I’ve said it before, Sicily is one of the few places I reckon I could be 100% vegetarian. I think it’s the mix of cultures that have had an influence on the island’s cuisine and the fact they just seem to have the knack of really celebrating their vegetables. Pasta alla Norma is classic Sicily and probably one if it’s best know dishes, named after Bellini’s opera Norma it’s base is a tomato sauce with aubergine, but with some little additions from around the Mediterranean and further afield the simple sounding combination is lifted to new heights.
For the Aubergines (egg plant) 2 x aubergines sliced thinly – about ½ cm / 0.4 in. thick
2 x tsp salt
Olive oil – difficult to say how much as it will depend on the dimensions of your pan.
For the Sauce 2 x tbsp olive oil
4 x garlic cloves, sliced thinly
6 x large, ripe tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 x small onion, chopped finely
1 x tbsp of small capers
1 x tbsp of red wine vinegar
1 x tsp of chili flakes
1 x tbsp of dried oregano
2 x tsp honey
75gr / 2.5 oz. pecorino cheese, grated
Some fresh oregano or basil to dress
Lay the aubergines out and salt them – both sides, then place the slices in a colander with a tea towel underneath. Allow the liquid to drain for about 30 minutes. Before you remove them, press down to get as much liquid out as you can – not too hard though, you don’t want to break the slices of aubergine.
Whilst the aubergines are draining you can make the sauce. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the garlic and onion, let them cook for a couple of minutes being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the tomatoes, chili, capers, vinegar, dried oregano, honey and a pinch of salt (be careful, the aubergines have been salted and the capers add a saltiness too). Set to a medium heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. As the sauce becomes thicker, you can turn down the heat so that it doesn’t stick.
As the sauce cooks, you can get going on the aubergines. Get a plate and some kitchen towel ready and heat about a ½ cm of olive oil in a shallow frying pan. To check it has reached temperature I dip the end of wooden spoon into it, if it fizzes, it’s hot. Lay the slices of aubergine into the pan – you’ll have to do this in batches, and don’t overload the pan. Cook gently on both sides until golden brown then remove and place on your plate with layers of kitchen roll in between the layers of aubergine.
Once the aubergines are ready and the sauce has cooked down to be quite thick it’s time to add the aubergine to the sauce. Keep back 2 or 3 slices per person to lay over the top of your dish, this adds a nice crispy texture. With the rest, tear them roughly into the sauce and stir through carefully as you don’t want mash up the aubergine – you want it to stay as intact as possible.
Serve with the extra pieces of aubergine placed over the top and then sprinkled with pecorino and fresh oregano or basil.
Tips and Variations
I like to serve this with either spaghetti or penne.
If your sauce is too thick, and by that, I mean it’ll be difficult to get the sauce to cover the pasta evenly and you think you’ll end up breaking up the aubergine when you mix it through add a little water first, stir through to loosen it before you add the aubergine.
I feel a bit guilty. I’ve neglected this recipe recently. It was a favourite of clients for cooking lessons, they couldn’t get enough and then suddenly they and I just kind of forgot about it. All of a sudden everybody wanted to eat middle Eastern, eastern Mediterranean and all those delicious Italian recipes fell by the wayside. It wasn’t just clients though, I decided last year that I was eating far too much pasta, I mean like 5 times a week! So, I cut back and cut down on a lot of my old favourites. Then, last week I was tidying up some files and came across this recipe and of course had to make it right away. Needless to say it’s straight back on my list of favourites (have had it three times in 2 weeks!).
Serves 4 For the Meatballs 650gr / 1.4 lb lean beef mince
50gr / 1.7 oz. porridge oats
3 x cloves of garlic, crushed
50gr / 1.7 oz. of grated parmesan cheese
4 x spring onions (scallions) chopped very finely
2 x tbsp of dried oregano
2 x tbsp of fresh thyme
Salt and lots of ground black pepper
2 x tbsp olive oil
For the Sauce 2 x shallots chopped finely
1 x clove of garlic, chopped finely
2 x tbsp fresh rosemary leaves chopped very finely
Honey to taste
1 x tbsp of dried oregano
6 x medium tomatoes chopped roughly
2 x tsp of tomato purée
2 x tins of chopped tomatoes
Black pepper and Salt to taste
To Dress, shaved parmesan, fresh basil and oregano leaves
Mix all the ingredients for the meatballs in a bowl until everything comes together evenly. The best way is to use your hands.
