Sicilians honor Santa Lucia, saint of light and, ironically, protector of sailors, each Dec. 13 with wheat in its most basic form. For they are also celebrating, according to Italian folkfore, a shipwreck and chain of events the saint set off, with the help of a dove, to save her hometown of Syracuse from famine.
Legend says that the townspeople, their storehouses and stomachs both empty, were praying in the cathedral to Santa Lucia when a dove flew in the window carrying a sheaf of wheat. They traced the source of the wheat to the nearby wreck of a cargo ship loaded with enough grain to fend off their starvation.
In their hungry eagerness they cooked the kernels whole, not bothering to grind them into flour. Thus, each year the Sicilians remember Santa Lucia by eating only whole grains -- no pasta, no breadsticks, just cooked whole wheat called cuccia (pronounced koo-CHEE-ya). In truth, though, cuccia is no simpler than making flour, because softening and swelling the grain requires two or three days of soaking and a night's rest in double layers of warm blankets after cooking.
Cuccia can be eaten for breakfast, tossed with olive oil and seasonings as a salad for dinner, or folded with sweetened ricotta, wine or custard for dessert. In Naples the whole wheat kernels are the filling for a pie. And for Mimetta LoMonte, who was born in Sicily and now teaches Sicilian cooking in Georgetown, cuccia is an all-day staple on Dec. 13.
"Ever since I can remember the day of Santa Lucia," explained LoMonte, who is compiling her second cookbook, "it has been my breakfast, it has concluded my lunch, it has been a good afternoon snack, the end of dinner, and a late evening treat, just before going to bed."
As for Santa Lucia being the patron saint of light, LoMonte said, "The Santa must have blessed my eyesight many times, given the devotion with which I have eaten cuccia, and the huge quantities of it I have cooked and distributed among friends, following my mother's tradition."
Cuccia is deceptively plain fare, and may seem heavy or dull to the uninitiated, but it is the comforting kind of food that is irreplaceable to those who have grown fond of it.
First the whole wheat kernels must be cleaned and sorted. In America the wheat starts out rather clean, so that is relatively easy, said LoMonte, but "in Italy it was a big production because we didn't get the wheat in clean from the farm," and her family started picking out the dirt and fuzz a week ahead.
The clean grain must be soaked for two or three days, during which time the water is changed and the grain rinsed well three or four times a day. Next it is covered with water and cooked 1 1/2 hours (longer would burst the kernels and release the starch, turning the mixture soft and soggy), then drained and the container wrapped in layers of blankets. The heat is held in so that the grains are tenderized and steamed open overnight.
In the morning the wheat is unwrapped, the drier top layer of kernels spooned off for a wheat salad reminiscent of tabooli, and the softer grains cooled to make desserts -- mixed with sweetened ricotta, custard or chocolate pudding, or with vino cotto ("cooked wine"), a Sicilian farm product that is unobtainable here but for which LoMonte has devised a substitute (see recipe that follows).
Cuccia, she said, is "not really that different from tapioca or a rice pudding that's firm." Although the cooked wheat alone can be kept a week in the refrigerator, these desserts are made at the last minute, since the wheat becomes hard once it has been mixed with the other ingredients and refrigerated, said LoMonte.
Figuring the quantities to make takes knowing your audience.
"People have to be 'broken in' before eating a good serving," claimed LoMonte. And they also have to be taught how to eat it. "The secret is to chew the cream along with the wheat," she explained. At first, people "draw all the cream, and they are left with a bunch of firm little balls in their mouth, not too sure of what to do with them."
For LoMonte, cuccia has always been connected with America. Her memories of making cuccia go back just as far as the American liberation of Italy in World War II.
"I remember the first blankets I wrapped this in were American army blankets," she said. Living on a farm during the war, her family had plenty of food, but they had no fabric or shoes, thus LoMonte's "first coat when I went to school was made from an American blanket."
Now, she thinks Americans are ready for cuccia, for she teaches it each year to her classes and finds that it is not looked on so strangely as it once was, said LoMonte. This, she thinks, is thanks largely to the health food movement, which has brought more favor to such grainy delicacies.
That movement has also made sense of why the Sicilians always serve cuccia with beans, chickpeas, lentils (often in soups) or rice as rice cakes or fried rice balls. The practice fits with the concept of complementary proteins.
