Here is a dish, chicken meatballs, that pays homage to the lost Jewish heritage of Sicily. In the Middle Ages, the vibrant merchant posts of southern Italy and Sicily were part of the Spanish Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Jewish merchants lived there, trading, studying Torah and complaining about the humidity. These Jews traded with Arab and North African neighbors, adopting elements of their cuisines.
But in 1492, while Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, Spain instituted its famous Inquisition, forcing all Jews in its empire to convert to Christianity or leave. Nowadays, there are few Jews in Sicily, but there is a sense among many Sicilians that they’re Jew-ish. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sicily, and have met too many look-alikes of my Jewish friends to chalk it up to coincidence. Several Sicilians have told me that they know they’re ancestrally Jewish, even if they have no proof. Time to order some genetic testing kits, ragazzi!
Regardless, the Jews of Sicily, via their Arab trading partners, have left their mark on Italian food. The combination of raisins and capers, the salty jewel of Sicilian gastronomy, is emblematic of its Jewish roots. And, although to my knowledge nobody in Sicily makes meatballs out of chicken, in my American-Ashkenazi mind, using chicken makes them that much more Jewish.
These meatballs can make wonderful appetizers as well. I like to serve them with a caramelized onion jam. They’re delicious right out the pan, at room temperature or as cold leftovers. But be warned: You may find it very difficult to stop eating this highly addictive “Chicken crack.”
SICILIAN JEWISH MEATBALLS WITH CARAMELIZED ONION AND FENNEL JAM
Use capers from Sicily and only dark-meat chicken.
For the meatballs:
2 pounds ground dark-meat chicken (don’t substitute white meat)
1 yellow onion, quartered
1 bunch Italian, flat-leaf parsley
2 handfuls dark raisins, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes
2 heaping tablespoons capers in salt from Sicily (Capperi di Salina or Capperi di Pantelleria)*
1 teaspoon salt
40-60 grinds of pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Microgreens, for garnish, optional
Pomegranate seeds, for garnish, optional
*Available at select Italian gourmet shops such as Bay Cities in Los Angeles, or online on the Amazon shop at MealandaSpiel.com
Allow chicken to come to room temperature and place in a mixing bowl.
Add quartered onion to food processor and pulse into very finely chopped pieces, careful not to turn into a puree. Add to chicken.
Add parsley to food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add to chicken.
Drain raisins, add to food processor and pulse until finely chopped and partially pureed. Add it to chicken.
Rinse capers and dry. Finely chop them with a knife until some of them are almost a “powder” and some of them are chunkier. Add to chicken.
Throw in the teaspoon of salt and mix the chicken with your hands until it is completely amalgamated. (You can do this in advance and refrigerate, but bring it to room temperature before cooking.)
Heat a pan over medium/medium high heat for about five minutes. In the meantime, form 1-inch meatballs (I like a rustic look — not perfectly rounded. I think they taste better.)
Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and carefully drop in a first batch of meatballs, making sure they don’t touch one another.
Cook on each side about 3-5 minutes, or until just cooked on the inside and well browned on the outside. Remove from the pan and set on a paper towel to drain. Add more oil to the pan and continue to form more meatballs.
Plate the meatballs and top with a touch of onion jam. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and microgreens, if desired.
For the caramelized onion jam:
About 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or duck fat
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced into rounds and then cut in half
About 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Heat a saute pan over medium to medium high heat for about 5 minutes. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, followed by the sliced onions and the fennel seeds. Cook onions until they get quite brown and maybe a tiny bit burned, about 20 minutes, depending on the level of heat.
Add balsamic vinegar and cook for a final minute or two.
Add ingredients to a food processor, and puree.
Makes about 25 1-inch meatballs.
This recipe is an excerpt from Elana Horwich’s book “Meal and a Spiel,” which will be in print this fall. Horwich is the founder of the Meal and a Spiel cooking school and Jewish Journal blogger. Visit MealandaSpiel.com