I do not know whether you’ve come across cookbook author Diane Darrow or her food blog “Another Year in Recipes”? Well, I think she is fab – I like her hands-on approach and expertise in the kitchen, her take on matters culinary and wry wit. In the depths of darkest Winter when even here in Rome it got cold and snowed this year, I became entirely fascinated by her recipe for a Sicilian pasta bake called “pasta ncasciata”, which I subsequently found out hails from Messina.
Diane has written not one but two blogs on this recipe which was inspired by her reading of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, the Sicilian sleuth who lives for his food (well, not just his food, but you know what I mean). I am a great fan of Montalbano too, only I watched the TV series and haven’t got around to reading any of the books. When we visited Sicily back in 2014, the house we rented was close to the town where his police headquarteres are filmed (called ‘Vicata’ in the TV version but called “Scicli” in real life) and we spent one day on the beach where Montalbano’s house is, Punta Secca, even eating in ‘his’ restaurant, the famed “Enzo a Mare” (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/montalbano-land-and-enzo-a-mare/).
Maybe because we had such a nice Montalbano-inspired summer holiday in Sicily, maybe because Diane writes and explains so well, and maybe because all of a sudden I was coming across not a few interpretations of this recipe … I decided to make this dish last March when favourite son was coming down from Milan for the weekend. He asked could he invite some of his friends for Sunday lunch. Could he indeed! Is the pope catholic …
Everybody loved it, is all I can say.
So, yesterday, with both our kids here and their cousins from England visiting, the undivided consensus was that I should make spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams). The young ‘uns went down to Rome, and ended being caught up in a monsoon-like flash flood downpour that had them trapped in a shop for almost an hour, while muggins here went food shopping up the road in overcast Frascati.
Except that, this being THE annual holiday week in Italy (known as the week of “Ferragosto”), there were hardly any food shops open in town. And certainly not my go-to fishmonger’s. Well, that put paid to the clam pasta option and I had to rummage around in my menu memory for an adequate substitute. Which is when the pasta ncasciata came gloriously to mind, to save the day.
Now, I’ll be honest with you: this is indeed a ‘fiddly’ dish and requires concentration and time. Things need to be salted, rinsed, fried, chopped, rolled bla bla bla and, finally, baked. So if you can get someone to help you out with it, good idea. Also, considering the amount of toil and steps involved, this would be a silly time to think small. I would suggest you make a large amount, as I did (i.e. 1 kg of pasta). You can always eat leftovers the next day.
I bought all the ingredients, save for the pasta and eggs, and of course came home to find that I had run out of eggs (!) and that the only two 500g packets of ‘short’ pasta I had were of a different kind. Sigh.
If ever you decide to make this recipe, dear reader, I am sure you will be wiser and less insouciant of ingredient requirements. Which are:
1 kg of dry pasta (the short short shape), 1.6 kg of tinned plum or cherry tomatoes, 4 (or even more) large aubergines, 250g of minced meat (I used veal this time, I had used beef last time), panko-style breadcrumbs or dampened stale bread for the meatballs, 4 eggs total, 3 of which need to be hard boiled, finely chopped parsely, 2 medium-sized onions, 150g salami, 200g caciocavallo cheese (if you can’t find that, use a mild cheddar? or swiss or Dutch cheese … any cheese that will not overwhelm and that will melt when being baked), 150g pecorino cheese (if you can’t find this then substitute with parmesan), fresh basil leaves, olive oil for frying (yes – only olive oil, none other con be contemplated), salt and pepper.
I favoured the Cirio brand for my tomato sauce. Originally, I thought that a large tin (800g) plus a smaller one (400g) would do the trick, but half way through the cooking I realised I needed more and added another small tin (400g). Thus: 1.6 kg of plum or cherry tomatoes in all.
That’s the cubed salami on the left (150g) and the sliced (prior to be cubed) caciocavallo on the right (200g).
I happened to have some already grated pecorino cheese in the fridge – see the jam jar in the background. I used all of that up, and had to grate some more to scatter over the pasta just before baking.
MAKING THE MEATBALLS
On the left, you can see the breadcrumbs, the minced veal, the chopped parsely and the grated pecorino. I used 2 tablespoons of pecorino and ended up using 5 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. I sprinkled some salt and pepper over the meat, and also just a teensy amount of freshly grated nutmeg. The second photo shows the egg, needed to bind the mixture.
Combine all the ingredients using a fork or spoon at first and then your hands. Allow the huge meat ball to rest for a few minutes. Then break it down and make lots and lots of small meatballs, the size of a walnut.
Lightly fry the mini meatballs in olive oil and set aside. (Later, pour the oil into the tomato sauce – see below).
MAKING THE TOMATO SAUCE
As you can see/appreciate, I chopped the onions any ol’ how. Added plenty of olive oil and cooked them, slowly, over a low heat. The onions must not brown, just go golden.
And when they do, add the tomatoes and plenty of salt. Maybe even a hint of sugar. But perhaps later, not now. Those dark green specks are chopped parsely. I had some left over from making the meatballs so thought waste not, want not, sort of thing.
Now: (1) Cook the sauce for 15 minutes, repeat: over a low heat that allows for a simmer.
Then (2) :
Add the fried meatballs, and cook for a further 15 minutes.
Finally, (3) add a handful of basil and cook for a further 10 minutes. Total simmering time, roughly 40 minutes.
