I couldn’t resist taking a trip back to Prezzemolo & Vitale yesterday – this time with plenty of time to spare, my car and a large bag! Chelsea is not that far away – only about 10 miles – but I know from experience, as I used to work nearby, that the traffic can be horrendous and at the wrong time it could take me well over an hour to get there. But with schools and many families on holiday, it was relatively quiet on the roads and barely a half-hour journey. And surprisingly and happily, I found I could easily park close to the deli on King’s Road on a meter.
Inside I was served by the same young Italian guy as before and he was wonderfully helpful in answering my questions as I took a leisurely look around the shop. I bought more of their wonderful Pesto Genovese (you really would have to go to Genoa to find some as good!), organic prosecco, some of their own make – Giù Giù – mandarin marmalade that my Italian teacher Fabio was so impressed by. I bought cantuccini, Rummo (an excellent Italian make) pasta, and cheese. Sicilian cheese, of course, as Prezzemolo & Vitale come from Palermo (as does Fabio who told me about them!).
One of the cheeses was Ricotta Salata – salted ricotta. As this came from Sicily and is so hard to come by here in UK, I just had to buy some.
Pecorino Siciliano is a cheese made from sheep’s milk (you find pecorino in other parts of Italy too). Ricotta is a by-product of pecorino production, made from the whey – the liquid remaining after the milk for the cheese has been curdled and strained. When it’s fresh – really fresh! Not the pasteurised supermarket packets – ricotta needs to be eaten fairly soon after it’s made. Eating ricotta always makes me think of a holiday in Puglia, at the heel of Italy, with my daughter back in 2010 (before the blog!). We stayed in a masseria (old farmhouse) and the owner used to go to a farm in the morning and bring back fresh – still warm – little ricottas for our breakfast, which she served with local honey.
They were wonderful; I’d never tasted ricotta like that before. Of course there’s only so much fresh ricotta you can eat or sell so how best can you keep it? A way to preserve the ricotta is to salt and press it and age it for at least 90 days – then you have ricotta salata! It’s quite hard once dried and the traditional cheese used to dress the classic Sicilian dish, Pasta alla Norma. It goes well grated over other pasta dishes too, or sliced into salads. Due to its ‘salted’ ageing, it really is quite salty (much as Greek feta is), so if you’re using it be careful not to salt any sauce you’re making a lot before adding the cheese; best to season at the end.
I already had an aubergine in my fridge; part of a plan to make ‘Norma’ this week as I do quite often. But then with this special cheese to hand, I felt I wanted to do something slightly different. So I went back to Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Sicily. I remembered that when I made the ‘Norma’ for the blog a few years back, I found Giorgio’s recipe a bit overcomplicated. But surely it was worth another look.
It wasn’t, to be honest, very complicated. But he does cook the aubergine in a couple of ways rather than just one: 2 are diced and fried, in the traditional way for ‘Norma’; another aubergine is baked in the oven in foil and the flesh taken out and fried gently before tomatoes and the diced aubergine are added. After my recent successful aubergine baking, it seemed I had something to work with here.
I was only cooking for myself so needed just one aubergine, not three, and I decided to bake it, according to Giorgio’s instructions. He adds skinned and deseeded fresh tomatoes to his sauce, but I decided to roast some cherry tomatoes, thinking they would bring a gorgeous deep tomato flavour to the dish. I also exchanged the garlic clove for the sauce at the end with a shallot.
Penne with Aubergine & Salted Ricotta – Serves 1
- 1 aubergine
- a few small sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 1 clove garlic, sliced
- 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
- extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 shallot, finely sliced
- 1 dessertspoon tomato puree
- a few basil leaves
- a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
- salted ricotta (you’ll just need to grate some from a lump)
- 75-100g penne pasta (or other similar pasta), according to how hungry you are
Slice the aubergine in half lengthwise. Place it on some foil, skin-side down. Cut little diamond crosses in the top. Slip small pieces of rosemary and garlic slices into some of the gaps. Close up the aubergine halves and wrap the foil tightly round. Put into a preheated oven at 220C/200 Fan/Gas7 for about 25-30 minutes, or until you can feel the aubergine is soft when you gently squeeze it (take care and use oven gloves!). When the aubergine is cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Throw away the pieces of garlic and rosemary, then carefully spoon out the soft flesh into a colander and leave to drain for a bit and then chop roughly.
Once you have the aubergine in the oven, cut up the tomatoes, put in a small ovenproof dish, skin-side down, and drizzle over a little olive oil. Sprinkle over sea salt and black pepper. Pop into the oven with the aubergine. Cook for about 20 minutes or until you see they’re caramelising a bit and softening. Remove and put aside.
Get the pasta on to cook – it will probably take about 12 minutes (check your packet). When you drain it, reserve some of the cooking water.
While the pasta cooks, put the sliced shallot into a large frying pan with some olive oil (about 1-2 tablespoons). Fry gently and once it has softened, after 3-5 minutes, add the drained aubergine flesh. Mix well and continue to cook for a couple of minutes.
Now add the tomato puree and a ladleful of pasta water.
Mix well and cook for a minute or two, then add the roasted tomatoes. Grate over some of the salted ricotta. Throw in a few chopped basil and parsley leaves – reserving a few for the end.
Mix all together. Add salt and pepper to your taste. Now tip in the drained pasta and mix well. Cook for just a minute or so, stirring, then remove from the heat. Italians always mix the pasta and sauce together like this; they don’t dump the sauce on top of the pasta as we too often do in UK!
Plate up the pasta and aubergine. Grate over some more salted ricotta – I used a cheese slicer to get thin strips rather than finely grated, but do whatever you prefer.
It was a truly wonderful dish! Giorgio’s way of cooking the aubergine worked so well. I did like my roasted tomato twist. But here were the ‘Norma’ flavours cooked a little differently. And the salted ricotta was very special and lifted the whole dish to a brilliant midweek treat!