Katia Amore was beyond busy when I visited her a few years ago in the beautiful Baroque city of Modica, She had launched a culinary vacation and cooking school called Love Sicily, while caring for a new baby and renovating her grandparents’ home (stone by stone) as a permanent home for the school.
But Katia took time to help me with the cookbook that became Seafood alla Siciliana. We stayed in touch and now I value her not only as a Sicilian food authority but as a friend. Katia could be your friend, too–all you have to do is go cook with her in Modica! But first, listen in on our Q&A…
Toni: You and your husband met while doing advanced degrees in the UK and pursued research careers there. Anything you admire about the cuisine?
Katia: We watched Chef Rick Stein’s show Food Heroes and always looked for local products. That’s how I fell in love with top-quality cheddar cheese, great bacon and other fantastic foods. I know this could sound as cliched as saying that you eat pizza when visiting Italy, but I love going to a tea house for a proper cup of tea with scones, jam, clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches.
Toni: What inspired you to return to Sicily?
Katia: Our wedding in Sicily took place during April, when the air is filled with the smell of orange blossoms and you can go for walks on warm deserted beaches. That was when we started thinking we wanted that beauty to be part of our daily life and not just a week-long holiday. Food and cooking were always a passion of mine…I cooked for my friends in the UK, taught them Sicilian recipes and, when they came to visit me in Sicily, took them to the best wineries, pastry shops and restaurants. I thought this was the right time to turn a dream into a reality and start my own cooking school. My surname, Amore, means “love” so the name of the school came easily and Love Sicily was born.
Toni: What was it like, renovating your grandparents’ hillside house to house the school?
Katia: The biggest challenge was definitely the 80 steps leading up to the house because all the building materials had to be carried by hand or with a special machine only a few companies have. But I say to people that the wonderful view of Modica made it all worthwhile. And, when we cleared the house before the project began, I found my grandmother’s handwritten recipe books in a dusty chest of drawers. My mother remembered they existed but had never managed to find them. They include not only recipes but tips on plating food and organizing the table for dinner parties.
Toni: What did you learn from your grandmother and mother about cooking?
Katia: The most important lesson is keeping an open mind about food, to respect tradition but at the same time be creative and experiment. In the 1930s and 1940s my grandmother used to buy the first recipe books about food from other Italian regions, which at the time was equivalent to my mother buying books about French cuisine in the 1970s and 1980s and me getting books about Asian or Mexican cuisine today. If we are talking about techniques, the most important thing I learned from them is kneading dough. I realized when I started teaching that it is not as natural and simple for many people as for me. My mother and grandmother gave me dough to play with before I could even say my first word, so I guess they made it easy for me!
Toni: What surprises students about Sicilian cooking?
Katia: That there is much more to Sicilian cuisine that what I call the three C’s: caponata, cassata and cannoli! Organic and biodynamic wines, award-winning olive oils, great cheeses, almonds, pistachios and chocolate are great gifts of our land that are now often managed by very modern and efficient companies run by talented Sicilians who care about their island. For many people this is a nice surprise.
Toni: As a mother, what are your views on feeding children and teaching them about nutrition?
Katia: Cooking is fun! It is creative, you use your hands, get messy, play with colors and tastes, turn into a little chemist, plus you can even enjoy the fruit of your playtime in the end. My daughter loves cooking and I often involve her when I run cooking classes for other children. We need to prepare good fresh meals for our kids but food is not something we should get them too stressed about. If they are naturally pointed in the right direction, they do not need to become nutrition experts and start counting calories. Also, we should accept that even children have different likes and dislikes and that their taste will naturally evolve. Of course, they should try everything, but we should also respect the fact that they might not like it. And remember that, like with everything else, they learn by example!
Toni: What’s in season now that you’re enjoying?
Katia: At the moment I am cooking a lot with Sicilian oranges and lemons, which are fantastic. I am making liters of freshly squeezed orange juice, turning them into great marmalade and preparing orange-based cakes and biscuits. I also use citrus in savory dishes such as salads, pasta sauces, fish and even meat-based recipes.
Next post: I’ll report on making Katia’s pastieri di pasqua, an Easter dish consisting of lamb-filled pastries. Or maybe I’ll share her recipe for chocolate chicken thighs, strange sounding but surprisingly good.