Remove the meatballs from the sauce. Now taste the sauce, and find out whether more salt or sugar should be added. Cover and set aside.
FRYING THE AUBERGINES
I did not take photos of the aubergines, sorry. But what I did was: slice them, sprinkle lots of salt over them, put them on a large plate and add a weight to press hard on them. The salt draws out some strange dark component of the aubergine which gives it its characteristic ‘bitter’ taste.
The dark liquid you see in the photo on the left? That’s the stuff I’m talking about. FYI this photo was taken some time ago, when I was making a pasta dish with fried aubergines called “pasta alla Norma”.
After one hour, I rinsed the aubergine slices more than once in plenty of running water. Then I squeezed them hard, ruining their shape in the process but never mind, and patted them dry as much as I could with kitchen paper.
This procedure might sound peripheral to the final outcome but in actual fact guarantees that the aubergine will be fried to perfection! With none of the greasy heaviness that is usually associated with this nightshade vegetable when it comes to frying. They are notorious for their greed for oil ! If you really can’t be bothered, the other thing you could do is coat the slices with a fine dusting of flour. The flour will act like a sheath and prevent the ingress of unwanted oil.
Unfortunately, but it can happen, some of my aubergines were full of seeds. I had to remove some in the course of the frying because I was worried the seeds might burn and impart a nasty taste. But I was lucky and this did not happen. Also, I tasted the olive oil in which the slices were fried (once it had cooled down enough, naturally!), and it tasted really nice and, what’s more, quite ‘auberginey’. So I decided to add some of this oil to the final sauce.
I poured the oil through a strainer to get rid of the seeds.
TIME TO CONCENTRATE AND COOK THE PASTA
Right – where were we? I’ll confess that this is when I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of crisp white wine. What’s a gal to do, this is hard work. A lot of thinking required.
At this point: The sauce is done, tick, the meatballs too, tick. The aubergines have been fried, tick.
The other ingredients (except for the boiled eggs – which I didn’t make because I had only 1 egg in the fridge yesterday) are at the ready.
Time to get cracking. This is when it gets exciting (amazing what a sip or two of wine can do).
Put the water onto the boil. I did not have a baking dish large enough to hold 1 kg of pasta. So I opted for two smaller ones, to hold 500g each. Also, I had two different kinds of pasta to deal with, remember? So, I decided it was best to cook the pasta in two separate pasta pots. I read the cooking time, and removed the pasta 2 minutes BEFORE the recommended time.
At first, I thought it would be a good idea to divide the sauce up equally between the two baking dishes. Then I changed my mind, and had to pour the sauce back into the original saucepan. I realised, silly me, that the pasta would have to be mixed in properly with all the sauce BEFORE going into the baking dish.
So grab a big frying pan and pour all the sauce into it.
The sauce was still warm, so I didn’t bother turning the heat on.
Sprinkle some grated pecorino into the sauce – about 50 g. This looks very Jackson Pollock, does it not?
Add some of the oil that was used to fry the aubergines. Mix well. May I remind you that I was using extra virgin olive oil – I wouldn’t dream of doing this with any other oil.
Now that the pasta is cooked (but slightly undercooked, remember?), drain it directly into the large sauce-filled pan and use a wooden spoon to make sure all of it is coated.
THE OVEN SHOULD BE TURNED ON AT 200°C.
TIME FOR THE FINAL COMBINING AND PLACING IN OVEN TO BAKE FOR ROUGHLY 40 MINUTES
Basically, there are three ‘layers’ to this dish. Layer the pasta first, then add slices of aubergine, some meaballs, some salami and caciocavallo and a scattering of grated pecorinio. Repeat until you run out of everything.
Take a look at the following 4 photos of the first baking dish, an ancient pyrex dish that goes back to the 1970s I think!
Notice how I added more fresh basil leaves in the third photo, before adding the last layer. If you leave the basil leaves on top, they will naturally burn during their stay in the hot oven.
Here are four other photos of the other baking dish, a lovely green ceramic one.
AII had set some of the drained pasta aside because I was worried that the sauce might not be ‘thick’ enough to cover the entire 1kg amount. There was, instead, a little bit of sauce left over, and so I now used up the dregs of the pasta and the sauce.
This was a much ‘lighter’ pasta (i.e. less sauce). I divided this up between the two to act like a ‘lid’ over the rest of the goodies below. I also grated a little bit of pecorinio cheese over them. Think of this as a final topping.
I apologise, I have no photos to show of the baking dishes just before I put them into the oven. I did put a lid on both of them. They baked for about 40 minutes, at 200°C in a fan oven.
OUT OF THE OVEN
And then we have leftovers the next day !
What can I say? Marvellous!
P.S. If you read Diane Darrow’s recipe (see link below), she does not include the meatballs. I found the addition of the meatballs in many other recipes I researched on the internet and decided I liked the idea. Like Diane, I had used mozzarella on my first attempt but have to confess to preferring the caciocavallo second time around. I would not like the idea of mortadella, not because I don’t adore mortadella, but it does hail from Bologna and this is a Sicilian dish after all. And ssssh, don’t tell a soul, we didn’t miss the boiled eggs in the least bit. But to each their own, there is no arguing over personal likes and preferences as even the Romans used to say in their adage “De gustibus non disputandum est”. I keep scratching my head for a vegetarian version – you know, no salami or meatballs. I excpect it would taste pretty good too, why not. Maybe ramp up the amount of pecorino used.
Thank you Diane Darrow for inspiring me!