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Pasta 'ncasciata: Sicilian Comfort Food from the Inspector Montalbano Mystery Series

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    Pasta 'ncasciata: Sicilian Comfort Food from the Inspector Montalbano Mystery Series

    I am a big fan of mystery series, but I try to steer away from those with a heavy dose of violence or crimes that are particularly demented. On a whim in a used book shop several years back, I picked up a couple of books in the Inspector Montalbano series written by Andrea Camilleri. These books hit a wonderful niche with me and I've been working my way through the series. Sadly, I'm now on number 26 in the series of 28 and the author passed away not too long ago, so I'm nearing the end.

    The stories take place in Sicily (yes, there's Mafia, but the plots rarely center just on Mafia crimes). Inspector Salvo Montalbano works in the police department in a tiny fictional seaside town and lives alone in a delightful little home right on the beach in an even smaller town just a few miles from the station. He is single, but has a steady girlfriend he loves to argue with who lives in Northern Italy. Lots of phone calls but some visits, too.

    One thing that really drew me to Montalbano is that he's passionate about food. Most days, he leaves the office for lunch at Enzo's Trattoria and completely stuffs himself. He then takes a stroll along a jetty at the waterfront and often sits for a while on the rocks to contemplate the current case and maybe toss pebbles at a crab. Most days, he eats alone. His passion about food is such that he really doesn't want to be involved in conversation while eating. That's just too distracting.

    He gets home very late in the evening most nights. His housekeeper, Adelina, leaves his dinner in the refrigerator or the oven. She's an outstanding cook, and he's often overjoyed when he finds what she has prepared for him.

    The one dish that excites him most often, and makes many return visits especially in the later books in the series, is pasta 'ncasciata. The dish is a casserole with pasta, eggplant and cheese. Sadly, the main cheese is fresh caciocavallo. That's not a cheese I have access to, but it is a relative of mozzarella, so I went with fresh mozzarella.

    I had set a goal of making some pasta 'ncasciata before finishing the series. In fact, I also became curious about whether folks had tried to cook some of the most prominent dishes Montalbano experiences and raves about in the series. Yes, it turns out that some people do. I settled on this recipe for pasta 'ncasciata as written and described by Diane Darrow. This was actually her second attempt at the dish. Her first one, which she wrote up several years prior, was much less successful for her. She used a mix of aged caciocavallo cheese and mozzarella, where, as I described above, I went with fresh mozz. She used a pint of her "light tomato sauce" so I improvised with canned chopped fire roasted tomatoes, fresh basil and some spicy vegetable broth. I adjusted her amounts a bit here and there based on what I had on hand and personal preference.

    Ingredients

    1-2 lb eggplant, sliced
    olive oil for frying

    Meat sauce

    1/2 pound lean ground beef (I used .67 pound because that was the package I found)
    2 cloves garlic
    1/4 tsp Flatiron Pepper Co four pepper blend
    1 15 oz can fire roasted chopped tomatoes
    3/4 cup spicy vegetable broth
    1 oz red wine
    Handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped
    Salt and pepper to taste

    Other casserole ingredients

    2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
    2.5 oz hot soppressata (dry salame) cut into small cubes
    8 oz fresh mozzarella, torn to small bits
    3.5 oz grated Pecorino Romano
    1 lb pasta, cooked just short of al dente

    Method

    Slice the eggplant. If you want, apply kosher salt liberally and place the slices in a colander with a bit of weight on top to remove excess water. Allow to sit 45 minutes, then rinse off salt and pat dry. Fry the eggplant in a thin layer of hot olive oil until golden, turning to get both sides. Drain on paper towels.

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    Heat saute pan with olive oil and put in garlic and pepper flakes until fragrant. Add ground beef and cook until browned. Deglaze with the canned tomatoes. Add wine, vegetable broth and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 25 minutes until thickened.

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    Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until not quite al dente. Here's my favorite imported Italian pasta that I used:

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    And here's the spicy vegetable broth. I just discovered it at my local grocery this week.

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    To assemble the casserole (I used my new Misen 6 qt Rondeau--a spectacular vessel for cooking and serving!), layer half the pasta on the bottom, then most of the meat sauce, the eggplant slices, some of the mozzarella and pecorino, then the rest of the pasta, mozzarella, egg slices, the soppressata, the last of the meat sauce and then the last of the cheeses.

    Here we are part way through assembling:

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    Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. I don't think I deserved how beautiful this was when it came out of the oven:

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    I now feel an even stronger bond with Montalbano. This is a very soothing dish that I intend to use as a way to wow guests in the future. Especially in that stunning pan. Here's a wider shot:

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    Anyway, at least for tonight, you can just call me Adelina, because I think I turned out a dish she would leave in the oven for Salvo.


    #2
    "the author passed away not too long ago, so I'm nearing the end."

    Been there with a few of my favorite authors but I have their books to keep their memory alive. I often re-read books of favored authors and often find things that I overlooked in the past. None of my faves were into Haute Cuisine though, sounds like an interesting author.

    Comment


      #3
      First off thanks for the recipe and the story. The books sound like a lot of fun and I'l grab one. Do I NEED more books? No. Has that ever stopped me? Also no.

      Second, I have a book for you... a non-fiction travelogue among the food and wine of Sicily, "Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13425755-palmento)

      Comment


      • Jim White
        Jim White commented
        Editing a comment
        Thanks!

