These months of lockdown and Covid restrictions have brought home just how much food can transport us to places we miss when we can’t actually be there. Right now, as England turns gloomy and cold with damp, I’m longing for old haunts in Sicily. The sun is still beating there with fruitful intensity onto groves of almond, citrus and olive. It’s baking the rocks and herbs of the wild scrubby landscape and the quiet beaches where we’ve swum into October. It’s turning the beautiful baroque towns golden with every sunset.
Cooking this favourite Sicilian dish brings it closer, right onto our table, right into now, so we feel again its sun and all the flavours and fragrances its intensity bestows. This hearty, comforting dish also reconciles me to appreciating home in these cooler months — even gives me a reason to welcome them — as this hearty ‘pasta bake’ is best eaten when you want to remember the feel of the sun, but aren’t melting under it.
Pasta ‘ncasciata (pronounced “in-kah-cháh-tah”) is a treasured classic of Sicilian cuisine, one of its most popular baked-pasta dishes. When this dish is on the menu, you know someone has taken time to make something special.
It’s made with annelli pasta, or ‘little rings’, dressed in a meaty tomato ragu made with sausage, pork or beef (or sometimes a mix). To this is added a generous quantity of sautéed aubergine and cubed cheese (in Sicily it’s caciocavallo, a cow or sheep milk cheese which stretches on cooking.) This assemblage of parts is put into a baking dish and blanketed with a silky béchamel and sprinkling of melting-cheese, to give the finished masterpiece an irresistible golden finish.