Spaghetti Alla Norma a Modo Mio (Spaghetti Alla Norma My Way)

Yesterday was Cleaning Day and I hate Cleaning Day! Perhaps I should qualify that: I hate the process but I love the result. There is nothing like the smell of a freshly dusted and polished house or the feel of a newly washed floor underfoot. Anyway, since it was a hard day cleaning, it had to be an easy day cooking and nothing is easier than pasta, in my book.

A quick look in the fridge revealed an aubergine begging to be eaten and a plan began to form. This recipe is based on a recipe from an Italian recipe book, but I tweaked it with the addition of bacon bits. My daughter has the firm belief that there’s nothing that can’t be improved with the addition of bacon, and I tend to agree. If you want the authentic recipe, just leave out the bacon. The ingredients are enough for two hungry people as a main meal. If you serve this as a primo, Italian style, then it would probably serve three or four people.

Ingredients :

1 aubergine
1 onion
100g bacon bits
250g spaghetti
Tomato passata
A few fresh basil leaves finely chopped
Salt
A small mozzarella ball (about 125g)
Chilli pepper to taste

Peel and slice the aubergines in thick slices. Salt them and leave them to draw for twenty minutes.
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In the meantime, peel and dice the onion and the bacon if it isn’t already diced. Prepare the basil leaves and keep them aside.
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Fry the bacon and onion together. You can add a little oil if needed. I always fry my onion until it is soft as I don’t like it crunchy, but you do it the way you like it. It should be golden and delicious. Mmmmm….can you smell that delicious onion and bacon smell?
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Now prepare the aubergine. Rinse and dry the slices well. Cut them into squares and fry them in a little hot oil. They will absorb the oil. When they have browned all over, drain them on kitchen paper. Be careful not to let them brown too much!
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When they are ready, add them to the pan with the bacon and onion. Add the passata, salt and chilli pepper to taste and allow to cook until the brinjal is cooked through and the sauce is rich and glossy.
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Now prepare the pasta.
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You need a large pot because pasta needs to cook in lots of water. None of this shoving it in a tiny pot. You need one this size and the water must be boiling with a rolling boil before you put the pasta in. Add lots of salt to the water. According to one italian saying, the pasta water should be as salty a the sea.

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Add the spaghetti to the pot in one piece. Do not break it or you’ll spoil the chance to eat it like an italian, slowly slurping in those stray strands that wouldn’t twirl on the fork. The strands slowly sink into the water as they soften and you can help them with a fork, turning and mixing them slowly. Put the pot lid on to bring the water back to the boil quickly, but watch the pot as it boils over easily. Once you have a rolling boil again, you can remove the lid. Use a long fork or spaghetti spoon to agitate and turn the pasta now and then while it cooks. This will help prevent the strands from sticking to each other. Cook until the spaghetti is cooked enough for you. It’s a personal thing. Al dente for most Italians means that there must still be a hard bite in the centre of the pasta. I don’t like that and cook until that bite is gone but the pasta is still relatively firm. About 14 minutes for this pasta.

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While the pasta is cooking, dice the mozzarella into small dices.
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Drain the pasta in a colander, keeping aside a little of the cooking water to add to your sauce if it’s too thick or too little and needs extra liquid. This is a trick all Italian mammas know and use to make a sauce stretch. It also helps make a sauce creamier. Put the spaghetti back in the pot and slowly add the hot pasta sauce, the diced mozzarella and the chopped basil, mixing gently. Add only enough to give the pasta a generous coating, not to drown it in sauce. I used about half the sauce and froze the rest for another meal.

Serve with a little grated parmesan. Buon appetito!
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Spring Thaw

Slow
        Trickle
Joins another
           And another
               Gushing,
                   Gurgling,
                        Gathering force,
It
         L
                E
                        A
                                P
                                        S
      from
                       rock
      to
                 rock.

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Spinach like an Italian Mamma

I love spring! The market suddenly blossoms with all manner of fresh, interesting vegetables and I browse the stalls with intense interest to see who has the biggest, brightest and crunchiest examples of my favourites. Piles of plump red and yellow peppers show off next to luscious purple brinjals. Nonnas and Mammas gently squeeze their flesh to gauge their freshness, exchanging opinions in the weak spring sunshine. No, these are not the best, they are rubbery and soft. Best to try the farmer’s stalls at the end of the piazza.

