“Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”
– from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Over a decade ago now I spent some months in Colombia. I travelled from Ecuador up through the green coffee-clad mountains to the coast, searching for warmer waters and the landscape of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After a spell in Cartagena – a bright, vibrant city – I caught a boat with a Frenchman to a small, impossibly glorious, island in the Caribbean waters. There was nothing on this island but a dirt road, a tiny town, and a hut with a thatched roof and no walls where we could sling our hammocks and fall asleep watching the stars reflecting off the ocean. I would have scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning, and the freshest fish for a late lunch. I spent my days reading and reading, and exploring the beaches and rocky shores. It was a bizarre and beautiful time in my life.
On the island, I met a group of Italian men. Romans, as they called themselves. Like me, they were travelling with no fixed plans, and so I spent the next month island hopping around Colombia with my new Italian friends. I got to know them fairly well – they were all a little older than me, and quickly came to look after me like a little sister. We had adventures together – riding motorbikes through the jungle in search of a local waterhole, navigating coral reefs in boats that were barely seaworthy – but mostly we found beaches to wile away the time.
And we cooked. And we ate. Well, mostly they cooked, my Italian friends. We ate local food, of course – flaky fish grilled and doused in hot green aji, passionfruit the size of my fist, strong sweet coffee, deep-fried plantains. But this group of men loved to cook, and wherever we stayed they would quickly take over the kitchen, locate the local markets, and make themselves at home. Though I grew up eating at Melbourne’s Italian institutions – Tiamo’s, Pellegrini’s – they taught me a lot about Italian food culture that I’d never encountered before. They taught me that onion and garlic should never be in the sauce together (a contested point, I know, but these men were unbending when it came to this). That pasta was a starter or a side dish, not the main course. To keep things simple and let the flavours of the best ingredients shine. That cooking should be a pleasure, eating a shared joy.
In truth, it is only the last two of those that I took to heart. Though it was a good few years between that time in Colombia and when I began to thrive in the kitchen, I still remember the meals that we shared, usually on the floor, often from a shared platter when there were not enough plates. And for some reason, one of those strange interconnections of memory and syntax, when I sat down to write about this Orecchiette with Ricotta, Eggplant & Black Olives, the first thing that came to mind were those months spent eating and swimming, sand-and-salt-flecked, on the Colombian coast.
This Orecchiette with Ricotta, Eggplant & Black Olives is not exactly traditional Italian fare, but no less lovely because of that. It stays true to the tenet that more is less, and that simple ingredients paired thoughtfully together is sometimes all that you need. We eat pasta once a week at home, give or take, but often in the summer months it feels too heavy. This dish, on the other hand, is both filling and light. Orecchiette is one of my favourite pastas to use – toothsome, and perfect for scooping. Here, I’ve paired a creamy lemon-laced ricotta with the complex sweetness of roasted eggplant and garlic. Fresh basil leaves and salty black olives complete the subtle flavour profile.
Recommended with a glass of cold white wine, in the late evening sunshine, with the people that you love best.
Orecchiette with Ricotta, Eggplant & Black Olives
500 grams orecchiette
250 grams fresh ricotta
Rind of 1 large lemon, finely grated
6 cloves garlic
15 black olives, pitted and halved
A generous cup full of fresh basil leaves
Chilli flakes, to taste
Sea salt & cracked pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, to cook
Preheat oven to 200°c/400°f.
Cut the eggplant into bite-sized chunks and toss them in a bowl together with the garlic cloves, and a generous amount of salt and olive oil. Lay in a single layer on a baking tray and roast for 25 minutes or until nicely browned, turning halfway through.
While the eggplant and garlic are roasting, whisk the lemon rind and ricotta together. Set aside.
Cook the orecchiette according to the instructions on the packet, erring on the al dente side. When the pasta is ready, drain, reserving about half a cup of the cooking water.
In a large bowl mix the cooked pasta together with the lemony-ricotta. Add the cooking water, just a tablespoon at a time, until you have a nice creamy consistency. Then stir through the roasted eggplant, the garlic cloves (after removing the skins), the basil leaves and the pitted olives.
Serve immediately, scattered with chilli flakes to taste.