By far my favourite contestant on last year’s Masterchef was Sara Danesin Medio – the likeable intensive care nurse with a huge passion for Italian cooking.
So when I got an invite to travel up to York to her home to have her cook Garafolo pasta for a group of food bloggers, I was properly excited.
Sara and her husband welcomed us into their beautiful home a short walk from spectacular York Minster.
The passionate cook has used her success on Masterchef to change her life and launch a popular dinner club Sara @StJohn’s from her recently extended kitchen, complete with aga and an abundance of hospitality.
They’re booked up till October and it’s easy to see why; Sara’s Italian enthusiasm for cooking and food is contagious.
We gathered around her kitchen table and listened to her anecdotes about the fierce rivalry between North and South Italy over who cooks pasta the best way, and how you can’t make pesto with anything other than basil and pine nuts grown in a certain region according to her mother in law.
It seems every region has its own approach and they’ll defend their reputation with fierce intensity to the ends of the earth!
So you trust a food fanatic when they get behind a certain pasta brand and enthuse about it – a lot!
Sara made us two dishes – but it was perhaps the simplest one that stood out the the most for me as the taste was so intensely delicious. The kind of sauce you could use a loaf of bread mopping up to stretch out the experience.
Sara used her beloved thermomix to make the basic tomato sauce of olive oil, banana shallots and tinned chopped tomatoes. She said you could of course use a normal pan or even a pressure cooker to make it. I get the feeling her impressive cooking gadget had a lot to do with the depth of flavour that sauce had though!
She then added aubergine that had been salted and fried – divine.
The Garofalo pasta has a real bite to it, but not crunchy. It just makes you chew each mouthful for longer and really savour it. If you’re watching your calories it’s a good thing because I reckon you could eat less of it and still feel satisfied.
You might be spending more than you would on your average supermarket packet of pasta, but forking out a little extra transforms the dish into something special.
I think us family cooks start to see pasta as a bit humdrum when you’re churning it out for the kids day-in day-out, but this experience has certainly made me more likely to be a bit more choosy and perhaps economise in other areas at the supermarket.
I’m dying to reproduce this recipe at home for the boys as I know it’ll become a firm favourite. A great way to get aubergine into them without them even noticing!
Pasta alla Norma – recipe by Sara Danesin Medio
This is a classic Sicilian recipe blending the flavours of aubergines, tomatoes, basil and ricotta.
The term Norma seems to refer to the lady who developed the dish whose standard was deemed as high as Bellini’s opera La Norma.
2 medium aubergines
150 ml corn oil/mild olive oil for frying
2 medium shallots
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 tins chopped tomatoes
Basil (12 leaves – fresh)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed but left in their skins
400 g of Garofalo Mezze Maniche
200 g salted ricotta (if unavailable, use half parmigiano and half pecorino romano)
1. Slice width-wise the aubergines, and sprinkle them with rock salt as you layer them to ‘sweat’ in colander. Place a weight on top of the colander and allow at least half an hour for the excess water to drain from the aubergines. Pat them dry afterwards and fry them in corn oil/light olive oil.
2. Rest the fried aubergines in absorbent paper and slice in strips (1/2 cm width).
3. Slice 2 medium shallots and sauté in a pan with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and the garlic, add the tinned tomato and let the sauce reduce to a jam like consistency.
4. When the sauce is ready, fish out the garlic and add the aubergines, mix well, add the finely chopped basil and the grated salted ricotta (or parmesan /pecorino) and drizzle with lashings of extra virgin olive oil.
5. To cook the pasta, use a large capacity pan and bring to the boil 4 litres of water, add salt and then the pasta. If the sauce is a little too dense, add – before the cheese – half a ladle of boiling water and mix well, drain the pasta and serve at once.
Sara’s tip: The golden rule for cooking pasta properly is to use 1 litre of water for every 100 gr of pasta! Don’t bother adding ANY oil (it has better uses) to prevent pasta from sticking: it is the quantity of water and regular stirring that will ensure pasta doesn’t stick.
A massive thanks to Sara for welcoming us into her home and cooking for us, and to Garofalo for organising the trip.