"I think the saint is going to get a few more devouts," suggested LoMonte. CUCCIA (Makes about 7 1/2 cups cooked kernels*)
% pound whole wheat grains**
Water 1/2 teaspoon salt
Sort and rinse the wheat; place in a large bowl, and add water to the edge of it, well above the wheat level.
Soak the wheat for 2 to 3 days; change the water, and rinse the wheat well 3 to 4 times every 24 hours.
Cook the wheat, preferably in the evening because it has to rest through the night (if you want to have it for breakfast the morning of Santa Lucia). To cook it, put in a heavy pot (not uncoated cast iron), add 7 cups of water and the salt, cover and bring to a boil. Let the wheat simmer about 1 1/2 hours, or until kernels' skins split slightly. To cook it past the point when the kernels split would cause the starch to come out and you would end up with a sticky porridge-like mass, rather than individual grains.
Drain most of the water, leaving enough to keep the wheat moist. (This should be done by pouring most of the water out of the pot rather than draining the wheat from the pot; the point is to keep the wheat hot, thus to work quickly.) Wrap the pot, well sealed with the lid, in a cloth, and then in a blanket (an old quilt will do); you want at least two layers of it around the pot to keep the heat in, and to let the wheat further tenderize and steam open through the night. In the morning, unwrap the pot, and scrape the top layer of wheat that will have a dry look; underneath you'll discover that the kernels have popped open, letting some of the white interior show through the brown skin.
The layer you have scraped off can be kept for wheat salad. The rest of the wheat, after it has completely cooled, can be mixed with "ricotta cream," "milk pudding" or "chocolate pudding." Or it can be combined with a mix of the first two. "Vino cotto" (cooked wine) is another way of sweetening the wheat. The original vino cotto, as made in Sicily, is unobtainable, but Lo Monte's substitute version is below.
The wheat should not be mixed with the other ingredients until just before serving; if refrigerated already mixed, the wheat becomes rather hard. But the cooked wheat by itself can be kept for a week in the refrigerator.
*Note: 3 cups cuccia mixed with 2 pounds ricotta cream will serve 12 people or more (people have to be "broken in" before eating a good serving). You can change the cuccia-ricotta ratio to your individual taste.
**Note: Make sure the kernels are whole, and that they are sold for consumption, and not for seeds. Preferably get "soft" wheat, the same used for cake flour or white bread; hard wheat (durum wheat) is less suited.
***Note: See separate recipes for ricotta cream, milk pudding, chocolate pudding, vino cotto, and wheat salad dressing. INSALATA DI GRANO (Wheat Salad) (8 to 10 servings) 4 1/2 cups wheat, cooked as per cuccia (recipe above) 6 scallions, cut in thin rounds: discard most of the green part, except for some closest to the white 1 cup loosely packed coriander leaves, fresh, cut finely 1 cup loosely packed parsley leaves, cut finely 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice 1/2 cup fresh orange juice 1/4 cup olive oil 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Mix the wheat with the herbs. Add the other ingredients just before serving. CREMA DI RICOTTA PER CUCCIA (Ricotta cream for cuccia) (Enough for 3 cups cooked wheat, 12 servings) 2 pounds ricotta 1 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut in bits
Drain the excess liquid, if any, out of the ricotta while it is still in the container. Do not put ricotta through cheesecloth because it needs a little moisture for a creamier consistency.
Beat ricotta, sugar and cinnamon together until very smooth. Mix in chocolate. Chill. Makes 4 cups ricotta mixture. Mix with the room temperature cuccia only before serving, and only in the amount you think will be consumed. The wheat, when mixed with the ricotta cream (or any other cream or dressing), tends to toughen up.
Serve in small bowls. CREMA DI LATTE (Milk Pudding) (Enough for 3 cups cooked wheat, 12 servings) 2 1/4 tablespoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 cups milk
In a small saucepan mix well cornstarch and sugar; add a tablespoon of milk, blend it in, keep adding milk in small quantities till you have a thin, smooth paste. Stir in the remaining milk. Place on medium-low heat and stir constantly, evenly, and quickly, well down to the bottom of the pan, from the center to the sides, back to the center. Pudding will thicken near the boiling point. After the pudding reaches the boiling point, cook 1 more minute and remove from the heat. VINO COTTO (Cooked Wine) (Enough for 3 cups cooked wheat, 12 servings) 3 cups dry red table wine 3/4 cup light unsulphured molasses 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Boil the wine in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, keeping the lid on, a crack open. Add the molasses, and keep cooking the same way, until reduced to 2 cups. Add honey. Cool. Dissolve the cornstarch in some of the wine mixture, add it to the rest, and cook, always stirring with even motions, in the same direction, until the sauce thickens some. Remove from heat and cool just as it comes to a boil. Refrigerate until ready to serve mixed with the wheat. MINESTRA DI CECI AD AGLIO (Chickpea and garlic soup) (8 servings) 1 pound chickpeas 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 20 cloves garlic, cut in thin slices 2 large celery hearts, leaves included, cut in small dice 4 bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 cup olive oil 1 teaspoon celery seed Grated parmesan cheese for serving
Sort and rinse chickpeas. Soak 48 hours in plenty of water, change water and rinse well at least twice a day while soaking.
