Friday, 30 May 2014

Italian inspiration: Orecchiette with eggplant and roast tomatoes

Orecchiette with eggplant and roast tomatoes

Making a recipe read on a cookbook, magazine, website or blog is somehow reassuring. If the recipe has been issued somewhere (and in the connected world we live in, it is very likely to find the same recipe pictured and published more than once) it means it has a long story: somebody conceived it, made it, tasted, maybe improved it and made it taste to others, who probably gave suggestions on how to refine it. At this point the road goes down: the creator makes the dish again, takes a picture (hopefully beautiful), write down the recipe with some comment or history behind it and releases it. Something with all this work behind is for sure reliable and probably worth trying, unless it is too distant from our taste or believes (related to food, I mean).
But making a recipe of this kind requires some preparation: at least one needs the list of the ingredients before going shopping. Considering how I do food shopping, especially for fresh stuff - basically I am inspired by the freshness, quality and, why not, appearance of what I found in the shop, be it a fruit and vegetable market, a butcher shop, a fish market or even the supermarket - it is not easy for me to replicate a tested and trusted recipe. I mean, I like to try recipes found in book, magazines or the web, but for me it is easier to do it if I have all ingredients already available at home. In most cases, when I prepare a new dish this is improvised on the basis of what I have in the fridge and in the pantry. But the inspiration for choosing the ingredients and deciding how to cook them comes from a mix of sources: memories of something tasted in the past, family recipes, a glimpse to some pictures, recipes rapidly read somewhere and, of course, the mood of the moment.
The recipe I share today has a story like this: one day at the end of the summer of a couple of years ago I had some eggplants in the fridge and wanted to make some pasta with them. I initially thought to "pasta alla Norma", a famous Sicilian dish, typical of the city of Catania (where the composer Vincenzo Bellini, author of the opera Norma, was born) and made with deep-fried eggplant, tomato sauce, grated ricotta salata and basil. But I wanted to make something lighter, then excluded to fry eggplant, and did not have time to make the tomato sauce. Then I thought to a dish tasted in Puglia, made with tomatoes (not remember if sauted cherry tomatoes or tomato sauce) and ricotta forte (a very typical cheese of this beautiful region). But I had on hand ricotta salata! What I did was to pan-fry the eggplant and cherry tomatoes in two separate pans, cook orecchiette in boiling water, and finally mix all in the same pan to combine all the flavors, add some fresh basil and grated ricotta salata and the recipe was born. We liked it very much and I made this several times before making an improvement: instead of roasting tomatoes in a pan, I started to bake them in the oven with herbs and garlic; much better! The oven roasting enhances the flavors of cherry tomatoes and, at the same time, preserves them from getting mushy. At this point the recipe had been finalized and this is how I make it now. Unfortunately here in Dubai I haven't found  the ricotta salata yet, then I use scamorza, but the dish is delicious as well.

Orecchiette with eggplant and roast tomatoes

Orecchiette with eggplant and roast tomatoes
serves 4
320 g orecchiette pasta
2 - 3 medium eggplants (about 900 g)
400 g cherry tomatoes
3-4 garlic cloves
1 bunch of mixed fresh herbs (thyme, marjoram, oregano), leaves only
about 50 - 60 g scamorza (or better, if available, ricotta salata) 2, grated
olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Line with parchment paper a baking dish (this operation is optional if using a nonstick dish, but allows to use less oil and prevents the tomatoes from sticking on the plate). Halve the washed tomatoes and place them on the baking dish in a single layer; season with salt and pepper, toss with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle on top a generous handful of the herbs and one or two garlic gloves finely sliced. Put the tomatoes in the oven and roast for about 25 to 30 minutes, until tender and crispy on the edges. 
In the mean time, chop the eggplants into 1,5 cm cubes. In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat three tablespoon olive oil with the remaining garlic gloves then add the diced eggplants and roast them over a medium-high heat until cooked through (they will have to be slightly browned and tender ).
 While the vegetables are cooking, bring to the boil a large pot of water. When it gets to a boil, add some coarse salt, then drop the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (read the cooking time on the packet, but check at least a couple of minutes in advance). Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water. Add the orecchiette to the pan with the eggplant and, keeping the heat medium-high, toss them with a little of the cooking water to create a creamy emulsion, add also the tomatoes and combine gently. If necessary add a little additional olive oil. Remove from the heat, add the grated cheese, reserving a little for garnishing, and mix.
Divide between the plates, garnish with the reserved cheese and some herbs leaves and serve straightway.  

1 For a tastier result, in general I use a mix of different varieties of tomatoes; in fact, each type of tomato is characterized by a different ratio of sweetness vs acidity, then a mix gives a more balanced flavor to the final dish.
In this recipe I bake tomatoes in the oven instead of roasting them in a pan; I prefer to use this technique because it tends to dry the vegetables and consequently: their peculiar taste results enhanced; they will not release their juices to the rest of the preparation; they maintain their shape. Roasting the tomatoes in a pan gives anyway a vary good result and requires a shorter cooking time.
2 When I am in Italy I make this recipe using ricotta salata, whose particular salty and milky flavor combines very well with the vegetables used in the recipe. In particular, ricotta salata or ricotta dura or ricotta secca (hard or dried ricotta)is a particular type of ricotta which is pressed, salted, dried and aged for a couple of months. It can be made from sheep, or cow, or goat, or a combination of them, milk whey and it is typical of some Southern Italian regions, in particular Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia. In general it is used shaved or grated over pasta, but goes well also in salads or vegetable dishes. Since ricotta salata it is not easy to find outside of Italy (but also in Italy I did not find it many times), after several experiments I think that the best alternative for this recipe is scamorza, even if its flavor and texture are pretty different than ricotta salata. If  using scamorza it is important to add it far from direct heat because it melts very fast and easily becomes clumpy. Anyway also grated Parmigiano or Pecorino can be used as further alternatives.

Orecchiette with eggplant and roast tomatoes

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