Sicilian cooking is not just opulence and extravagance. This dish of chards with tomatoes, garlic and peperoncino (chili pepper) is a good example of cucina povera: a handful of a few basic, cheap ingredients delivers a hugely satisfying contorno di verdura (vegetable side dish). “Giri” is how chards are named in the dialect of Palermo and “Assassunare” derives from the French “Assaisonner” which means “to season”: in Sicilian culinary terms when something has been sautéed in oil and garlic, to get impregnated with that lovely flavor, they say it has been “assassunatu”.
I have seen versions where the chards (either boiled/steamed or raw) are sautéed in that typical Italian trio of olive oil + garlic + peperoncino, sometimes with a few fillets of anchovies preserved in olive oil (or salted) added for extra piquancy, and other versions where the vegetables are ripassate (which roughly translates as “cooked again in a flavorsome fat”) in a little tomato sauce, with or without olives. I have even seen versions where this humble dish has been elevated to something altogether more aristocratic and cooked caponata-style, i. e in a sweet and sour sauce, with raisins , capers and all the trimmings of your typical caponata.
For this type of cooking, exact quantities are not really important: true to the spirit of Italian home cooking, once one understands the logic of the dish, a little more or less of this or that does not make a difference. For my taste, the dish should not be soupy in the end and the flavour of garlic and peperoncino should be dominant. Follow your instincts and play jazz, Italian-style.
Giri assassunati ovvero bietole ripassate con pomodoro, aglio e peperoncino alla siciliana (Sicilian chards with tomatoes, garlic and peperoncino)
2 kg chards
2 fat cloves of garlic, lightly mashed
a generous pinch of peperoncino
1 x 400 g tinned whole plum tomatoes, cut up (called pelati, in Italian)
pinch of sugar
Wash the chards and cut the leaves into ribbons and the fat stalks into large pieces. Steam them lightly: they will undergo further cooking later on. Drain, cool and squeeze them lightly.
Into a roomy pan add a glug of olive oil, the garlic and the peperoncino. Heat up the oil gently so that the garlic can release its flavor. When it is a pale gold, remove it.
Raise the heat and add the chards, turning them thoroughly in the oil.
Add the tomatoes and the sugar, simmer for about half an hour, partially covered, stirring occasionally. Raise the heat towards the end if you find that there is still too much liquid left. Let it cool down a little, drizze with the extra oil and serve. This is equally good warm at room temperature
Traditionally, this would have been considered a side dish; I prefer it as a main alongside some ricotta or freshly cooked, hot chickpeas dressed with olive oil. It is also very good on toasted bread + pecorino and as a pasta sauce.
I have also successfully cooked this dish starting from raw chards, finely sliced; if I have some tomato sauce in the fridge, I would use it instead of the pelati.