      • SheilaAnn
        SheilaAnn commented
        Editing a comment
        BF’s grandma is FOB from Etna. This will be a fun read! Thank you!

      #4
      Thanks for sharing this with us! Enjoyed reading and seeing your cook! Looks wonderful!

      Comment


        #5
        Looks amazing, so much so I butchered our good old laying hen and did not find the egg plant?
        Maybe I will call Foster Farms tomorrow and ask them.

        Comment


          #6
          @Adelina very nice!! Thanks for the recipe!

          Comment


            #7
            This is such a fun concept, to excerpt a dish from a favorite book, sleuth out the recipe, and make it. I started the Montalbano series a few years ago and remembered enjoying it but never went on to the second in the series. So many books, so little time.

            With your post, Jim, you've inspired me both to read the books and to make this dish. I am only recently befriending the eggplant, whose mushiness is off-putting in many dishes. I'll give it another chance in this recipe.

            Thanks so much!

            Kathryn

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              We've found that many book series may not get rolling well until the second or third in the series. I think you'll find that to be the case here for sure.

              As for the eggplant, sometime soon I'll write up the garlic eggplant stirfry that we love. We've adapted it from a recipe in the SF Chronicle back in the late 80's from an article about the Gilroy garlic festival. The eggplant does get cooked into oblivion in this one, but there are lots of fun flavors and textures to bring it along.

            • fzxdoc
              fzxdoc commented
              Editing a comment
              Looks like your putting your new cookware and your new induction cooktop to good use, Jim White . Both are so shiny!

            #8
            Nice write up Jim. Bronze die pasta, also nice.

            My Neapolitan mother would prep her eggplant slightly differently. She'd slice top to bottom rather than across, layer between two inverted plates, put a large can or two of tomatoes on for weight and press the water out over an hour or two. Your recipe brought some fond memories............thanks.

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              Thanks, Bob. I find it hard to believe this pasta is in my grocery and very reasonably priced. And I can't wait to eat more of this dish tonight. What a treasure to have had a grandmother to cook food like this for you. Glad to have tickled some pleasant memories.

            #9
            Jim, this is fabulous. I'm pretty in the same boat with fzxdoc, in that I generally dislike eggplant. My wife, on the other hand, loves it. I try a bite of hers every time she makes/orders it, hoping someday I'll find one I like 😕😕. Your lead in with the book series and the great pix makes me actually want to make this! It looks absolutely amazing. Really well done - both the recipe and the heads up on a book series I'm sure to enjoy.

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              Thanks. Hope you guys enjoy the dish and the books!

            #10
            Fantastic story, writeup and recipe. I like the transition from a book story to your dinner table. Those are how we enjoy our cake and eat it too !! I’m wondering if grilling off the eggplant might add a extra dimension to the dish. At any rate it goes into Paprika.

            How do you like your Misen pan? I have some of their knives and been looking at the pans.

            Again well done sir 👍

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              Thanks! I'm loving the Misen pans. As I noted, that 6 qt rondeau is an incredible piece for a dish that works both for cooking and serving. As I described on the induction thread, I had a few issues frying the eggplant, but that was more user error than anything. And the Misen discounts were incredible. I think it was only about $350 for the huge set of 5-ply.

              Grilling on the eggplant would be great and probably faster and easier than heating up oil. Many eggplant recipes suggest it.

            #11
            Jim White - this is all your fault... (the cheese is amazing)

            Attached Files

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              Oh my. I sure want to try some. There are a couple more spots here in town I can try.

              One note, though, if you clicked through to the recipe I followed, the Sicilian version uses fresh cacciocavallo. What we can get here is the aged, somewhat drier stuff.

            • rickgregory
              rickgregory commented
              Editing a comment
              The cheese, though pricey, is worth it. The rest of the box wasn't intended but the place I bought this is filled with Italian imports so there was more that was bought.

            • rickgregory
              rickgregory commented
              Editing a comment
              Jim White - yeah, I was hoping for some fresh but... no luck.

            #12
            Good for you, Jim! So excited to see your 'ncasciata. Did you take your walk on the jetty after the meal?
            I've been a dedicated reader of Camillere's books for years, and love them for the characters, the setting, but most importantly for the food! Salvo understands what is important in life. I'm holding off reading the final Montalbano book as long as I can stand it.

            Comment


            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              And I would add that I am trying to limit myself to only reading two or three chapters a day since I don't have far to go to finish the series. I guess I'll find other things to read for a few years and then go back to start the series over again.

            • theroc
              theroc commented
              Editing a comment
              Must confess that we've never intentionally cooked one of the dishes from the books. We cook a lot of pasta, so we've unintentionally gotten close a few times, but never intentionally. May have to try that.

              Have you seen the Italian TV series made from the books?

            • Jim White
              Jim White commented
              Editing a comment
              A friend reminded me of the TV series yesterday. I haven't seen it, but I was impressed that the titles for many of the episodes line up with some of my favorite books in the series. Jumping all the way to The Snack Thief for first in the series is a great idea, and Voice of the Violin up second is also a favorite. So someone had a good feel for getting people hooked on the series.

            #13
            Thank you not only for the recipe but also the book recommendation.

            Comment


              #14
              Thanks for this. Looks delish. Now I gotta go find the book series.

              Comment

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