Tag Archives: Ricotta

Pasta alla Norma

Trust the Italians to name a dish after an opera written by one of their own. Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma which premiered at La Scala in 1831 is that opera and also that dish.  Pasta alla Norma hails from Sicily, from Catania, to be precise. Bellini also hails from Catania, Sicily. See the connection?  Since we’re on the subject of connections, he intended the soprano part for Norma  to be performed by Giuditta Pasta who was said to have 3 distinct vocal registers. That just means a dream voice, kawan kawan, one in a million, next to Maria Callas’s.

Nino Martoglio, a fellow Sicilian from Catania was so smitten by this simple pasta dish that he compared it to Bellini’s Norma and promptly christened it thus.

We will be leaving for SE Asia in a couple of days.  The girls and I for 4 weeks and the Italian for only 2.  Someone has to bring home the bacon, you see.  I wanted to cook something memorable for the Italian as he will be on his own in Paris, no doubt, with plenty of things to entertain him and lots of work to complete.  I wanted to show him my appreciation for his dedication and support through the years and mostly, my amore.  He loves aubergines, he also loves pasta.  So nothing can be easier than Pasta Alla Norma.

Here’s the recipe:

350 g spaghetti or linguine

450g of peeled tomatoes (it doesn’t matter what brand you use, but I tend to use Italian tinned tomatoes.  You can also use fresh tomatoes which are an optimum choice. Remember summer tomatoes tend to be sweeter than winter ones.)

1 medium sized aubergine, sliced to about 1 – 1.5 cm thick

2 cloves of garlic peeled and smashed

3 fresh basil leaves or a sprinkle of dried basil

2 tbsp of olive oil

2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar (less if you are using sweeter tomatoes)

generous amount of grated ricotta cheese or parmiggiano

Slice the aubergines into 1 – 1.5 cm thick.  Put the slices into a colander and sprinkle generously with coarse salt.  Put a a heavy dish over the slices and leave for 30 minutes to allow the vegetable slices to release their liquid. When you see a blackish puddle at the bottom of the colander, the aubergines are ready to be rinsed. Rinse carefully in cold water until you remove most of the salt.  Leave to drain, then squeeze out any excess water with kitchen towels. Set aside.

Heat some oil in your best casserole dish and fragrant it with the garlic.  Add the tomatoes and allow to simmer for 15 minutes before adding salt and sugar.  Taste to adjust to personal preference. Leave to simmer for another 30 minutes.

Bring a pan of water to boil.

Heat a good amount of frying oil in your a shallow frying pan.  Make sure the heat is low because you don’t want the oil to be too hot. When the oil is warm, not smoking, add the sliced aubergines.  Leave to fry until they are soft and slightly brown.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain excess oil on kitchen towels. Then add half of them into the tomato sauce.

Frying Aubergines

Whilst the aubergines are frying, cook your pasta according to packet instructions.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and toss into the tomato sauce.

Serve in pasta dishes, decorate each dish with the aubergine slices that have been set aside and grate a generous amount of ricotta or parmiggiano over the top.

Would you like Ricotta or Parmiggiano

The dish will look better decorated with fresh basil leaves.  Because I didn’t have any in the fridge, I used the dried version instead.

The ricotta you see in the pic above is found only in Sicily.  It is sun dried to this bronzy hue and used instead of parmiggiano all over Sicily. They are left to tan in the Sicilian sun by individual ricotta producers in little sheds like this:

Sun Tanning the Ricotta

The chicken wire keeps the flies and insects out.  The stone prevents the family cat from getting to the cheese!

And allora, you have Pasta alla Norma:

Pasta Alla Norma

I love the aubergine/melanzana/brinjal/eggplant/berenjena/茄子 (Qiézi).
Call it in whatever language it comes in, this spongy vegetable has to be cooked just right.  I hate it when it is undercooked, hence tough and bitter.  Brinjal has to be cooked with love and patience and is normally delicious in a stew or curry. Thai Green Curries usually feature aubergines, but small grape shaped ones only found in Asia.

When frying eggplant, you can get away from using too much oil by slow frying. They are also lovely steamed and eaten with a fish sauce/lime juice and chilli dip.

Tell me about your aubergine dishes, kawan kawan.  I would love to hear how you cook them.  Look out for further posts on aubergines Asian style.