Simmer the chickpeas in 14 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt, covered, the lid a crack open, for 2 1/2 hours. Add remaining salt, garlic, celery hearts, bay leaves, pepper and olive oil and cook 30 more minutes after the soup has again reached a boiling point. Add the celery seed just at the end of cooking. The soup is supposed to be very thick; if there is a lot of liquid when you add the celery, etc., boil the soup uncovered for the last 30 minutes to reduce the liquid. Add more salt if necessary, and serve hot, with grated parmesan cheese on the side. MINESTRA DI CECI E CARDONI* (Chickpea and Cardoon* Soup) (8 to 10 servings) 1 pound chickpeas 4 cardoons or artichokes* Lemon halves 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 large onions, diced 1 cup olive oil 1 1/2 pounds beet greens, cut in small pieces 6 small dried hot red chilies 15 large, canned, peeled tomatoes; seed and cut in small pieces Grated sharp cheese for serving
Sort and rinse chickpeas. Soak 48 hours in plenty of water, change water and rinse well at least twice a day while soaking.
Slice cardoons or prepare artichokes as follows: Pull off the first layer of tough outer leaves from the artichoke. Start snapping the other layers right above where they are attached, leaving progressively more of the leaf base as the leaves get more tender. Scrape out fuzzy choke. (Keep some lemon halves handy, and rub the artichokes -- and your hands -- with them as you remove the leaves; lemon juice prevents or curbs discoloration). Slice the artichokes very thin.
Cook the chickpeas in 14 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt for 2 1/2 hours; let them simmer, covered, the lid a crack open. Saute' the onion until aromatic in some of the oil, add it to the chickpeas with all the other ingredients, bring to a boil, simmer 30 more minutes. The soup should be fairly thick; if there is too much liquid, cook uncovered at high heat in the last 10 minutes.
Taste, add a little more salt if necessary, serve hot.
Grated sharp cheese may be served on the side.
*Note: Substitute artichokes for cardoons. They seem to be in the market only in specialty stores in New York around Easter. ARTICHOKE PREPARATION
To have an artichoke dish turn out well is not an easy task, mainly because of an element beyond our control: to start with artichokes that are both tender and fresh.
The freshness of an artichoke can be told by the leaves: they should be a uniform "army" green, unmarred by brown spots, and when pressed together and slightly shifted, they should squeak. The tenderness is harder to determine; generally, too big an artichoke is going to have a very wiry choke and tough leaves. One way to come close to finding out is to pry gently away from the artichoke core one leaf of the third or fourth layer. If the leaf uncovered is a very pale green, almost white, two thirds of the way up, you can be reasonably sure that you are holding a tender artichoke. Freshness is a contributing factor to tenderness.
Artichokes grow to an ideal size: picked from the plant at the right time, almost the whole vegetable is edible, the only parts to be discarded are two to four layers of outer leaves, the thorny tips and the choke. The choke itself, if the vegetable is young and fresh, is not wiry, and it is quite possible to eat it.
Working on the average artichoke available in supermarkets, to remove the tough parts and be left with as much as possible to work with, follow the procedure described below (and your good judgment).
Pull off the first layer of leaves. Start snapping the other layers right above where they are attached, leaving progressively more of the leaf base as the leaves get more tender. Keep some lemon halves handy, and rub the artichokes -- and your hands -- with them as you remove the leaves; lemon juice prevents or curbs discoloration. Cut off the top half of the leaves. Remove the tough end of the stem and discard it. Peel the stem still attached to the artichoke. With a sharp knife remove the coarse outer surface of what is left from the leaves snapped off.
Cut the artichokes, if the recipe asks for cutting them, as per recipe instructions, remove the choke -- which, most likely, is very wiry -- and cut off the thorny ends of the inner leaves. Always keep rubbing the cut parts with the lemon.