I had one wine goal in mind for my trip to Sicily—to visit and hopefully cook with Arianna Occhipinti at her eponymous winery located in the foothills of the Iblean Mountains in southeastern Sicily.
I was elated when she agreed to meet with my husband Jeff and me to show us where her wines are from and to share her food culture. I wasn’t expecting to be gutting and deboning fresh sardines by hand (I really mean by hand, the little devils are so small you can’t use a knife), but if she could take time out of her busy work day (we pulled her away from cleaning the irrigation lines in an old orange grove), I was more than happy to deal with a few fish. Seriously, it’s no worse than all of the softshell crabs I’ve cleaned. I just don’t come across fresh sardines in Virginia on a daily basis.
As we sipped her SP68 white wine (a blend of Albanello and Zibibbo), I cleaned fish and cut onions. Arianna trimmed green beans, peeled baby potatoes, prepared pesto and explained how she likes to entertain--preferring to keep it simple so that she can concentrate on her guests, selecting ingredients from the bounty available in Sicily and showcasing both the food and recipes of the region and her childhood.
Born in Marsala on the western coast of Sicily, Arianna Occhipinti is in her early thirties, incredibly young to have risen to such international acclaim. Lithe and attractive with dark striking features, she is intense, charismatic and an extremely dedicated winemaker. A media phenom, she has received rave reviews from the New York Times and is widely recognized to be on the forefront of the natural wine movement. In fact, she has written an autobiography entitled Natural Woman.
Natural winemaking is not simply organic winemaking. It involves minimal treatments of the soil and plants (and then only with acceptable organic products). Instead of chemicals, beneficial plants are planted (or allowed to grow) between the rows of vines, and these plants either act to attract useful insects or are tilled into the soil at an optimal time to replenish the soil’s nutrients. There are many other elements to natural winemaking but they all have the aim of producing healthy untreated grapes to be made into wine, again, with as minimal intervention as possible. This process sounds simple, but it isn’t easy. As Arianna explained, the work in the fields and the meticulous cleaning needed to produce wines this way are labor intensive and exacting.
We cooked and nibbled on almonds from nearby Noto and a local Pecorino Pepato, a black pepper sheep’s milk cheese (after I finished cleaning the fish and my hands, of course). We were joined at lunch by Damiano Buscema, an attractive former sommelier who works with Arianna. It was a companionable atmosphere in the kitchen in her sundrenched corner of Sicily.
On the menu that day:
Pasta with Pesto Trapanese: an almond pesto made with tomato, basil, mint and Pecorino Pepato-–a recipe from Trapani near Marsala where Arianna was born.
Wine pairing: 2013 SP68 Rosso (a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola)
Sarde a Linguato: Sardines marinated in vinegar before being coated in finely ground whole wheat flour and fried in olive oil.
Green Beans, Baby Potatoes and Red Onion Salad: A salad with subtle simple, summer flavors.
Wine pairing: 2013 Occhipinti Frappato
Green Beans, Baby Potatoes and Red Onion Salad
I loved all of the food we prepared and each dish was a great example of Wine Table cooking with very few yet perfect ingredients prepared simply and served in a warm casual setting with good conversation and a great glass of wine. At this time of year, one trip to the farmer’s market will arm you with the produce needed to make this delicious salad.
Yield: Serves 4
Wine pairing: Occhipinti SP68 Rosso, Frappato or a light fruity red wine
One quart green beans (approximately half a pound), destemmed and cut in half
10 baby potatoes, peeled
2 small red onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup high-quality extra virgin olive oil
15 medium sized basil leaves
1-1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or dried wild oregano if you have it)
black pepper, freshly ground
What you’ll need:
A large sauce pan (at least 5 quarts)
A bowl large enough to hold all of the vegetables
Optional: A decorative serving bowl
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Cooling Time: 30 minutes
We cooked all of the vegetables for this dish in a single pot of boiling salted water. You may chose to cook the vegetables separately if you fear the vegetables will be cooked unevenly but I think the flavor is enhanced by cooking them together.
Place the potatoes and cold salted water in the large saucepan. You will need to add enough water to cover all of the vegetables since you will be adding the green beans and onions later. Bring the water and potatoes to a boil.
While the potatoes are cooking, mix the apple cider vinegar and olive oil together and set it aside.
Boil the potatoes until they can just be pierced with a sharp knife. You may wish to test a small piece. It should still be slightly al dente or crunchy when you bite it. Add the beans and the red onions. Cook until the beans are just tender. Do not overcook. You don’t want mushy vegetables. Remove the saucepan from the heat, strain the vegetables and pour them in your bowl.
Add enough of the vinegar and olive oil mixture to the vegetables to generously coat the vegetables. You may not need to use it all of it. Add oregano and black pepper and toss all the ingredients together. Taste for salt and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
Allow the salad to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so. Remove it from the refrigerator. If all of the oil mixture has been absorbed, add a little more to wet it. Just before serving, stir in the basil leaves and taste one more time to check the level of salt and pepper adding more if necessary.
Note: Arianna used dried wild oregano from her farm. I would too if I had wild oregano. She simply shook and tapped the bundle of oregano until she was satisfied with the amount that fell into the mixture. How’s that for measuring? I estimated the amount to be 1-1/2 teaspoon for the purposes of this recipe. Use either store-bought dried oregano or oregano you have dried yourself.