photography by Anna Trifirò - LAND Collective
Leaning on the terrazza of Detective Montalbano’s apartment in Marinella, he takes time to look out to the sea and reflect on the cases he’s been working on down at the questura station in Vigata. His thoughts constantly pass from concentrating on work to light-hearted reflections of mouthwatering meals that his housekeeper Adelina will prepare for him at lunchtime.
While drinking red wine and having a casual lunch of his favorite pasta ‘ncasciata at home, Salvo was chatting with fellow detectives Mimi and Fazio about an open investigation. They swiftly switched back and forth from conversation about the case to discussing their meal. Montalbano was asked if he would have eaten the entire platter of pasta if they were not there to help him out. He quickly responded, “and what would be so wrong with that?” Salvo raised his glass of red wine and proposed a toast “To this pasta ‘ncasciata by Adelina; which is a true work of art.” Glasses clinked and the three men continued to eat the entire pan of pasta.
The way Detective Montalbano appreciates the food of his beloved Sicily is so perfectly written throughout Camilleri’s stories. Where would he be without his treasured cook, Adelina? Would Salvo’s passionate love for Livia ever be enough to leave the comfort of this nourishing home? Just in case he’ll need to pass on the recipe one day, here’s our version of Montalbano’s pasta ‘ncasciata.
Pasta ‘ncasciata is a version of a traditional baked pasta dish known as pasta al forno in Italian. The dry pasta is partially cooked first in salted boiling water then strained and seasoned with a rich tomato ragu, cubes of fried eggplant, pieces of caciocavallo cheese, and pockets of besciamella cream sauce tucked in between layers of pasta. Pasta alla Norma is a typical dish from the southeast part of Sicily made with eggplant, tomato sauce, and ricotta salata. This pasta ‘ncasciata plays with those same summer flavors and the seasoned pasta is assembled into a casserole pan to bake in the oven. This allows all of the flavors to come together, becoming one of the very few pasta dishes that tastes even better when you eat it later. The ragu can be made ahead and also used as a filling for Montalbano’s other favorite dish, arancini.
recipe: pasta ‘ncasciata
serves 6 | preparation: 1 hour and a half | cooking time: 20 minutes
ingredients for ragu
2 sweet white onions, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
1/2 lb. ground beef (also can be a mix of pork/beef/veal if you like)
2 T. estratto di pomodoro (high-quality Sicilian tomato paste)
28-ounces pelati (canned whole peeled tomatoes)
1/4 c. red wine
1 T. sugar
1 T. red wine vinegar
sea salt + black pepper to taste
4T. extra virgin olive oil
ingredients for besciamella
2 c. milk
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
pinch of nutmeg
sea salt to taste
ingredients for pasta
2c. short dry pasta like rigatoni, penne, Sicilian anelletti, or casarecce
1 c. caciocavallo cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
sunflower or other vegetable oil for deep frying
3T. grated parmigiano cheese
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt + black pepper to taste
Start with the ragu and while it cooks you can prep the other ingredients. Place a large saucepan over medium heat and coat with extra virgin olive oil. Sauté the diced onion, carrot, and celery until softened. Add the ground meat and breakup with a wooden spoon so it starts to cook with the vegetables and breaks down into small pieces. Dissolve the tomato estratto in a small cup with the red wine then add both to the pot. Stir to deglaze the pan and get any browned meat pieces up from sticking at the bottom of the pan. Add the canned pelati and all of the tomato juices. Stir to combine everything and turn heat down to low and cook for at least 45 minutes. Stir occasionally as the ragu thickens and cooks down. Season with a small pinch of sugar and a splash of red wine vinegar if necessary to balance the flavor of the tomatoes if you want. Season the ragu with fine sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper then set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (160 C). Place a pot of water on the stove to boil for the pasta. Heavily salt the water, so it tastes like the sea. While water comes to a boil, make the besciamella sauce in a small saucepan. Melt the butter in the saucepan over low heat then add the flour and stir quickly with a small whisk. When the butter bubbles and absorbs the flour, making a roux, it will look like wet sand and slowly darken to a golden color. Add the milk all at once and quickly whisk to get out any clumps. As the milk heats up, keep stirring until it starts to thicken and slowly bubble. Season the besciamella with a small pinch of nutmeg and fine sea salt to taste and set aside.
Fry the cubes of eggplant in a sauté pan with vegetable oil. Allow them to float around and get a dark golden brown color before pulling out with a slotted spoon to blot on paper towels. After a few batches of eggplant are fried, let them rest to remove extra oil until you are ready to assemble the pasta ‘ncasciata.
Boil the pasta until al dente or even a little bit firmer than al dente. The pasta will cook a bit longer in the oven so you do not want to over cook it. Strain the pasta in a colander. Season the cooked pasta with the ragu sauce and toss with half of the eggplant pieces. Taste the seasoning now to see if you need to add any more salt or pepper. Place the pasta into your oven-safe baking dish then tuck the additional pieces of eggplant, caciocavallo cheese and spoonfuls of besciamella into small pockets between the layers of pasta. Finish the top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a bit of grated parmigiano cheese. Bake until everything has heated through and the cheese melts. It will take about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or wait until it cools down so you are able to cut slices from the pan like a lasagna. Enjoy it with a glass of Sicilian red wine like a Frappato or Nero d’Avola.
About the Chef
Linda Sarris is a Greek-American private chef from New York City. After culinary school, she took off for an internship at a farm-to-table cooking school in Italy. She fell in love with the culture, the local food, wine, and Sicily’s magical sunshine. Under her brand, The Cheeky Chef, Linda organizes biannual chef-led food/wine tours and is writing a self-published travel ‘zine called SNACK Sicily. She splits her year between cooking for female entrepreneurs in New York City and freelance travel consulting in Palermo. Follow along on @thecheekychef and www.lindasarris.com.