Say Cheeeeeeese!

Ricotta makes an appearance in quite a lot of Sicilian dishes, both savoury and sweet.  Silvana D had the genius of taking me to a ricotta farm nestled in the hills of Messina.  We had an early start because the artisan of this smooth silky cheese commences everyday at the stroke of dawn.  He apprenticed at 14, learning the art of ricotta making from his father and has been making ricotta ever since.

This is really a small holding where a manageable amount of ricotta is made daily to be sold to small  fromageries in the town centre.  Owners of such small holdings tend to also make the cheese for their own consumption.  This one is no exception.

Ricotta is made by bringing the whey left over from cheese making to a boiling point and then made to curdle with a little vinegar or lemon juice. Whey is a low fat, nutritious and limpid liquid that is a by-product of cheese making.  In effect, ricotta is freshly curdled whey.  Therefore, highly perishable and it is advised that ricotta be consumed within a day or two.

The curdling process is easily achieved, usually with vinegar or lemon juice.  But in the case of this cheese maker, he curdled the milk with the sap from a fig branch that he had picked from his garden.  This is a fine example of living off the land, kawan kawan.  The milk comes from the sheep and goats that are kept by the farmer and these are let to roam freely in the hills munching on grass that grow there.  Sicilians will tell you that sheep’s milk makes the best flavoured and textured ricotta that is perfect for the desserts that they are so well known for – Cassata and Cannoli.

Look at the fig branch soaking in the bucket.  The sap is harnessed by cutting off the leaves and makings incisions in the bark.  The sap infused water is then poured into the vat of whey that has been brought to a boil.

Sappy Water

The chemical effect is extraordinary – the whey curdled before my very eyes.

Freshly curdled milk

It is important to remove the froth whilst vigourously stirring the mixture. As soon as all the froth is removed, the whey is allowed to set and is then scooped into plastic ricotta shaped moulds which act also as sieves to let the excess water drain.  When cooled, the ricotta is then refrigerated and transported to be sold in the town.

Ricotta in its rightful mould

Italian Ricotta is usually made with sheep, goat, cow or water buffalo milk. This ricotta, however, is made from a mélange of milk from the sheep and goat. The cheese maker feels that this gives his ricotta a better flavour than that made from one type of milk.

Having had an early start, Silvana D and I had missed out on breakfast.  But that was no matter because we were offered the freshest ricotta that one can possibly dream of eating, right from the cheese maker’s vat.

Freshly made Ricotta - breakfast from heaven

Who would have thought an insipid looking white cheese could taste this good?  A sprinkle of salt and a handful of bread crumbs from the bread Sicilians call pane duro did the job for me.  The ricotta still warm was so smooth and silky that it simply glided down my oesophagus. No chewing was required even of the bread crumbs since these have been moistened by the liquid from the ricotta.

Funny enough, this actually reminded me of breakfast in Singapore as a child. My mother would purchase from the market a soya bean milk curd that is sweetened with palm sugar syrup which has exactly the same consistency as this ricotta – smooth and silky.  This soya bean curd is called Taufu Fa and can be eaten chilled or warm.

Taufu Fa

Funny also how the world seems to have come full circle.  In Sicily, I discovered fresh ricotta that reminded me of a memorable childhood eating experience. What more could I have asked for, kawan kawan?  But wait, there is more to come….

S is for Sicily….F is for Fun

Kawan kawan, as some of you may have known, I have been away…..on my own, sans enfants and mari.  I took me a little trip to the isle of Sicily, best known for its volcano, Etna and the film, The Godfather featuring its very own Corleone which is a town in the province of Palermo.

Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean boasting a wide range of local flavours, flora and fauna, and architecture.  Her food has been influenced by the people that have inhabited this island from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Serecens (Arabs) and the Normans.  The Spaniards have passed through and finally the Bourbons before Sicily was united with the rest of Italy under the Monarchy of the Savoys.

In Sicily, I heard the wind singing in the trees, the seagulls calling above me and her people talking in a dialect so musical and quaint.  In Sicily, I felt the sand beneath my feet and the flavours of her spices on my tongue.  In Sicily, I saw the beauty of her land, the colours of her flora and the endless stretch of ocean beyond her shores. In Sicily, I breathed in the salty sea air, the perfume of her many lemon trees.  In Sicily, I tasted the aromas of her various dishes.

