I recently returned from a 10-day Mediterranean cruise around the islands of Malta and Sicily and the western coast of Greece. It was an exciting trip, with emphasis on the early civilization of these areas. There were daily tours focusing on the remains of Roman, Greek and Arab civilizations and their architectural remains from the third and fourth centuries.

However, I was more interested in the foods of the area — particularly Sicily, where Allan I had sent a week in Taromina, on the east coast of the island, a number of years ago. I was thrilled to visit the daily markets and easily could have taken home many of the cooking ingredients.

Sicily is the largest of the Mediterranean islands. It is a unique land with mountains, beaches, Greek temples, amphitheaters and churches. I was enchanted with the open markets, where one could buy all the ingredients for daily meals.

The foundation of Sicilian cuisine is Greek, and it is based on fish and vegetables. Although the Romans did not influence Sicilian cooking, they learned from it. By the seventh century, the Arabs of the Middle East brought new foods and cooking methods to Sicily. Eggplants, spinach, apricots, almonds and spices became part of Sicilian cooking. The Arabs taught the Sicilians how to preserve fish and meat, how to dry and candy fruit, and how to make delicious sweets.

Marzipan, made of ground almonds, became a famous candy all over Europe, particularly at Christmastime. However, shops on the main street of Taormina displayed marzipan fruits and vegetables year-round.

Pasta forms the basis of Sicilian cooking, primarily with sauces based on vegetables and fish. Even though most of the ingredients are simple, the dishes are rich and often complicated.

I enjoyed touring the local markets in Sicily and on the western side of Greece. While my fellow travelers headed to the bus and a five- to six-hour excursion to see Doric columns and outdoor theaters, I started walking to the local outdoor market in the center of town. Not only was it a sight to behold, but also the aromas of citrus, spices, baked goods and fresh fish blended into a promise of a meal in the making.

Sicily’s links to the Arab world can be seen clearly in its many markets, called la vucciria. This odd word is a deviation of the word “voice,” and refers to the hubbub of the market. But the appeal to the eye, and even more to the stomach, is what makes the market unique.

A visit to one of these markets gives you a good insight into Sicilian cuisine. Not only can you see the produce, but also you can get a taste, often from one of the stall’s owner’s local recipes. Every 10 yards or so, you meet a man selling olives as large as walnuts and as soft as peaches. There were olives in oil, or baked, or pressed or dried — even ones scented with herbs.

In the shop across the street from one of these markets, I found something that looked like a fried large chicken drumstick. Yes, I had to try it, so I bought one. To my surprise, I sank my teeth into the biggest, most tender artichoke I had ever tasted.

The cheese selection at one of these markets almost made me stay and look for a place to cook. There must have been a hundred cheeses, many of which I had never encountered before. Many of these creamy white cheeses had their own containers.

A row of calves’ carcasses, open and ready to be cut into roasts, were ready for butchering in the meat stalls. Sausages and salami of every shape and color hung from the ceilings of the stalls. The next stall could hardly be more different. It was radiant with the rich, bright colors of fruit and vegetables.

If a prize were to be given for the most unique and appealing food in the market, it would go to the fishmongers. All types of fish, from fat sardines to tuna, with its shiny shape, to almost fierce-looking swordfish beckoned the customer. There were flying fish with long wings, almost smiling red mullet, oysters, mussels, clam and other seafood.

As a contrast to the huge, rather sinister-looking octopus, there were lovely little fish called polpetti. They were fried on the spot, stuffed with breadcrumbs and herbs and sold to the passers-by. I just had to try one and found it delicious.

However, with this wide seafood selection, those most characteristic of Sicily are tuna, swordfish and sardines. Swordfish and tuna are mostly grilled and served with a lemon-and-oil dressing that penetrates the fish flesh. Sardines are prepared many different ways, but primarily stuffed with a sweet-and-sour mixture, or used in the island’s pasta dish – Pasta con le Sarde.

Even Sicily, as most areas of Italy, has its own famous pasta dish. Pasta Norma is simply a short pasta with fried eggplant in a light tomato sauce. It is served with grated hard ricotta cheese. This pasta originated in Catania, Sicily. It was named for Norma, the heroine of Bellini’s opera by that name.

Capaonate, a famous Sicilian appetizer, became famous all over Europe. It is a short pasta with eggplant in a light tomato sauce that is topped with grated hard ricotta cheese.

For me, one of the loveliest sights in Sicily was Mount Etna. Although local residents are conscious of the eruption of the volcano, Mount Etna’s rich soil is the basis of much of the island’s agriculture. There are vineyards and orchards of pistachios on the side of the mountain. And the view of it or from it is spectacular.

When Allan and I were in Sicily before, we were invited to a Sunday luncheon in one of the vineyards on Mount Etna. The pasta with pistachios that was served has been a favorite ever since. It pairs well a light main course or as a first course.

Penne with Pistachios

» 3 tablespoons butter

» 2 tablespoons olive oil

» 1 medium onion, finely chopped

» ¾ cup coarsely ground pistachio nuts

» 1 cup heavy cream (or half and half)

» Freshly ground pepper

» 8 ounces penne

» Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Place the butter and oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until the onion is transparent. Then stir in the ground pistachios and add the cream. Season with pepper to taste. Bring the cream to a boil and then simmer the sauce until thickened, about 5 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, cook the penne in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and add the pasta to the skillet with the cream sauce, mixing to coat the pasta wit the sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately. Serves 6 as a first course.

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Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of “Virginia Wine Country III” with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at hildeglee@yahoo.com.

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