I am back – after a very long hiatus! After a summer of travels – both near and far – I am ready to retire the travel blog for another year and re-focus on my other love: food. Our journey to Africa was not one that inspires great culinary experiments. We subsisted on some edible but pretty standard camp meals, most involving eggs, beans, rice or eggplant. A few times along the way, our camp cook whipped up some ugali and matoke with chapatis, which was nice to try – but let’s just say that East Africa is not where you go to unleash your foodie prowess. There is one exception to this, however, and it is Zanzibar – The Spice Island.
We arrived on Zanzibar – the magical island off the coast of Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean, during Ramadan. Most of Zanzibar’s inhabitants are Muslim, so the city of Stone Town was not really the usual bustling food centre that it is until after sun down. Many of the cafes and restaurants closed down during the day, and sometimes the ones that were open were hidden because the usual sprawl of tables and chairs over outdoor terraces was missing. We wandered the city – famished – on our first day, looking for anything open, and resolved that when we found it, we would refrain from being picky and just eat. As it turns out, the first restaurant we found was a very chic place serving ‘haute Belgian cuisine.’ Now, when I think of Belgium, the only thing that comes to mind as far as food goes, is chocolate and waffles. I was not particularly adverse to eating chocolate and waffles for lunch, except that ‘LouLou’s’ happened to have a menu of European foods of which I had not seen the likes for, oh, at least 30 days. Now, I normally would have to rule out something like Belgian food in a place that specializes in a fusion of Arab, African and Indian flavours, but, like I said, I was hungry.
So we ordered a pasta that didn’t sound particularly Belgian to me: linguine with eggplant, cashews and tomatoes. And it was good. Really, really good. I don’t cook pasta much at home, except when in need of a fast and easy meal, but I have to say the whole idea of using cashews in pasta was quite intriguing, and so I pulled out my iPod and made a quick note of the flavours I could detect in the dish. What a surprise to taste something so lovely in a Belgian restaurant on an island in East Africa!
When we arrived home, we found a large basket of low-acid orange heirloom tomatoes at our local farmer’s market. I also had a pint of those awesome little green pattypan squash from Guatemala. And I thought: heirloom tomatoes, pattypan squash and cashews? Why not! So what follows is the very “summery” meal that we concocted, inspired by our so-called “haute Belgian cuisine in Zanzibar” experience. Pattypan squash are hard to find in the GTA. I’ve only ever seen them at the giant Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens. So if you don’t have them, use eggplant or zucchini. Eggplant might require a bit more oil and cooking time because its flesh tends to absorb a lot of your oil; zucchini will cook very fast and so you should reduce your cooking time. It’s also important on recipes like these that you don’t cheap out on the olive oil. Not all olive oil is created equally, and a very good quality, flavourful olive oil is necessary for this one, since the olive oil forms the basis of the sauce.
Recipe: (serves 2-4, depending on size)
1/4 cup good quality olive oil (or more if you aren’t watching the fat content)
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4-6 full sprigs of fresh rosemary (you can substitute basil, but I preferred the rosemary); removed leaves from at least 1 sprig to equal 1 tbsp; leave the others intact.
1 cup pattypan squash, sliced on the diagonal (to preserve the scalloped shape); or, 1 small zucchini, sliced; OR, one Asian long eggplant, halved and sliced thinly
1/2 whole cashews
1/2 coarsely grated parmesan or asiago
4 heirloom tomatoes (yellow or orange), seeds removed and finely chopped
generous pinch of fleur-de-sel or sea salt
Whole grain linguine, cooked
*Prepare the garlic, cheese, tomatoes and squash ahead of time, and have them arranged on plates or bowls – because this recipe goes really quickly. Make sure your tomatoes are seeded, but not peeled. You can seed them by slicing them in half and squeezing them gently, using a teaspoon to coax out the seeds. Chop them after seeding.
While your linguine cooks (according to instructions and whether you are using dry or fresh linguine), prepare your ingredients. Your pasta should be cooked, rinsed and draining when you start the sauce. Heat 2-3 tbsp of olive oil in a deep pan and add the garlic, tossing rapidly until it is softened. Next add the squash (or eggplant or zucchini) and 1 tbsp rosemary leaves, removed from the stem (leave it on the stem for a gentler flavour). If you are using the pattypan squash, you will need to toss it on medium heat for about 5 minutes. If you are using zucchini, I would stick to 2-3 minutes. Eggplant may require more time and more oil. Toss the squash and rosemary, and then add cashews, ensuring they are coated with the oil. For the very last minute of cooking, you will add your chopped tomatoes and another tbsp oil. At this point, you can also have a taste to see how powerful the rosemary is. If you feel it needs more, toss in another full sprig or two for 30 seconds, along with the fleur de sel. Remove the pan immediately from the heat and toss gently with the linguine, drizzling any remaining olive oil on top. Serve the pasta on plates, and add at least a tbsp of parmesan to each plate just before eating. You may also wish to have fresh cracked pepper and extra sea salt on the side. Enjoy!