For lunch on arrival in Catania where Silvana D met me, we took a drive towards Taourmina.  There we found a little antica trattoria and pizzaria, La Botte, after a short stroll through the town.  Kawan kawan, I was thrilled to be in Italy and extra excited to be in Sicily.  I have heard people waxing lyrical about Sicilian cuisine but have not tried her dishes myself.  Silvana D, a blue blooded Siciliana, did all the ordering, eager for me to sample the cuisine she knows best and is so proud of.  And Mamma Mia, she has every reason to be.

Under a pergola shaded from the Sicilian sun, we started with a buffet of various Sicilian vegetables, such as the Cabonata, a rich vegetable stew made of aubergines, bell peppers and tomatoes, frittered aubergines, a fritata of aubergines.  My personal favourite has the be the melanzane parmiggiana.  It was so good that I had it twice!

Aubergine Sicilian style

Aubergines feature quite a lot in Sicilian cuisine.  It is such a versatile vegetable that one can do almost anything with it.  I’ve had it grilled, fried, stewed, and pickled – all in the 3 days that I was in Sicily.  Look at what was on my plate:

Various Aubergine Antipasti

The main course consisted of two pasta dishes both served on the same plate.  I was advised to sample the ravioli stuffed with ricotta in a creamy pistachio sauce (below on the right). I’ve never had pistachio sauce before so I was very eager to try this.  Let me tell you this:  I was speechless!  The sauce was so delicate yet so flavourful, rich yet still light enough for me to be able to finish the ravioli and go on to the other pasta dish:

Pasta cooked two ways

The other pasta dish:  this was just as good.  Tubular pasta soaked in a tomato sauce made from tomatoes from Pachino, a town in the Province of Syracuse. Sicilians are very proud of these tomatoes because they are famous for their juiciness, sweetness, firmness and generally,  for their flavour.  They are small tomatoes best bought still clinging to its vine.  Cultivated in 1925, these tomatoes did not come into favour until the 1970s and they have been granted the I G P (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) which is similar to the D O C in France.  That simply means that no other tomatoes can be called the Pachino unless they are grown on Pachino soil in Sicily.

The pasta is garnished with grilled aubergines and generous shavings of ricotta. This is Sicilian Ricotta, kawan kawan, unlike the other ricotta that one is used to. The Sicilian version has been sun soaked and dried to a golden hue, its complexion tanned and browned.  This “weathering” causes the ricotta to harden to the consistency of Parmesan so that it can be grated.  This cheese is served mainly in Sicily instead of Parmesan.

Every meal has to end with dessert and this is no exception in Sicily which is famous for her various dolci.  Of course, we had to have Sicilian cakes and this was what they offered:

Sicilian Desserts

Cassata is a cheese cake made from ricotta and filled with candied fruit and soaked in Marsala. It is usually covered in marzipan.  The other favourite is the Sicilian Cannoli – a tube of pastry made of white flour, sugar and butter, deep fried to a golden crunch and filled with sweetened ricotta mixed with a little marsala or rum and candied fruit.

The Sicilians call ancient treasures “trovatura”.  Sicilian cuisine is a type of trovatura, foods enriched by the ancient powers who had ruled this island, changing the way her people ate.  The Sicilians will tell you that from the Greeks, they have learned to grill or barbecue their food and to indulge in honey and wines, from the Normans, they have learnt to eat salt cod and involtini (rolls) and the Spaniards tomato sauces both sweet and sour. From the Arabs, they discovered the aubergine which incidentally went out of favour when they left and was considered poisonous until the Renaissance; it wasn’t until some Carmelite monks who had eaten aubergines in their monasteries in the East and re-introduced this versatile vegetable to Sicily that it became popular again.  The Arabs also brought spices such as saffron and chillis. Sicilian food is both aromatic and colourful reflecting her fusion of cultures, a true trovatura.

This does not end my treasure hunt kawan kawan. This is only my first day in Sicily; stay tuned for other treasures that I will be finding on this trip.


La Botte, Antica Trattoria, Pizzaria

4, Piazza Santa Domenica, 98039 Taourmina,

Messina, Sicily.

+39 0942  24198, Closed on Mondays.

NB: Woody Allen has eaten here and so have various other American stars.  For Italian movie buffs, many Italian celebrities have also set foot in this little trattoria….