Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, connoisseurs of all things Italian, have a new cookbook out. Bring a taste of Sicily right into your home kitchen and re-create the best of what this food-forward island has to offer. Ever made a Sicilian rice timballo? Get ready to fall in love!
Salvatore, our guide around Palermo, likened Sicilian culture to lasagne, with each layer a different layer of history. You can take a bite from the lasagne, but you cannot separate the layers; you bite into them all together. It is the same with the Sicilian dish of timballo, named after the timbale, the mold it is cooked in.
Rice timbale is an elaborate layered dish from eastern Sicily, which is said to derive from Catania during the time of the Arab occupation. There are probably hundreds of variations of timbale; some are made with penne, and I have seen ones made with spaghetti. In fact, it is a good way to use up leftover risotto or pasta. And do try layers of roasted aubergine (eggplant), flavoring the rice with saffron or adding cooked mushrooms, for a few ideas. I spent a day working with our chef Gregorio Piazza from Augusta, near Catania, and we invented our own version, taking into account our children’s preferences and what we thought people would realistically make at home. It is gluten-free and can be adapted to a filling of your choice. Gregorio said proudly that it looks British but it tastes Sicilian! Our children love it and it is not complicated to make. You can leave it in an ovenproof dish or go for the ‘wow’ factor and cook the timbale in a cake tin, which can be removed after cooking.
Variation: This timbale recipe also makes a beautiful layered savory cake when cooked in a cake tin. To do this, generously grease a loose-bottomed 24-centimeter (9½-inch) cake tin with butter. Follow the method above and after removing from the oven allow the timbale to sit for 10 minutes before removing from the tin.
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 stick salted butter
- 1 shallot or white onion, finely chopped
- 2 1/4 cups arborio rice
- Scant 1 cup white wine
- 1 pound 3 ounces Cherry Tomato Sauce
- 3 1/3-4 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock, or hot water
- 3 1/2 ounces Grana Padano, finely grated
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 4-ounce balls mozzarella
- 2 cups squeezed out spinach (from approximately 2 pounds 3 ounces fresh leaves or 1 pound 2 ounces frozen spinach)
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
- Handful basil leaves
Cherry Tomato Sauce (makes 2 pounds, 3 ounces)
- 1 carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
- 1 white onion, roughly chopped
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds, 3 ounces cherry tomatoes on the vine or 2 pounds, 10 ounces canned cherry or whole plum tomatoes
- 1 sprig basil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1-2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
For the sauce
Fry the carrot, celery and onion in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat for around 10 minutes or until soft. Add the tomatoes with a few of their stalks (if using fresh) to the pan with the basil and seasoning and cook over a medium heat with a lid on. Stir frequently, bashing the tomatoes with a potato masher to break them up. Bring to a boil, then remove the lid and reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for around 30-40 minutes. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary, adding a teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes still taste acidic. Use the sauce as it is or remove the basil and stalks and use a stick blender to blend the sauce to a smooth, velvety consistency.
For the timbale
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil and the butter in a frying pan and fry the shallot until soft, then add the rice. Toast the rice for around 3 minutes – it will start to crackle – then add the wine. Allow the wine to evaporate and reduce for another 3 minutes, then add the tomato sauce and 2½ cups of the stock. Stir through frequently, keeping the heat to medium, and add a little more stock as necessary until you have a firm, thick risotto, which should take around 20 minutes. Add 3 ounces of the Grana Padano and stir through. Season to taste and remove from the heat.
Cut the mozzarella into ½ inch slices and put into a colander to drain. Sauté the spinach in the remaining oil flavored with the garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Spread half of the tomatoey rice in the bottom of a 12 x 8¼-inch ovenproof dish at least 2 inches deep. Then add the spinach, followed by a layer of mozzarella and half of the Grana Padano. Follow this with the basil leaves, the remaining rice and top with the rest of the Grana Padano.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Serve straight away, while the cheese is still bubbling on top.