "'Una buona forchetta' is an Italian saying -- a good fork. It is a small title that my grandfather used to give when he saw someone eating with pleasure."

Cherry Peppers Stuffed with Tuna (serves six to eight)

1 pound cherry peppers

1 cup white wine

1 cup white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

5 whole cloves

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh

Two (5-ounce) cans oil-packed tuna, not drained

12 green olives, pitted and chopped

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped

2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

Cut the tops off the cherry peppers and carefully remove the seeds. Wash and set on a towel to dry.

Combine the wine, vinegar, sugar, garlic, cloves, and bay leaves in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then add the peppers. Reduce the heat and cook, covered, until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain (discard the cooking liquid and spices) and cool.

With a fork, mash together the tuna, olives, capers, and anchovies. Stuff the cooled peppers with the tuna mixture. (Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney)