Image credit: Louis Thomas. Descripton: Louis Thomas doing an impression of Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather while holding a liver sandwich.
A man who doesn’t spend time frying innards in lard can never be a real man.
Few offal dishes have quite the same reputation as the Sicilian spleen sandwich, “pani cà meusa”, the quintessential street food of Palermo, and the Don of non-essential-organ sandwiches. Spleen is very difficult to get hold of in Britain, largely due to it being sort of illegal to sell raw in this country, and so I’ve had to use lamb’s liver in my version, which apparently has a similar flavour to spleen, but is less spongy. Even the Mafia, with all their connections, would probably struggle to get hold of them in this country, though I doubt there’s much money to be made in selling offal as I am the only person who would buy it. The government’s strict regulations on what bits of animals can and cannot be sold could well spell doom for the pig rectum recipe I was planning on unleashing upon my staircase later this term.
“Even the Mafia, with all their connections, would probably struggle to get hold of them in this country, though I doubt there’s much money to be made in selling offal as I am the only person who would buy it.”
There are different versions of the dish, some include trachea and lung, some use lamb offal, some cow, though as far as I can tell no self-respecting Sicilian would ever use liver, so I may well end up bedding down with the proverbial fishes (which will make a nice change from the offal).
Sicily is something of a cultural melting pot, with Greek, Arabic, Norman and Spanish invaders leaving their own impression on this rugged island populated by rugged people. The most significant reflection of the eclectic mix of immigrants Sicily has taken in is in its cuisine. The origins of the spleen sandwich, as I’m sure you are dying to know, may be found a millennium ago, with the Jewish community in Palermo who would make use of leftover offal by serving it with bread, whilst the Arabic population of the island had their own sandwich using local cheese. At some point the two were merged in a beautiful marriage, which is appropriate, because this particular style of spleen sandwich is known as “maritata”, or “marriage”: Don Spleen representing the groom, the veil of cheese draped over it symbolising the bride.
On the day my sandwich was to be married I searched for the authentic Sicilian cheese to use: caciocavallo. I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I consulted my dairy consigliere, who suggested provolone, which has enough characteristics in common with caciocavallo, though is different enough for this to be deemed a grave insult to the Godfather of offal sandwiches. If you can’t find provolone, take a long look in the mirror and reflect upon why you’re bothering doing this at all. Some versions also use ricotta, and so I also did in a desperate bid to make my version vaguely authentic. I don’t want to wake up with a spleen in my bed, again.
Considering the various offences I have already caused the people of Sicily in the ingredients I bought, not that any Sicilians, or, indeed, anyone (apart from those who will scan through this out of sympathy), will ever read this, I feel a need to justify why I was so desperate to attempt this sacred dish. I have a thimbleful of Sicilian blood, which I may well end up cooking at some point, and so, in a frankly pathetic attempt to seem more exotic than I actually am, I intend to win over my paisanos by butchering the recipe and pronunciation of one of their most beloved dishes.
But Sicily is probably less known for its rich history and distinctive cuisine than it is for its connections to crime, more specifically La Cosa Nostra. The beautiful landscape of the island is stained with blood, and not just from the offal. In the past it has been a very violent place indeed, and as my Welsh grandfather says in an incredibly thick Welsh accent: “us Sicilians keep our backs to the wall”. There is more to Sicily than the Mafia, though that is a stereotype which I’m not exactly shattering by theming this entire article around some films about the Mafia, even going so far as to dress up as the head of a crime dynasty for a narcissistic photo.
“Amazingly, despite my gluttony, I did have to resort to stuffing my cheeks, as Brando did, in order to imitate Don Vito’siconic jowls.”
I may have slightly exaggerated my connection to Sicily, but I am not lying when I say that this is a very easy recipe which takes relatively little time when compared to some of the other recipes I have smeared onto the Food & Drink section, though as with all of my offal recipes, it doesn’t matter how easy it is because I am the only person bored enough to bother cooking it at all. Any time saved in the cooking was more than wasted searching for illegal offal. Firstly, slice up your spleen/liver (not your actual organs though, that would be silly) into fairly thin strips. Don’t season them yet, because spleen/liver dries out very easily, leaving you with a shrivelled organ, and nobody wants that.
Now boil them for approximately ten minutes. You can do it in stock, though the blood which oozes out of the spleen/liver slices will form a sort of stock anyway. You can see why my flatmates flee on offal night. Once cooked through, remove from the water and set aside. This provides you with the perfect window to excessively gel your hair and put on a tuxedo so that you can pose with your creation for a photo (I had the flat to myself, so this was the first thing that came to mind). Amazingly, despite my gluttony, I did have to resort to stuffing my cheeks, as Brando did, in order to imitate Don Vito’siconic jowls. Offering this much respect to the sandwich is entirely necessary for the recipe to succeed.
The next step is somewhat odd given the dish’s origins: frying it in lard – definitely neither kosher nor halal. I melted two blocks of lard which I just happened to have lying around, and then regretted putting on my dinner suit whilst dealing with hot, pungent pig fat. In Palermo they fry the “meat” just before serving in order to warm it up for the customer, and apparently it also makes it more tender, which may be true when dealing with spleens and lungs, but didn’t seem to soften my liver particularly. What the lard definitely does add is juiciness, which is no bad thing in a sandwich.
After about five minutes of frying over a gentle heat, the offal slices were ready. I extracted them from the hot fat, then seasoned with salt and pepper, though you could also use a squeeze of lemon juice. I then put my exquisitely greasy liver slices into a sesame seed encrusted roll, which seems to be quite traditional, after which I then grated my provolone over, and then smothered the whole thing in ricotta. For the full Godfather-experience you could serve it with an orange, a device used in the film to show that death is near, as when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the shimmering lake of lard I had created, and saw what I looked like, dressed up as Don Corleone so that I could have a photograph taken of myself with a sandwich, I died a little inside. Still, it’s something for the Instagram.
“The lard which had coated the pieces of liver coated my mouth and reminded me of how much I enjoy fat”
If the sandwich had been a disappointment I’d have been more gutted than Don Ciccio. It is a dish best served warm, and so I got stuck in, with the ghost of the tripe from a couple of weeks ago still haunting me. The liver had a nice bite to it and retained its slightly mineral-flavour which I love so dearly (though I’m still holding out for an offal-dealer willing to covertly sell me some lamb spleens). The lard which had coated the pieces of liver coated my mouth and reminded me of how much I enjoy fat, very soon I may even grow my own pair of Corleone-chubby-cheeks. The cheese added a fresh tang which complemented the liver very well – a very good marriage indeed, and the sesame seeds on the bread contributed a delightful nutty aroma. This may well be the first offal dish I’ve done which I am incredibly happy about, and I hadn’t even had that much to drink beforehand. It is also the recipe which I have had to change the most dramatically due to the lack of spleens in my neighbourhood, though I’m sure it would have been even better had a Sicilian prepared it.
Food is hugely important in Sicilian culture, as it is throughout Italy, and is also prevalent in The Godfather. I particularly liked the idea of this dish because it was one created by immigrants to Sicily, whereas The Godfather is about an immigrant from Sicily, so the connection between spleen sandwiches and a popular gangster film is not entirely tenuous. I want to cook it again using the authentic/actual ingredients, but until the selling of raw spleen is made legal, that I cannot do.