My weekly visit to the Friday market this week saw me returning home with 1,5 kilos of fresh young spinach. These are not the large Swiss chard leaves that we ate in South Africa when I was a child, They are small, young, dark green leaves with the most delicious taste. But if you want the best from your veges, you have to treat them right. Here’s what an Italian Mamma does with her spinach.

The leaves are bound to be dusty, even if they have been washed, so as soon as you get them home, give them a good wash under running water. Then dump them in a deep sink or bowl filled with fresh cold water. Take a large pot or deep pan and trim the roots and any unhealthy leaves from the spinach, dropping the leaves into the pot as you go. Look out for the initial leaves of the plant. They are long and narrow and must be thrown out as they will be starting to deteriorate. When the pot or pan is full, put it on the stove and start cooking the leaves. You can add a little salt to the leaves if you like. Do not add water as they cook in the water left on them. When the leaves are wilted, the spinach is done. It only takes a few minutes. Drain the leaves in a colander. Repeat the process untill all the leaves are cooked. Leave the spinach to cool.

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This is what it looks like.

When the spinach is cool, ask a big, hairy husband to squeeze the hell out of that spinach, forming small balls that you can put in the fridge (or do it yourself). The more water you squeeze out, the better the spinach keeps. It will keep in the fridge for between 3 and 5 days.

This is a common way for an Italian Mamma to store spinach. In fact, you can even buy balls of cooked spinach from the supermarkets here. It can now be chopped and served as a salad with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Delicious! Or if you like, it can be gently fried after chopping. Depressions are made in the spinach and eggs lightly poached in them. A delicious brunch with bacon and toast. A  perrenial favourite at Easter is the “Easter tart”. The filling is a delicious blend of spinach, ricotta cheese, parmesan, eggs and nutmeg wrapped in puff pastry – one of my favourites!

Hmmm… which one shall I make this week? And what’s your favourite spinach dish? Let me know in the comments.

Double trouble, double blessings, plus one = triple blessings!

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That’s right. Twins! This celebration is one of the best. My daughter-in-law is expecting twin girls. Sadly, the distance between us means that we won’t get to hold them and love them as much as we would like. But we will be sharing in the joy and excitement of the arrival of these two precious babies. And we pray that they, their siblings and their parents may be blessed and sustained throughout their lives. Their arrival turns a family with two children into a family with four children. Yikes!

But wait. There’s more! My daughter, who lives near us in Italy, is expecting her first child. For the first time I get to share in the pregnancy. We feel incredibly blessed to be able to share in her pregnancy, seeing scan pictures and hearing about her experiences. And we know we will share in this baby’s life in a meaningful way. We are truly blessed and very thankful!

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Questions to ponder

 

Let me start by saying that the purpose of this post is not to garner sympathy or expressions of solidarity. Rather, it’s a genuine attempt to understand what other people do, and more specifically, other people of a similar age and background.

In many ways, life has become easier for the majority of middle class westerners in developed countries. We have easy access to food and water, and electricity allows us to be plugged in to entertainment and information 24/7. All of this ease comes at a price however, and the bottom line is that we have to continually earn a dollar to spend a dollar. That’s fine when you’re young, fit and healthy, but what do you do when age, health or circumstances make it difficult or impossible to earn a living in the conventional ways, or make it necessary to supplement your income in order to make ends meet?

I’ve just started this journey of discovery and wonder if others feel the same as I do. I’m fifty-five this year. Not particularly old if you ask me, but living in a country whose language is not my mother tongue and whose unemployment statistics are high and steadily rising means that I will probably never be able to find employment in the general market. Add to that my age, and I’m out for the count! Although I can earn a little by teaching English, it doesn’t pay very well, and during the summer holidays here, everything stops, including one’s earnings.

Spurred on by these thoughts, I decided to investigate other means of earning some cash, focusing primarily on Internet-related possibilities. After ruling out a number of ideas for various reasons, I settled on writing and online work and set about investigating these in more depth. After all, I’m an English teacher with a BA degree and I have a blog, so surely I should be able to make it in the world of copy writing and such? That’s what I thought!

I started my research at Textbroker.com and was surprised to find that they only accept writers living in the USA. Scratch that then! My next step was to investigate Textbroker.co.uk but they only accept people in the UK, Canada, New Zealand or Australia. So much for that idea! I moved on to the next websites on my list, which were eLance and Odesk.

