After seven weeks in England – the longest trip back since I came to Italy – it was good to come home. Even the relentless heat, which clung to our skin as we walked down the plane steps and has refused to let go ever since, hasn’t dented my relief at being back in Testaccio. Relief though, is one thing, settling back another. I have felt a bit like a snow-globe in the hands of a hyper-active toddler, thoughts about time away, work, writing a book, promoting a book, family, home in England which isn’t home anymore, and home in Rome, a city in profound crisis, all swirling around. Swirling which trips into surreal during restless nights in our small, hot flat, the droning urumm urumm urumm of the knackered floor fan offering a soundtrack to my anxious half-sleep. Of course everything with settle, eventually, somethings different, some the same.
If I have felt like a snow-globe, then writing here has felt trying to jump on a moving roundabout as a child. Wanting to, lurching forward, only to watch the handle rush past, Whoosh. The book launch dinner made by some of my favorite cooks in one of my favourite places, I tried to write about that. Whoosh. There was the trip within the trip to Sicily for the food writing course, from which I returned inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure, surely I would write about that? Whoosh. I’d write about cooking with my sister, one of the nicest things about my time in England, hours and hours spent in her kitchen, kids running riot in the garden, the two of us talking and drinking wine and talking as if to make up for lost time (which we were). Whoosh. I’d write a book review or something more sophisticated than a snow-shaker metaphor. Or maybe I wouldn’t, not yet at least. For now, in order to jump on, I will write about lunch.
Turn on the radio. Fill a big pan with water, light hob, plonk pan on the stove. Stop, first move the coffee stand from the hob and burn fingers, and then put the pan on the hob. Pull milled tomatoes from the fridge and wonder where the hell the water under the fridge is coming from. Cut aubergine into cubes, don’t worry about being too precise, no-one is watching and don’t bother salting unless you want to. Fry the aubergine in lots of extra virgin olive oil until tender and golden and sweat steams down the nape of your neck (it is 38° even without the boiling oil). Use a slotted spoon to lift the cubes into kitchen towel. Cooking can be lots of things, today it is a task, but a welcome one. Is the pasta water boiling? Yes, add salt, plenty, stir and throw in the pasta and stir again. Add garlic to the aubergine pan, then the tomatoes and cook until saucy (I like saucy, and find it a better note than specific timings), return aubergine to the pan and cook a minute longer. Add lots of torn basil (inhale deeply) and the drained pasta. Toss properly. Finish each plate with lots of ricotta salata. Simple, generous and richly flavoured: this is the sort of food I like to eat.
I am not going to call this pasta alla norma, a dish typical to Catania in Sicily. It is however very much inspired by it: short pasta mixed with fried aubergine, tomatoes, lots of fresh basil and topped with Ricotta salata. It is important that you use good extra virgin olive oil, and don’t skimp on the quantity, the pleasure is in the taste of properly fried aubergine, rich and plump, softened and sharpened by tomatoes, lifted by the fragrant basil and finished with the soft, salty-sharp ricotta. If you can’t find ricotta, parmesan or pecorino work well too.
It’s good to be back. More soon.
Pasta with aubergine, tomato, basil and salted ricotta.
- 1 large /2 small aubergine (approx 600g)
- extra virgin olive oil.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently crushed
- 500 g fresh tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped or passed through mouli or 500 g tinned plum tomatoes roughly chopped
- fresh basil
- salted ricotta, pecorino or parmesan
- 500 g short pasta (Penne, rigatoni, caserecce, mezze maniche all work well)
Cut the spiky cap from the aubergine and then cut into 1cm square cubes. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with 1 cm of olive oil and warm over a medium/high flame. Once the oil is quite hot, add a single layer of aubergine and fry until tender and golden, then remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen towel. Continue frying the aubergine in batches until it is all done.
You should still have some olive oil in the pan, if not add some more (you want about 4 tablespoons). Once the olive oil has cooled significantly, add the peeled garlic and fry until lightly gold and fragrant – do not let it burn or it will be bitter. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often and pressing gently with the back of a wood spoon, until thick and saucy but not dry. Add salt to taste. Add the aubergine to the tomato, cook for another minute or so, then pull from the heat and add a handful of fresh torn basil leaves.
Meanwhile bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir and then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add to the sauce and stir. Divide between plates, top with plenty of grated salted ricotta and serve.
As many of you know, I have been happily contributing to the Guardian Cook Batch Cooking series and the latest one is all about tomato sauce.
I want to bring the warm and generous words about Five Quarters that have been written on personal blogs together in one place, here. Thank you so much Emiko Dan, Evie, Kath, Simon, India Knight, Margaret, Gemma, Molly, and the inimitable and wonderful Gareth Jones who very sadly passed away earlier this month and is missed terribly.
I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. If I have, please forgive me and send me a link so I can add it – R