Tales from an Ital­ian kitchen

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Mid­sum­mer pasta

One of my pre­ferred shapes of pasta is mezze maniche – lit­er­ally half or short sleeves. I still have to con­cen­trate when I say it though – med-zay man-e-kay – which, typed here, seems as much a name for a rap­per as a pasta shape. Half the length of an­other favourite – tubu­lar, ridged riga­toni – the mezze maniche, with their five-pence di­am­e­ter, are just the thing for catch­ing and hid­ing chunks.

It is chunks of aubergine, also cour­gette, red pep­per and moz­zarella, hid­ing for this week’s recipe: pasta di mezz’es­tate, or mid­sum­mer pasta. It could just as eas­ily be called mid­dle-of-the­sum­mer-hol­i­days, late Au­gust or early Septem­ber pasta, given the sum­mer we have all shared and the sub­se­quent abun­dance of sum­mer veg­eta­bles that looks set to roll on.

In the in­tro­duc­tion to the recipe in their bril­liant book Sa­pori del Sud, Rita and Mar­i­ano Pane de­scribe pasta di mezz’es­tate as “a stu­pen­dous pal­ette of Car­avag­gio’s colours”, which sounds poncy when I write it, but just right in their words. Rita is right: they are Car­avag­gio’s colours – or maybe Prince’s – a purple two-piece, white ruffed shirt and a rasp­berry beret. It is a recipe from Cam­pa­nia, so un­sur­pris­ingly the veg­eta­bles – a large aubergine, red pep­per and a cou­ple of cour­gettes – are diced and fried un­til golden in a good inch of olive oil. In­ci­den­tally, this means they ab­sorb less oil than a shal­low fry. It is this im­mer­sion in olive oil that gives the veg­eta­bles a rich, al­most vel­vety tex­ture and flavour

– a defin­ing one in tra­di­tional south­ern Ital­ian food.

I take an al­most per­verse plea­sure in fry­ing when the weather is hot, in the lay­ers of heat and stream of sweat, a habit pos­si­bly be­gun when we fried an egg on the bon­net of Dad’s Rover 100 in 1989. Al­ter­na­tively, you could roast the diced veg­eta­bles in the oven; just be gen­er­ous with the oil and salt. You also need some sim­ple to­mato sauce, ei­ther three large peeled, chopped or squashed toma­toes cooked in a lit­tle olive oil with a clove of gar­lic un­til saucy, or some pas­sata. To the sauce you add 500g pasta – boiled un­til al dente – and the still-warm veg­eta­bles, along with 250g diced moz­zarella, 100g grated parme­san and a hand­ful of ripped basil. The parme­san acts much the same way as with tagli­atelle and rich bolog­nese sauce, a sort of culi­nary glue, melt­ing and meld­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether.

The idea of there be­ing pasta shape/sauce rules or of­fi­cial com­bi­na­tions is mis­matched with the an­ar­chic joy of food, es­pe­cially if it is used as a sort of one­up­man­ship. But there is tra­di­tion – pair­ings that work or have been re­peated so of­ten they have taken root: a tangle of spaghetti with clams, corkscrew twists of trofie for pesto, a tube of mac­a­roni, riga­toni or mezze maniche for con­ceal­ing pieces of aubergine and moz­zarella.

What­ever pasta you use, pasta di mezz’es­tate with its glis­ten­ing veg­eta­bles, to­mato sheen, melt­ing moz­zarella, all united by parme­san and reek­ing of basil, is a gor­geous, gen­er­ous dish for a crowd, es­pe­cially on a warm day, when sunny flavours are called for.

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