A quick browse of both websites gives the impression that working online as a freelancer is as quick and easy as the click of a mouse. “Sign up right away and you’ll soon have plenty of work and much more money in the bank,” is what they would have you believe. I then did a quick stroll around some writer profiles to see what kind of background and experience people had, and that’s when my heart sank.

Seasoned writer with more than 17 years of journalism, public relations and marketing experience. I have a proven ability to produce engaging copy, meet tight deadlines, clarify complicated issues and write about a wide array of topics.

My background is in journalism and advertising. I ran my own small advertising agency for several years, which helped me hone my ability to put words together in fresh, meaningful ways. Along the way, I also created thousands of graphics for a wide range of marketing purposes. I have over 25 years of professional writing and graphic arts experience…

These are just two examples of the kind of profile that almost every person had. How could I compete with people like that in what I’m sure is an extremely competitive environment? What can I bring to the table? I don’t have any marketing/advertising/copy writing experience and if I’m honest, very little Internet experience ( I only started really using the Internet about 12 or 13 years ago and there is an awful lot I don’t understand). I’ve always been a mother first and an employee second. I have 9 months of experience teaching English in a high school and some years of freelance ESL teaching experience, but how is that going to help in this situation? My only other working experience has been my seven years as a receptionist and office manager for a dentist. Granted, I wrote quotations and reports and corresponded with the medical aid companies regarding the payment of patients’ accounts, but I don’t know how I could make that relevant.

So you’ve probably guessed that I’m feeling more than a little discouraged! I would love to know what other people think and what other people do when faced with this kind of situation. If you are my age, you’ve probably resigned yourself to the fact that you will always have to work (unless you have a secret method for winning the lottery, in which case, let me in on the secret, please!) but you realize that the opportunities for work will probably narrow as you get older. What will you do? What do you do? Please let me know in the comments.

This post was written in response to the Daily Prompt’s weekly writing inspiration.

 

 

 

Where’re you going?

I was ready to rant about the youth of today and how they have no respect for others after an unpleasant exchange of words at my local  bar yesterday morning. Then I opened WordPress and found this post from a friendly dinosaur, and all my plans turned upside down and wafted away in the fresh breeze of her voice. Welcome back little dinosaur. Your voice has been missed. Your question is echoing in my head and as soon as I figure out the real answer, I’ll let you know.

Freedom on two wheels

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I grew up in a house where there was always at least one motorbike and, at one point, six or seven. Although Dad had given up riding when we were very young, when we reached our teens and money wasn’t as tight anymore, he bought the first of the long line of silver steeds that I remember. Perhaps it was the thought of spending time with my brother, who had graduated from his annoyingly noisy 50cc to his first big bike, or perhaps it was just the desire to do something he loved. And I think I understand why he loved it so.

When you ride a bike, even as a pillion passenger, you’re out there with the elements. The sun beats down on you and if you’ve fogotten your sunscreen (or a light jacket), your t-shirt sleeves will be scorched onto your arms for weeks to come. I remember one trip here in Italy where the heat was reflecting off the tarmac in visible waves and my feet were cooking when we eventually got to our destination!

Spring is the best time to ride if you can avoid the rain. The colours are bright and vibrant and your senses are assailed by sights, sounds and smells that you would never notice if you were travelling by car. Travelling down to Cinque Terre in Italy a few years ago, the smells of travelling cemented themselves in my memory. Rice paddies in the Vercelli area smelled damp and fertile. That smell lasted until we left the paddies behind us but our nostrils were soon assaulted by new barnyard smells of fields being fertilised with manure in preparation for a new growing season. Phew! We were happy to leave that smell behind! Further on, I remember the heady fragrance of a grove of flowering trees – a smell so strong, you could almost touch it.

And the sights! Hilltop towns clinging to their peaks give way to verdant valleys and further towns. I want to stop and explore every one of them, but the chief tends to want to get to where he is heading. Exploration is reserved for specific trips, when there is no other goal than that.

This year, having scaled down on the size of our silver steed, we’re hoping to do more trips around Italy. They’ll be shorter trips, allowing us to spend a few days at a time in Tuscany first, and in some of the other beautiful areas of this stunning country.