Ever noticed the narrative power food has in stories? Imagine a hero (or heroin) of a book or movie. There he is, almost too perfect to be true: is anyone of us even remotely like him? Now imagine him eating in a down-trodden bar, making coffee on a campfire or sitting in his own kitchen. Immediately the atmosphere becomes warmer, more human and homely. The food eaten or served itself can have a meaning by itself. A special sweet might indicate a need for affection, an excessive dinner the exuberance or self-indulgence of a character and so on. A book with no mention whatever about food still feels weird, I must admit (but then, I write a food blog), as if it lacked contact to real life. Probably that's the reason why enjoy so much books mixing crime and food. This might sound like an improbable combination, and has a somewhat sick side to itself, but it's full of examples out there. I have to admit that the crime writers that really rock my boat are those who bring the topic to an almost obsessive level: George Simenon and his Inspector Maigret, and his frequent bistro visits, and Manuel Vasquez Montalban and his character Pepe Carvalho, immersed in the aroma of Cataln cooking and preserved :-) in plenty of alcohol, are two favourites.
Apart these two, there's one Italian writer who I probably like even better and writes great crime stories laden of delicious Sicilian food references: Andrea Camilleri. Most of his books are centred on the figure of commissario Montalbano (chief inspector Montalbano) and the collection of amusing characters that make up his police district.
The books themselves are a very pleasant read: well written, full of ironic and smart observations and unmistakably Sicilian. Every now and then Camilleri's books also work as cooking inspiration. The arancine idea for the last IMBB came to me from the titles of one of his short stories. Last Friday, while reading "Il Colore della Notte" (the colour of the night), inspector Montalbano's last book, I stumbled across the description of a dish that captured my imagination: i perciati ch'abbrusciano or the perciati (a kind of long hollow pasta) that burn. The burning part is easily explained. The sauce (for one person) is made up of: oil, onion, two garlic cloves, two anchovies, a teaspoon of capers, black olives, half a chilli pepper, tomato, basil, black pepper and grated pecorino. Maybe a bit on the "strong" side of flavour but I was curious to know if it would be edible or not; would it really "burn"? Keeping in mind the book description of this dish as something better eaten alone, since everything else, eaten afterwards, would seem bland, I increased the pasta amount I would normally make for one person.
Daniela refused to try this so I made some just for myself. Did it burn? Well yes, though not as much as I thought. But it was good, surprisingly. I actually expected the dish to be a bit of a macho provocation but instead everything came together to produce a really powerful taste more than a violent one, the other ingredients almost taming the hot chilli. I'll cook this again. But maybe next time I'll wait till Daniela has to leave for a few days: she refused to kiss me saying I stank and blaming the sauce. Sissy.
i perciati ch'abbrusciano
120 g (4.2 oz) pirciati (bucatini, maccheroni or similar will do)
1 medium-small onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 salted anchovy filets
1 tsp small salted capers (if possible capperi di pantelleria from Sicily), rinsed to remove excess salt
8 black olives,pitted and halved
3-4 canned plum tomatoes, chopped (used for but maybe 3 is better)
half a hot dry chilli (according to what hot means to you, reduce or increase: the heat should be a main flavour component of the dish)
a few basil leaves, torn
freshly grated black pepper
2-3 Tbsp aged pecorino
Heat the oil in a pan. Add onion, chilli and garlic. Once they start to soften add the anchovies and let dissolve in the oil, helping a bit with a spoon if needed. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat till the sauce gently simmers. After 5 minutes add capers and olives. Continue cooking till the sauce thickens and the tomatoes stop tasting raw. Add basil and cook a further 2-3 minutes. Check salt. Meanwhile you'll have cooked the perciati al dente o(or keep the sauce warm while cooking the pasta). Toss the cooked got pasta with the sauce, pepper and cheese. Serve immediately and scoop up remaining sauce with bread.