In an effort to learn Italian, we’ve been watching Il commissario Montalbano, an Italian detective series based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri. Set in Vigata, a fictional town in Sicily, the protagonist is obsessed with food and bizarrely the lead actor bears a striking resemblance to panda-in-crime. The featuring of pasta alla Norma in last night’s episode hijacked our dinner plans.
Allegedly named after Bellini’s opera Norma, cubed aubergines fried until golden brown with garlic, chilli and tomatoes and topped with ricotta salata, a salty, pressed and aged variety – kind of like feta.
Procuring any ricotta is challenging here, so we whipped up a rough and ready substitute using salty milk and lemon juice. It is incredibly easy to make ricotta. Add the juice of half a lemon or a tablespoon or two of vinegar to salted scalded milk et voilà, and unappetising coagulation of curds separating from whey. Strain the curds in a muslin or clean towel and in a couple of hours, or a few squeezes later, unwrap a delicious ricotta substitute. Full fat milk yields the best results. I’ve never tried it with skimmed or semi-skimmed, but I guess it should still work.
RECIPE: Pasta all Norma with home made ricotta
250g rigatoni or chunky pasta
For the sauce
2 eggplants or 1 European cubed
4 cloves garlic
1 large dried chilli
2 tablespoons of tomato paste (or 1 tin of chopped tomatoes and a tablespoon of paste)
A sprinkle of sugar, if necessary
A couple of sprigs of oregano
A sprinkle of salt and a grinding of pepper
For the ‘ricotta’
400ml of full fat milk
A teaspoon of salt
1-2 tablespoons of distilled vinegar or lemon juice
Muslin or a clean tea towel to strain
INSTRUCTIONS: Heat the salted milk until it comes to the boil, take off the stove and add the vinegar or lemon juice. The curds should separate from the whey. Leave for five to ten minutes before straining through muslin or a clean tea towel. You can leave it overnight for a firmly packed cheese, but if in a hurry you can squeeze the liquid out manually or leave it for a couple of hours.
Put a large pan of water onto boil. Fry the chopped aubergine in olive oil until beginning to brown. Add the garlic, chilli and oregano. Add the pasta to the salted boiling water. Add the chopped tomatoes and paste, adding a couple of ladles of the pasta cooking water to the sauce if you are only using paste or if it is getting too dry. Season and check if the sauce needs any sugar (this will depend on the tomatoes, as tinned tomatoes can sometimes be acrid) and cook until reduced to your liking. Drain and stir in the al dente pasta and pile into bowls. Top with the ricotta, a grinding of black pepper and a drizzle of oil and enjoy.