Make small balls by rolling the mix in your hands, roughly walnut sized, set them aside on a plate.
Heat the olive oil on a medium heat in a non-stick pan that is quite wide and has a good fitting lid.
Place the balls in the pan, let them brown for a few minutes and turn over to brown the other sides/surface area and cook them through. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes (depending on the size of the meatballs and the heat of your pan). Brown them all over and then place the lid on for about 2 to 3 minutes. Being careful not to burn, but also making sure they are cooked through.
Remove the meatballs, being careful to retain the oils and juices in the pan, and set them aside (not on the same plate where you had the raw meatballs sitting)
Put the pan back on the heat, leaving the oils and cooking liquid from the meatballs, add the shallots and garlic and let this brown for a few minutes. If you need a little more oil, add it now and allow it to heat. You shouldn’t need any more than one tbsp.
Add the fresh tomatoes, let them cook for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the tomato purée and the tin of tomatoes, then the oregano and rosemary, stir through.
Keep the mix to a gentle simmer, add some salt and pepper, cook for about 15 minutes and then check for seasoning, add honey if necessary.
Return the meatballs to the pan with the sauce, warm through again if necessary, and mix to cover the meatballs.
Tips and Variations
Serve with tagliatelle, spaghetti or linguini.
For a richer sauce cook it longer. Leave it to simmer on a gentle heat and the flavour will deepen.
You can make large versions of the meatballs, but I find it best to cook these in the oven.
Instead of Parmesan, these are great with blue cheese crumbled through the meatball mixture, but be careful not to over salt in this version.
Try adding some chili to spice them up.
In some areas of Italy, especially in the south they add raisins and/or pine nuts.
Both the sauce and the meatballs can be frozen, although best to freeze them separately.
Of course you can use breadcrumbs instead of porridge oats in the meatballs. I tend to use oats as I always have them around (It’s a Scottish thing!)
There are times when I want the simplest of meals, and today is one of them. I could list for you everything that I have cooked with clients over the last couple of days as well as a whole host of new recipes that I’ve been developing and tweaking, but I just don’t have any energy left. When I feel like this I often turn to my pesto, because even when energy is low, especially when energy is low, I want good food, I want to feel nourished. My pesto with some good pasta will do that for me.
Preparation Time: Less than 15 minutes Serves 4 to 6 as a pasta sauce
30gr / 1 oz. toasted pine nuts
80gr / 3 oz. basil leaves with the stalks (stalks are full of flavour, and although not so great to eat as they are because they can be a bit woody, but fine when they have been in the processor)
30gr / 1 oz. finely grated parmesan
8 to 10 tbsps of olive oil (or more if you would like it to be looser)
1 x garlic clove, halved (more garlic if you wish)
Black pepper and salt to taste – you may not need too much salt as the parmesan is quite salty.
Toast the pine-nuts in a non-stick frying pan. Just keep an eye on them as they can burn very quickly. It should only take a couple of minutes, you will know when they are ready when they become nice and brown. Allow them to cool.
Place all the ingredients for the pesto in a food processor and whizz up until it becomes a thick paste. If you want it more liquid, just add more olive oil.
Tips and Variations
Make larger quantities of the pesto as this actually freezes very well.
To serve with pasta, I like to mix it through my pasta as soon as it’s cooked and then dress with some fresh basil, parmesan and some roasted pine nuts.
You can store this pesto in the fridge by putting it in sterilized glass jars and covering over the top of the pesto with some olive oil. Stores for about a week, but it is best eaten fresh.
