involtini di pesce spada – swordfish rolls

Today, a dish – swordfish roll – that sounds more like a synchronised swimming move than a Sicilian classic. I have mentioned Sicily’s obsession with involtini on other occasions, and indeed the islanders are obsessed with these bite-sized parcels of meat, fish or vegetables. Whatever the outer layer, they are all filled with breadcrumbs, which I suspect may be the real reason for involtini ubiquity. My theory is that it started with thrifty housewives, who would add a crumb filling to bulk up meagre portions of expensive proteins at practically no cost, while also using up precious leftover bread. The stuffing of course also adds extra flavour, seasoning your meat or fish from the inside while keeping it moist.

In this dish, the obsession with involtini meets the obsession with swordfish. In Messina in particular, it is practically synonymous with fish itself. Grilled swordfish is the epitome of a fish lunch in Messina, is considered a safe choice to offer first-time dinner guests, and is also meaty enough to win over seafood-shy kids. Most of the locals make their first encounter with fish precisely in the form of swordfish steaks or involtini. In Sicily, children get freshly-caught swordfish; in England, frozen fish fingers. Probably explains a lot.

Fishmongers along the north and east coasts of the island proudly lay out whole swordfish on their marble slabs, and will mesmerize you as they produce perfectly uniform, incredibly thin slices from the belly for involtini, using what look like giant machetes more suited to chopping a path through jungles than precision cutting. The better establishments may even sell the finished involtini, stuffed, rolled up and skewered ready for cooking.

In Palermo, where the Moorish culinary influence is more evident, you will find pine nuts and currants in the stuffing mix (and in my house, too). Interestingly, they use exactly the same mix for meat involtini. Well, apart from the lemon zest, but that’s a personal addition of mine. The meat version, also widely popular in Sicily, is made using veil-thin slices of veal or beef, and increasingly also of chicken, pork or bacon. Recently, involtini have started to pop up in new guises – coated and stuffed with finely chopped pistachios or almonds, or filled with smoked ham and cheese. But that’s another story, and another series of recipes…

You could in theory use very thinly sliced swordfish fillet for this, cut into strips, but belly is the best. As with pork (I’m thinking streaky bacon here), the belly provides a juicy cut with the added advantage that when sliced, it seems made for wrapping around something.

I usually bake involtini in the oven, but they can also be pan fried, grilled or even – very carefully – barbecued. In that case, baste them generously and often with an olive oil and lemon juice emulsion to stop them drying out.

Serves 4

  • 16 thin slices of swordfish, from the belly (probably just under 800g in total)
  • 2 medium red onions, quartered lengthways and separated into slivers
  • 20 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. breadcrumbs
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the stuffing:

  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • zest of one unwaxed lemon
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 50g pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 50g currants
  • small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. grated pecorino cheese (or parmesan at a pinch)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together, spoon a little onto one side of each of the fish slices, roll up and slide onto skewers, interspersing with bay leaves and onion slices.
  2. Place on a baking sheet which has been smeared with oil, or lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle over any remaining stuffing mixture, the lemon juice, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, then bake in an oven preheated to 200°C for 20 minutes.

A simple green salad is all this needs, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. And a well-chilled white, something with a touch of fruitiness to complement the sweet overtones of the fish and its stuffing. An Inzolia would be perfect if you can get your hands on one, or even a Grillo.

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