Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sicilian cheese: la "Vastedda del Belice"

Do you know what is the so-called "vastedda del Belice"? It's a local exquisite cheese coming from the area of Belice, in the province of Agrigento.

The vastedda, which is the only "pasta filata cheese" (or stretched cheese) is made from sheep and has an ivory color. In the past it was produced only in Summer (from May to October) but now you find it all year round. The experts used to produce it in summer to try to recuperate the pecorino cheeses that had come out with some defects. Infact the name itself in Sicilian dialect vasta or vastedda means wrong, gone bad.

Basically these pecorini were stretched at high temperature, creating a new kind of oval-shaped cheese that was perfect to be eaten fresh in few days and it was extremely tasty too! Farmers started to eat it with bread and tomatoes at their lunch break in the fields. Nowadays this local cheese is a POD and is produced in the provinces of Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

From the Sicilian food "Pasta alla Norma" to "La Norma" opera

I couldn't tell you about Pasta alla Norma without posting Casta Diva, the most famous aria of Vincenzo Bellini's masterpiece, La Norma, here sung by Maria Callas.

I hope you can appreciate it as much as I did, because I think that music is just as sublime as food. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Pasta alla Norma", what's the story of this incredible dish?

Do you know how to make pasta alla Norma? And what is the story of this Sicilian dish? The pasta alla Norma is originally from Catania, the second bigger city in Sicily and is dedicated, just as the name suggests, at the famous opera lirica LA NORMA composed in 1831 by Vincenzo Bellini, a musician from Catania.

I have actually heard two different stories about this dish: the first one says that the name of the dish was given by a playwright Nino Martoglio, also from Catania. He was comparing the goodness of the pasta with the opera lirica and exclaimed: This is a Norma! (meaning as goos as the Norma...)

Second story is that while writing this masterpiece Vincenzo Bellini used to go to a restaurant and ordered always this dish of pasta, so the owner finally name it after his opera to homage Bellini. Besides, it is said that at those times the dish had a very special presentation: it was like a mountain-shaped plate of pasta with eggplants/aubergine at the bottom, all cut in pieces or slices and then on top the tomato sauce with grated salted ricotta covering everything. It was a very creative representation of the Mount Etna with its land, lava and snow.

Making the Norma is very easy if you have the right ingredients. For 6 people you will need:

600 gr maccheroni or spaghetti
500 ml tomato sauce
olive oil
grated salted ricotta
aromas (cinnamon, nutmeg)
2 eggplants or aubergines

In Sicily we have two varieties of eggplants or aubergines: the oval ones and the rounded ones. These last ones (the pic on the right) are the best and the most used in the kitchen because of their sweeter delicate taste. We call them "tunisine" which means Tunisian, allegedly because they used to come from there.
1. When we use eggplants/aubergine we cut them in slices or dices, depending on the dish we are gonna make and then we place them on a colander with abundant salt and leave it aside for about 15 minutes. My mother taught me since I was a kid that this is good for giving eggplants/aubergines a sweeter taste and letting release the bitter they contain. After that you just have to wash them under running water and they are ready to be cooked.

2. Second step is frying. In a pan put some olive oil and start frying your eggplants until they become slightly brown on both sides (not black!). For this dish you can either do slices or cubes, it doesn't really matter!

3. Prepare pasta as you normally do, boiling it in salted water. While pasta is cooking put some tomato sauce in a sauce pan with some fresh basil and adjust with salt, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to make it more parfumed.

4. As soon as pasta is drained cover it with the tomato sauce and the eggplants/aubergines and grate on top the salted ricotta or instead, if you don't have it, some parmisan cheese. It will still be delicious and you will just ask for more.

*In some families they also like to add some mozzarella cheese in cubes before serving the pasta. They mix all the ingredients together in the pan and then serve with the mozzarella still thready. It is just an addition to the original recipe, but I swear they are both unforgettable and suitable for vegeterians. Enjoy!

Thanks to my friend Giuseppe for sending me the picture of his lovely pasta alla Norma!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mint-flavored potato salads, a delicious summer side dish

Do you know how to prepare a lovely fresh side dish with mint-flavored potatoes that taste like Summer? Easy. Just keep on reading :)

The dish I am talking about today is inevitably tied to summer memories back in my childhood and especially to my Grandma: nonna Nuccia, so I wanted to pay tribute to her with this picture & recipe.

In July and August we used to stay all together in a big house in the coutry-side and we would all prepare something for dinner or help mum and grandma in cooking. The mint-flavored potato salads was a typical dish she liked to prepare and eat as well. Very easy and tasty, perfect for a light summer meal.

Recipe for 6 people:
1 kg potatoes
a small bunch of fresh mint
2-3 cloves of garlic
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper

First wash the potatoes under running water then boil them in salted water inside a large casserole.

In the meantime prepare a kind of marinate in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, black pepper as you like, some vinegar, the fresh mint thinly chopped and the garlic cut in thick slices (you don't have to eat it but at least would perfume the dish together with the mint and will make a difference!)

Try the potatoes with a fork, when they are cooked (careful not to overcook them!) drain and let them cool about half an hour, then remove the skin and cut them in pieces, placing them in the bowl with the marinate and mixing well with the oil and the other ingredients together. They have to stay in the fridge at least a couple of hours before being served because they must have time to season and become tasty at their best. Then your palate will enjoy this lovely combination of freshness and goodness!

I like this side dish not only because of my memories but also because is perfect when you are desperate and don't know what to cook. Everyone usually love potatoes and if you want to prepare them in a light Mediterrenean style.... this is definetely the perfect way. You will make all the people happy as it perfect also for vegeterians!