For variation, use a mix of half aged pecorino (sarde) and parmesan cheese. Pecorino is an Italian ewe’s milk cheese, often associated with Sardinia.
It’s nice to serve the above with some very basic bruschetta (ciabatta slices toasted on a grill or griddle then rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with olive oil, black pepper and sprinkled with some sea salt).
You can adjust this recipe to your taste, maybe you want more cheese, less garlic or whatever.
I’ve put off making this recipe for courgette spaghetti for some time. Not because it’s difficult, but because it involves a gadget challenge for me – using the scariest of all kitchen gadgets – the mandolin. OK, it might not be scary for everybody, but every time I see people using this I screw up my eyes and if I’m alone watching TV, I peer at it through my fingers as if I watching a horror film. Why? Well, I think it’s because I am waiting for them to slice their fingers on the razor sharp blade. I could make this courgette (zuchinni) spaghetti without a mandolin, of course, you can use a potato peeler or a cheese slice to make the ultra thin strips, of, in this case a more linguine type shape, but I felt I should push through my fear and use the mandolin. I have to say, I did it with complete focus and I still think that this particular gadget demands respect, but I have done it, and I know I can do it again. The results? Worth every slice of course.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes Cooking Time: Less than 15 minutes
Serves 4 as a side dish or light lunch 2 x tbsp olive oil
4 x spring onions (scallions) chopped finely
3 or 4 cloves of garlic chopped finely
4 x courgettes (zucchini) sliced very thinly spaghetti style with a mandolin or into linguine strips with a potato peeler or a cheese slice.
3 x large tomatoes chopped roughly
2 x tsp tomato purée
5 or 6 good quality anchovies chopped finely
2 x (400gr x ) tins of chopped tomatoes
2 x tbsp of capers
Juice of one lemon
1 x tbsp of honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 50gr to 75gr finely grated pecorino (or parmesan) and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to dress.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the garlic, spring onions and anchovies. Fry off on a high heat for about 30 seconds.
Add the fresh tomatoes and tomato purée, stir through for and cook for another 30 seconds.
De-glaze with the lemon juice.
Once the lemon juice has evaporated add the tins of tomatoes, capers, honey and salt and pepper. Set the heat so that the sauce simmers gently and allow to cook for about 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the courgette (zucchini), stir though to cover it in the sauce and it heat up. This takes only 2 to 3 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve with the cheese and extra virgin olive oil drizzled over the top.
Tips and Variations
To make this dish more hearty add a tin or perhaps two of puy lentils or chick peas. Or you can add a tin of tuna to your sauce.
If you are having a healthy day, this is an excellent lunch or dinner.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a TV producer from Ireland. He asked if I would like to take part in their program “Whose Holiday is it anyway”. The premis of the show is that the children of a family chose the holiday for the whole family. The parents don’t know where they are going or what they’ll be doing when they get there. The kids even pack their bags!
Maura, one of the daughters (pictured above right) from the family that came to Amsterdam really wanted her dad to learn to cook a dish that all the family could in enjoy. She told me that he never cooks and her poor mum has to do all the work. So, enter, me. Maura wanted me to make Lasagne with her dad, so we did! A great time was had by all and David (the dad, pictured below second right), Maura and the crew stayed to enjoy what we had cooked.
The show will air on RTE One this Sunday (14th December) at 7.30pm (GMT) and I thought it’d be nice to share the recipe with you, just in case you see the episode and get inspired (or hungry), or you might just fancy a nice lasagne recipe for the weekend.
