Let’s define frittata, and please, please, just pretend you don’t know anything about a frittata as you read this. It seems like every time the topic of frittata comes up (which is strangely often in my world) someone says something definitive about frittata that is just plain wrong (at least within the context of the Italian-from-Italy* frittata). It is not an omelette. It is not typically fluffy. It is not baked in the oven. The Italian frittata is a compact dish made of beaten eggs, grated cheese and some kind of filling, cooked together in a frying pan into a kind of egg tart or quiche.
*Italian-from-Italy meaning things as they actually are done in the country of Italy. Today. In 2018. Not in Italian restaurants (no matter how fervently reviewed on Yelp) in America or Germany or the UK or anywhere else that is not Italy. It does not include the cooking of your beloved grandmother/aunt/nonna/zia who left Italy decades ago. Maybe most of all it does not include anything said or written by a chef on TV with books to hawk, regardless of their national origin (with very VERY few exceptions).
Sicily, of course, has its own frittatas, with, as is often the case, one colorful name that refers to something completely different depending on where you are standing and to whom you are talking. In the coming posts I hope you’ll come to love the infuriating charm of Sicilian culture.
It might not be possible to talk about frittata without referring to an omelette for context. That’s fine, but what do you mean by omelette exactly?
- A French omelette is rolled more or less in thirds around a filling, making a tubular exterior of cooked egg surrounding an interior of filling and lightly scrambled eggs, leaving the exterior butter yellow.
- An American diner omelette starts out similar but is folded in half with the filling in the middle and browned on the outside.
Quick language lesson: in Sicilian, the letter R is not rolled. It most often behaves like the English “d,” so ri spàraci above is pronounced dee SHPAH-dah-zhee. #geek
First let’s talk about the the larger piscirova (peesh ee DOH vah). The Sicilian name comes from pisci r’ova (its Italian cognate would be “pesce d’uovo”) which means “fish made of egg.” Like many Sicilian food names, this is highly visual – a piscirova looks like a [yellow] trout. This piscirova combines the shape of the French omelette with a color and texture closer to the American diner omelette.
This kind of piscirova I’ve seen more in eastern Sicily, in Catania and in Siracusa.
The second variation is the smaller piscirova which is a smaller (4-ish inches or 10-ish centimeters) oval of beaten egg with some goodies mixed in and fried on both sides, sort of like an egg pancake (but without flour).
This kind of piscirova I’ve read about extensively but have only actually seen on the occasional antipasto buffet in western Sicily. I admit I’ve never made them – yet.
Finally, as with many things in Sicilian cooking, the Sicilian name piscirova and the Italian name frittata have come to be used interchangeably for the recognizably Italian frittata, even though the dish undoubtedly predates the use of the Italian name on the island. If there’s another traditional Sicilian word for this kind of round, flat frittata I would love to know it, so please share!
Asparagus is front and center today because this time of year Germany (where I live) is filthy with it, but any vegetable will make you a nice piscirova. I add a little scallion for flavor and to balance the herbaceous asparagus. Spring vegetables are especially nice: artichokes, peas, new onions and scallions all make excellent piscirovi.
Springtime in Palermo means la fritedda: a saute of the earliest artichokes, peas, favas and/or asparagus, with a little wild fennel if you can find it. It’s amazing and I will blog it soon. At my house there are never any leftovers of fritedda, but if you had some you could make a frittata out of it and call it frittata ri fritedda!!! #dadcookingjokes
Keep in mind, though, that Sicilian cooking rests on balance. The cuisine as a whole balances complex and simple dishes, and in turn each of those has its own balance to maintain. Piscirova is a simple dish by nature and not improved by forced complexity. A vegetable with an accent or a few similar but distinct tastes are held aloft by the neutral flavor of egg and enriched by the salty cheese. Some classic combinations I enjoy are:
- zucchini with mint or catmint (nepitella)
- onion with fresh basil
- artichoke with a slight hint of garlic
- two or three different salumi cut not too fine, maybe with some bits of provola or emmenthal (swiss cheese)
- scallion and parsley (a springtime Sicilian antipasto classic
And while preparing the fillings above are well worth the effort, I don’t think a better way of giving a second life to leftovers has ever been invented: veggie sides, a scant few cheese cubes, the last slice of ham; the leftover pasta frittata is a picnic classic.
I usually eat piscirova either lukewarm for lunch with some crusty bread or at room temperature as part of mixed antipasto (appetizer) platter (like the one that Lexi is stalking in the background). I often find myself eating a crusty roll with the last piece of frittata and some pickles stuffed in it, which might be my favorite way.
Drinking: Today we’re drinking a catarratto from Alessandro di Caporeale, Benedè.
