Inspector Montalbano gets home at the end of a long day and he immediately looks for his dinner: he opens the fridge and utters a neigh of sheer joy. Adelina, his housekeeper, has prepared for him due sauri imperiali con la cipollata, a dinner with which he is sure he will spend the night quarreling (meaning, he will have difficulty digesting), but totally worth it. I am not sure what kind of fish a sauro imperiale is1, but, based on the name, I can imagine it is not a small one, and Montalbano eats two of them, with a side dish of onions. As his usual, when the weather allows it, Montalbano eats on the veranda of his house, overlooking the beach, and he does a fine job: he polishes off the plate and leaves behind only the fish heads and bones.
This episode occurs in the novel La Gita a Tindari (Excursion to Tindari), where Montalbano, besides solving the mystery of sundry murders, schemes to prevent his second in command, Mimì Augello, to move away from Vigata.
I love cipolle (onions), so making cipollata was a temptation I could not resist. I know that the neigh of sheer joy Montalbano uttered was inspired more by the fish than by the onions, but the farmers' market has these big, fresh onions that are difficult to resist and make me neigh with joy (not to worry: I am saying this metaphorically). I looked at the usual web site with recipes from the Montalbano novels and found one for cipollata. As a side note, I knew cipollata to be an onion and tomato soup, an indication that the name describes different dishes in different parts of Italy. In the tradition of agrodolce dishes like caponata, (i.e., dishes that include both sweet and sour ingredients), the given version of cipollata uses vinegar and sugar. The recipe, however, does not give a sense of what the result should be in terms of texture, because it does not specify the cooking time. I decided I would add less vinegar than indicated, and when it was time to add the sugar, I added fresh herbs from my garden.
The pleasure I derive from eating a dish made entirely of cipolle comes from the fact that my mother uses onions only as an ingredient of soffritto (the base of a lot of Italian dishes: minced onions and other herbs slowly fried in oil or butter), never by themselves and never raw. I was almost 17 years old the first time I ate raw onion: cipolla rossa di Tropea (a very sweet variety of red onion grown in a seaside town of Calabria) used as seasoning for boiled snap beans.
Back to cipollata, I will describe what I will do when I make it again, because when I made it yesterday I cooked it for a shorter time, then put it back on the stove, because I decided that I wanted a soft texture. Slice two pounds of onions and cook them in a pan, uncovered, with half a cup of water for about 45 minutes (25 or so, if you want the onions on the crunchy side, in which case you should add less water at the beginning). Add one or two tablespoons of olive oil, stir well and cook for 5 minutes, then add two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and cook about 5 minutes, until it evaporates. Turn off the heat and finish off the dish with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and with a tablespoon of maggiorana (marjoram) and two tablespoons of prezzemolo (parsley), both fresh and chopped together.
In this novel, Montalbano deals with an old mafia don and the cruel ways of modern organized crime. This takes a toll on his emotional life. Eating good food is the way he uses to reconnect to the basic elements of life. I don't solve mysteries for a living, but sometimes things get tense, crowded, unpleasant for me too. Cooking is the way I use to reconnect to the basic elements of my life and the smile on the face of the people at the table (my husband and our friends) is a precious gift. I wish Adelina could see the smile on Montalbano's face when he eats what she cooks for him.
1 Giovanna kindly tells me in her comment that a sauro is roughly the size of a mackerel (Scomber scombrus).
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the cipollata audio file [mp3].
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