I hate turkey.
There, I said it.
It’s nothing personal. Turkey is a totally respectable food choice. I understand the importance of tradition. I get the concept of a grandiose culinary gesture like waking up at the crack of dawn to put a 20+ pound animal, still whole, into an oven to heat and sweat and seep a rich, fatty smell into the air. The ritual carving. The sacred stuffing. The endless basting. The drippings. The drippings!
I get it. Really, I do. But I am a person who worships food – almost to the point of mental illness. I am a person who sees every meal as an opportunity for greatness and grandeur and eye-closing and moaning. There is a certain ecstasy to food. A certain divine holiness to flavors perfected and textures mixed just so.
And, for me, no matter how you cook it - no matter just how good you might be - turkey always falls short. Always.
So on a day when we are celebrating (among the various other somewhat dubious things we are celebrating but can’t really remember or choose not to) each other and gratitude and FOOD, I find myself eating one of the most uninspiring things I can imagine.
Every year I beg my Sicilian mother-in-law to make pizza instead. For the love of god! There is a hand-built brick oven in the backyard! This house puts out the best crust I have ever tasted in the United States! We make pizza history here. We make pizza dreams come true. Why in god’s name are we eating... turkey?
She never makes the pizza. Instead, she scolds me in a combination of Sicilian and English, lectures me about tradition and then concedes a small consolation prize, by agreeing to serve pasta as a first course. (For the record, this simple pasta with sugo always puts the turkey to shame.)
This year is no different and today as I bit into the panelle sandwich she handed me for lunch, I once again had to wonder about our blind devotion to the big, dumb bird. Panelle are Sicilian chickpea fritters, typically served as a sandwich on fresh bread and sold as street food. There are exactly three ingredients (chickpea flour, water, salt).
The sandwich crunched and gave-way just so between my teeth, layers of lightly fried fritters soft and moist and slightly salty in my mouth. Just before digging in I’d pulled a fresh lemon from the tree in the garden and squeezed its juices onto the layers of chickpea fritter. It didn’t even have the usual smear of homemade ricotta cheese and yet - here was ecstasy. Soft and crunchy at once. Made with peasant-grade ingredients. No grandeur, no big culinary gestures. Just simplicity perfected.
In the spirit of that simplicity (and in the spirit of eating anything but turkey) I present you the recipe for Fina’s version of this amazing Sicilian treat. It’s the perfect post-5-hour ride treat, but I eat them basically whenever they are put within my reach.
2 cups Garbanzo (chickpea) flour
4 cups Water
Salt (to taste... a teaspoon?)
About 2 cups vegetable oil
1. Mix water and flour in large saucepan. Stir. Place saucepan over medium heat and continue to stir until a thick paste is formed. (It should get so thick that it becomes very difficult to stir).
2. Remove from heat and pour mix into several cookies or cake sheets. It should be about 3/4 of an inch to an inch deep. Let sit for at least an hour. The batter will dry and become firm. Cut into 3x3” squares and then cut 1/4” slices from these squares. Lots of shapes will work but this particular version, which has the approximate dimensions of a slice of cheese, is best when used in sandwiches.
3. Pour vegetable oil into frying pan (about 1/4 - 1/8” deep) and heat over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, lay the panelle in gently and fry for about 3 minutes or until the bottom is crispy and golden. Then flip and fry the other side for about 2 minutes. Set the panelle on paper towels to cool for a minute or two but, for best effect, eat them when they’re still hot!
4. Stack in between two pieces of sturdy bread, squeeze a little lemon and go to town... or just eat them as they come out of the pan, just don’t let your mother-in-law see you.
Bonus recipe: FINA’S AMAZING EVERYDAY BREAD
This was published in Issue 11 of peloton print magazine but I am including it here by special request. Because what’s a batch of panelle without a loaf of homemade bread? (Caveat: recipe written exactly as it appears in Fina’s book. A combo of metric and statute measurements as Sicilian-American as she is.)
1 kg flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp yeast
500ml warm water
1 tsp sugar
½ cup milk
1. Mix warm water (not hot!), sugar, and yeast. Whisk.
2. Put flour and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer. Start mixing (low-med speed) with the dough hook attachment and slowly add in the water mixture. The dough will come together slowly and should be moist - slightly sticky but firm.
3. Once the dough is combined, add olive oil and mix 2-3 more minutes. Stop it and scrape the bottom of the bowl about halfway through.
1. Form a ball, place in bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for one hour. To speed process, you can set in oven to prevent drafts. Tip: If you want to aid the process, turn oven to the warm setting for maybe 5 minutes prior to putting the dough in. Turn the oven off then place the dough inside - this gives the dough a dark, warm place to rise without overdoing it.
2. The dough will double or triple in size. When ready, pull it out onto a floured surface and cut into small pieces, about the size of a tennis ball. Roll pieces into long ropes and braid together. To form a traditional wreath shape, curve the braided bread and then cut the edges at each braid fold, pulling the pieces out to form “leaves”.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
4. Mix the egg with the milk and whisk for 2 minutes. Then use your hand or a brush (the hand is more precise and gives more even coverage) to coat the top of the bread with the egg mixture before cooking. Once coated, sprinkle the top of the bread with sesame seeds.
5. Bake for 25 minutes, switching oven position about halfway through (loaf should spend about half the time on the low rack and half the time on the mid rack).