It’s a delicious, everyday white wine that can be a little tough to track down, but all the wines from AdC are worth seeking out #fanboy. If you’re not familiar with catarratto it’s one of the most widely planted autochthonous (native) Sicilian varieties. It makes a straw-colored wine with almond- and citrus-blossom and white peach aromas. Catarratto is complex and racy but not overly challenging: it’s nothing if not drinkable. It’s been responsible for some bad bulk wine, but in the hands of a winemaker who cares it makes an extraordinary wine to pair with food, especially light seafood or fish dishes. Benedè – a 100% organic wine – has a list of awards as long as your arm and at under 10€ it’s a steal. No promotional consideration was given for this recommendation, it’s just an awesome wine and I wanted to tell you about it.
Piscirova ri Spàraci | Asparagus Frittata | Frittata d'Asparagi
A classic springtime frittata of asparagus and scallion.
- 1 pound-ish fresh green asparagus 400-500 grams
- 3-4 scallions large, or more if smaller
- 6-8 eggs depending on size and how tall you like your piscirova
- 1 handful grated pecorino cheese or grana/parmigiano about 30g or 1/3 cup
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- salt as needed
Prepare the vegetables
Wash the asparagus and scallions thoroughly and blot them dry with a clean cloth towel.
One by one, grab each asparagus stalk in one hand (your left hand if you are right-handed) with the tip pointed away from your other hand. The white, hard, fibrous end should be toward your other hand. Grab the very end of this with the tips of your thumb and index finger and gently bend the end until it breaks off naturally. Hopefully you broke it off right where the asparagus gets tough and fibrous (take a bite - you'll know right away). Vary your technique until you're breaking off just the fibrous bits and keeping every tender inch of asparagus for your dish.
Inspect the dark green end of the scallion for a point where it becomes dried out and/or fibrous. Cut the green part off at that point and discard. If the outermost layer of the white part is dry and/or damaged, peel off and discard. Cut off the fuzzy bottom end.
Cut the asparagus into 1 centimeter or 1/3 inch pieces, leaving the tips with a good amount of stalk attached. Roughly chop the scallions.
Make the frittata
Heat a 10"/ 25 cm nonstick or very well-seasoned steel pan over medium heat. Add the oil and the vegetables and a healthy pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the vegetables start to give off steam. Notice the smell of asparagus get markedly stronger as this happens.
Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the vegetables are nearly tender, about 15 minutes total. Continue to pay attention to the smell: if the pan dries out too quickly it may start to burn. If needed you can lower the heat a little and add a tablespoon of water to finish cooking the asparagus.
Meanwhile, break the eggs into a bowl and add the cheese. Using two forks held in one hand, beat the eggs with the cheese until combined. No additional salt is needed.
Uncover the pan and raise the heat slightly. Allow any remaining liquid to evaporate completely, until the vegetables begin to lightly brown.
(At this point, many recipes would advise you to let the vegetables cool and then add them to the egg mixture, mixing with the raw egg and then returning the entire mixture to the pan. Some people (myself included) skip this step and proceed directly as follows. I've never noticed any discernible difference.)
Add the eggs to the pan and stir them well, breaking up curds as they form and mixing them thoroughly with the vegetables for a minute or two, until there are set curds throughout the mixture. This step prevents the frittata from being fluffy.
Lower the heat to medium-low (or low if your stove runs hot) and cover the pan. Leave it to cook undisturbed for 10 minutes, always smelling to make sure everything is ok. Lower the heat if it you detect any burning.
After 10 minutes, uncover the pan. Ideally if you grab the handle and jerk it gently but firmly from side to side the frittata will move independently of the pan. If not, gently shake the pan and nudge the frittata with a wooden spoon until it plays along.
Now the magic act: Cover the pan with a clean plate face-down. Hold the plate down firmly while grasping the handle of the pan with the other hand. In one quick motion, invert the pan allowing the frittata to drop onto the plate. Gently slide the frittata back into the pan to continue cooking the other side. Cover the pan again and allow it to cook undisturbed for an additional 5-7 minutes.
If the above acrobatics stress you out, you can make the frittata in an ovenproof pan and instead of the previous step, place the pan under a preheated broiler for about two minutes or longer, until the top is cooked and nicely browned. But rest assured it is simper to do than to describe.
Poke a wooden spoon under the frittata to make sure it's browned nicely and cooked through on the bottom. You can invert it onto a serving plate or simply slide it out sideways, choose the side the looks nicest to face up.
You can serve the frittata hot or lukewarm or room temperature or cold, though not directly from the fridge (give it ten minutes to break the chill of the fridge before serving).
It makes an excellent appetizer by itself or as part of an assortment, or a simple main course with crusty bread and a flavorful salad. Any frittata is good as a sandwich filling or to take on a picnic.