I’m addicted to reading mysteries. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy adapting recipes from Italy: Trying to follow a recipe written in Italian by Italians for Italians is solving a mystery. Their habitual vagueness about quantities, procedures, and timing is like a set of clues that must be puzzled out to arrive at a solution – and not always the one you’d expected.
A case in point: recipes from Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. To successfully prepare dishes from this book makes me feel a kinship to the famously food-loving Sicilian detective, Salvo Montalbano, hero of Camilleri’s series of mystery novels. (I did a whole splendid dinner party from the book last year and wrote about it here.)
Pasta ‘ncasciata is one of Montalbano’s favorite things to eat. This classic Sicilian baked pasta dish, made for him by his housekeeper, Adelina, appears in several of the novels, starting with the second (to my mind, one of the best), The Terracotta Dog. There, the inspector comes home after an exhausting day in the middle of a difficult case. “In the oven sat, as on a throne, a casserole with four huge servings of pasta ‘ncasciata, a dish worthy of Olympus. He ate two portions.” When the dish appeared yet again in the most recent of the novels issued in English, The Age of Doubt, I knew I had to try making it.
Italy has many versions of the dish, with different combinations of ingredients. The one in this cookbook calls for layers of pasta, meat sauce, fried eggplant, caciocavallo cheese, salami, hardboiled eggs, basil, and grated parmigiano. The recipe looked reasonable at first. It actually gave quantities for most of the ingredients! But the closer I got to it, the more mysterious it became.
For instance, the pasta called for was magliette di maccheroncino. I’d never heard of it, nor had any of my Italianate friends. I couldn’t find it in any store, couldn’t find an image of it anywhere on the Web to get an idea of what the best substitute might be. The name is almost an oxymoron. Maccheroncini normally are short, narrow tubes, and magliette are T-shirts. Can you envision T-shirt-shaped pasta tubes? I settled for mezzani.
Then the recipe called for four eggplants. This is almost a Zen puzzle: How big is an eggplant? Nowadays they come in sizes anywhere from two ounces to two pounds. You have to make your own call. The first instruction is to cut the eggplant in slices (no thickness given) and fry them. OK, but don’t start heating the frying oil yet, because that sentence goes on to say “after having kept them for an hour in salted water.” Italian recipe writers love to set time-reversal traps like that! By the way: After you soak the eggplant slices, you also have to pat them dry, squeezing a bit to get the water out – which the recipe doesn’t tell you either.
You also have to decide for yourself how much tomato sauce to use, for both making the meat sauce and dressing the boiled pasta, because the recipe doesn’t say. And while it does say to slice the salami (who wouldn’t?), it doesn’t say to slice the hardboiled eggs. You’d lay them in the casserole in solid lumps if you were purely following the directions.
The final “clue” in the recipe was actually a red herring. The assembled dish, which uses 1½ pounds of pasta and ¾ pound of the two cheeses, plus all the eggplants, meats and eggs, is to be cooked in a hot oven for “about 20 minutes.” I was making only ⅔ of the recipe, itself a hefty quantity, and after 20 minutes in the oven my dish wasn’t even up to body temperature.
But I was prepared for that, as I was for all the other omissions and misdirections. That’s how an American culinary detective needs to approach the mysteries of an Italian-Italian recipe. I made my own decisions and heavily annotated the recipe in the book.
So, here at last is my pasta ‘ncasciata.
Was it a success? Well, it was tasty – but, I have to admit, not to die for. All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable. It was a perfectly nice dish of macaroni and cheese, but it should have been more than that.
I’ll take a little of the blame: The mezzani got away from me, and I let them boil too long. They should have been firmer when they went into the casserole. But the whole recipe needed more oomph. Another time I’ll cut the eggplants thicker and probably use more than I did this time; coarsely chop the salami and use more of it too (or a stronger flavored one); maybe add another hardboiled egg; put more spicing in the meat sauce; use more fresh basil.
Given my results, it’s hard to believe that the recipe in this book is the dish by Adelina that sent Montalbano into such raptures.
Yes, I know, these are fictional characters. There is no Adelina; she never made the dish; there is no Montalbano, he never ate it. Alas! But Camilleri is a real person and he must have eaten truly great dishes of pasta ‘ncasciata if he chose to put it in the novels. Besides, I’ve found this exact same recipe, word for word, in at least four places on the Internet, where it’s called the Messinese version of the dish. Messina is on the northeast tip of Sicily, almost 200 kilometers away from Agrigento, the area where the Montalbano stories are set. Adelina wasn’t a great traveler!