Preparation Time: 50 minutes. This includes making the tomato sauce and building the lasagne Cooking Time: 20 to 30 minutes (baking in the oven)
Ingredients for 6 to 8 Servings using an oven proof dish 25cm x 35cm, depth 5cm For the Tomato Ragu Sauce 600gr / 1.3 lb. minced beef
100gr / 3.5 oz. diced bacon
2 x tbsp Olive Oil
2 x medium onions, chopped finely
4 x large garlic cloves chopped finely
4 x 400gr / 0.9 lb. tins of chopped tomatoes
500gr / 1.1 lb. ripe, medium sized tomatoes chopped roughly
2 x tbsp of tomato purée
1 x tbsp of dried oregano
2 x tbsp fresh thyme leaves chopped finely
1 x tbsp of fresh rosemary chopped finely
2 or 3 tbsp honey (adjust to the ripeness and sweetness of the tomatoes)
Juice of a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the Lasagne 300gr / 10.5 oz. (roughly) good quality egg pasta lasagne sheets
250gr / 0.5 lb. ricotta cheese
150gr / 5.2oz. grated parmesan
375gr / 13 oz. mozzarella chopped roughly (pat dry with some kitchen paper)
3 or 4 medium sized thinly sliced tomatoes
Some fresh, roughly chopped basil to dress
The sauce is the place to start. Place a non stick pan on the heat and add the olive oil. Once hot, add the onion, bacon and garlic and allow to cook for a few minutes, softening the onion and browning the bacon.
Then add the minced beef, cook for about 5 minutes until it is browned and cooked through. Breaking up any chunks as it cooks.
Add the fresh tomatoes, the tomato pureé, the thyme, oregano, rosemary, honey, half of the lemon juice and some salt and pepper. Stir everything through and allow to cook for a couple of minutes just to cook out the purée and soften the tomatoes a little
Add the tins of tomatoes, stir through and add a little more salt and pepper. Bring your sauce to the boil, then set the temperature to a simmer and allow to cook for 20 to 30 minutes. The sauce is ready when it has thickened a little and the flavour has intensified. Check for seasoning add more salt, pepper, honey and lemon if needed.
Whilst the sauce is cooking, you can get on with preparing the rest of the ingredients to build up your lasagne layers.
While you build you can set your oven to heat at 200°C/400°F. To build up the dish start with a ladle full of sauce on the bottom of your heat proof dish. Lay your dried pasta sheets over the sauce, breaking them if needed to given even coverage. Don’t overlap as this will not allow for even cooking.
Each layer is then: Tomato ragu sauce, mozzarella pieces, drops of ricotta and sprinkled parmesan. Distribute your ingredients as evenly as possible, over each layer and throughout the dish.
Usually, I get four layers, but of course this very much depends how much of everything you use per layer. This is also why the amount of lasagne sheets you use can vary.
The top layer is tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan as usual, but less than the other layers. Then lay over the sliced fresh tomatoes.
Place the lasagne in your pre-heated oven for 20 to 30 minutes (check after 20). The lasagne is ready when the pasta has softened (check by inserting a sharp knife into the middle), the topping is bubbling and brown.
Remove from the oven and let it stand for 5 minutes before serving. This allows it to stiffen a little so that you don’t get a sloppy result. Sprinkle over some fresh basil leaves and grind some fresh pepper over if you wish.
Tips and Variations
You may find that you need a little more or less lasagne sheets, it really depends on how you spread them out over your dish, don’t worry though, it shouldn’t vary that much. You can also choose for the spinach version of this type of pasta, gives a nice coloured effect.
The best mozzarella is of course made from the rich and creamy buffalo milk, but the cow’s milk version works really well here too.
Many people soak their lasagne sheets first, but there is no need as the moisture in the sauce does this as it cooks.
You can keep this lasagne and eat it the next day hot or cold.
You can make the tomato sauce in advance, I often do this the day before and leave it to stand is it only tastes better.
The lasagne can be frozen once cool.
If you find that the lasagne is getting a bit too brown on top and is in danger of burning before it is cooked through, cover it with some aluminium foil.
If you decide to prepare your lasagne in advance, note that once it has cooled it will need a longer time in the oven to heat it all the way through. In this case, what I do is set the oven a little lower, cover the dish with aluminium foil and allow about 45 minutes to an hour for it to heat up the sauce and cook the pasta through. Check after half an hour though. For the last 10 to 15 minutes, I remove the foil so that the top can get nice and brown and crispy.