Archive | November, 2013

a Sicilian tradition :: Timballo di Pasta alla Norma


Full recipe at end of post.

I’m excited to share another truly Italian recipe with you today!  Anna, my friend and fellow crafter, organized a cooking class at her house last week.  Anna invited her friend and neighbor, Maria, and her daughter to teach the class, and together they taught us how to make a sponge cake with ricotta filling, cannoli (!), and the recipe I’m sharing with you today: Timballo di Pasta alla Norma.

Pasta alla Norma is… umm… amazing.  It is a delicious combination of fried eggplant, homemade marinara sauce, and fresh pasta, and it is always topped with shavings of ricotta salata cheese.  (Earlier this year, I shared the recipe here.)  It’s also a classically Sicilian dish, something that will bring a smile to any Italian’s face.  This particular version is a play on the classic dish; timballo, as best I understand, means drum, and this dish is basically Pasta alla Norma baked in a bundt pan, with the end result being that your main dish does look a little bit like a colorful, extremely tasty drum!

So, without further ado, let’s get drumming cooking.  I will make a brief apology for the quality of some of these photos.  I was trying to photograph three dishes as they were being cooked simultaneously, and I was also keeping these two munchkins out of trouble.  I know.  They don’t look like they even know the meaning of the word, but… trust me.  They do.


Begin by preparing your eggplant.  Italians like to peel off only the ends and a strip of skin on each side so that the eggplant will hold its shape as it fries.


Thickly slice the eggplant and put it in a cold bath of heavily salted water for about 5 minutes.  This draws out the bitterness in the eggplant.  After 5 minutes, stab the slices with a fork.  Soak for 5 minutes more.


Drain the water (which will be brown) and rinse the eggplant.  Pat the slices dry.  Heat up your vegetable oil and start frying the eggplant in batches.


Cook until golden brown and tender.  Drain on paper towels until completely cool.  (And try not to eat it all right now.  Fried eggplant is unbelievably delicious… and this is coming from someone who didn’t like eggplant until she moved to Sicily.)



At this point you can begin preparing your pasta sauce.  The recipe is basic: tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, salt, fresh basil.  The two secrets that make this sauce distinctive are (1) teaspoon of sugar and (2) a pinch of baking soda, if you can believe it!  The small amount (pictured below) alters the acidity of the tomato sauce and gives it a unique sweetness.


Cook your rigatoni pasta.  When it is al dente, mix in your sauce and 1 cup of pesto.


Add about 1.25 cups of ricotta salata and mix together.


Line 2 bundt pans with the browned eggplant slices.


Pour the pasta on top of the eggplant and sprinkle with another 1/4 cup of ricotta salata.


Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes at 250 degrees F (120 C).  Remove from the oven and allow to cool.  (If you turn it out too early, your timballo will lose its shape, especially when you serve it.)


Decorate with fresh sprigs of basil and a sprinkle of ricotta salata.  And there it is!  A rich blend of salty and sweet, chewy and textured, too wonderful for just one helping.  A taste of Sicily in your kitchen!


Timballo di Pasta alla Norma


  • 2 Eggplants
  • Salt
  • Vegetable (sunflower) oil (for frying)
  1. Cut off ends and the skin down one side of each eggplant. Slice lengthwise in ½ inch slices.
  2. Place slices in a bowl of water and salt heavily. Let soak for 5 minutes.  Pierce eggplant slices with a fork. Let soak 5 minutes longe.  Drain water and dry each slice with a paper towel, piercing again with a fork.
  3. Heat vegetable oil and fry dried eggplant slices until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels to remove excess oil. Let cool completely.


  • 3 jars Passata (tomato sauce)
  • 2 Garlic cloves
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/8 tsp Baking soda
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • ¼ c. Olive oil
  • Handful fresh basil
  1. Simmer tomato sauce, garlic, and salt for 20-30 minutes until thickened. After it is thickened, stir in baking soda and sugar.
  2. Remove from heat and add olive oil and basil.

Pasta and Finishing

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) pasta (we used rigatoni but spaghetti can also be used)
  • 1 c. basil pesto
  • 1 ½ c. ricotta salata cheese, shredded with ¼ c. reserved
  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
  2. Cook pasta according to package instructions in salted water. Drain.
  3. Stir pesto and 1 ¼ c. sliced cheese into pasta. Add tomato sauce to pasta mixture.
  4. Line 2 bundt pans with the browned eggplant slices. Pour pasta into pan on top of eggplant then top with any remaining sauce. Sprinkle reserved ricotta salata on top.
  5. Bake for about 10 minutes.
  6. Wait until cool, then flip onto large flat plate. Put basil stems in center and top with shredded ricotta salata.
6 :: in eat this, in my kitchen, Sicily

my family & the butterflies


Ever since the kids and I visited the Casa delle Farfalle (House of the Butterflies) in the spring, Elliott been wanting to go too.  We finally got our act together and went for a picnic lunch one weekend after church.  I’m so glad we went on the weekend because the park was packed with Italian families grilling out, picnicking, and kicking soccer balls around, and we felt like we were truly experiencing an Italian Sunday afternoon.  The butterfly house wasn’t that bad either!




becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-15 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-8 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-17

In addition to butterflies, the tropical garden included several crazy insects.  That stick insect and that millipede are the biggest I’ve ever seen!

becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-16 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-9


Look at Gil’s face!

The butterfly house also includes a few rooms dedicated to the history of the Silk Road.  It was fascinating to see live silk moths and realize what a tedious process it is to extract the silk from their cocoons… even in the 21st century.

becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-6 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-18 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-7

Gil amused himself by taking apart the displays…

And my favorite moment of the day is in photographs below when a butterfly landed right on Elliott’s face… and then Gil noticed it… and then…

becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-19 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-20 becca-garber-butterfly-house-sicily-10

Not pictured: the flight of the butterfly.  Lucky guy!

6 :: in family, Sicily, weekend

how we spend our days {Part 2 of 2}


(If you’d like to see Part 1 of this little series, click here.  Just for fun — and for myself in the years to come — I’m documenting a day with my family in our home in Sicily.  The day also happened to be my 27th birthday!)

When I left off yesterday, it was about 11am on November 14, and Gil was still napping.  Lena and I moved out to the balcony to hang our bedroom sheets from the railing; they billowed and retracted with the breeze.  I asked Lena to take the dry cloth diapers off the rack for me, and she stacked them while I “stuffed” the diapers with absorbent inserts.  She’s a good helper!


She found a millipede, one of many in our house.


Diapers are stuffed and stacked… and ready to be snapped back onto Mr. Gil whenever he needs them.  Lena reached through the balcony to touch the dark blue sheets as they dried.


Back into the kitchen.  I gave Lena a snack of frozen berries mixed with organic vanilla yogurt.  We can’t get very many berries locally here in Sicily (besides picking wild blackberries in season, that is!), so I try to feed Lena mixes of various berries.  She ate her snack while I washed the dishes and put them up to dry in our over-the-sink drying cupboard (an Italian kitchen feature that I love).  When she was almost done, she brought me her bowl.  “Can you get one more bite for me, Mama?”  I scraped her bowl and found three more bites.


It’s 12pm and someone’s awake!  Lena runs to him first, saying, “Gil!  Aww, Gil!  You got up so early, Gil!”  I love how she repeats whatever she hears me say… well, most of the time I like to hear her repeat it.


On the left, this is where Gil is whenever I come into the room after his nap: pressing his head into the mesh and waiting eagerly for us to come racing in, scoop him up, snuggle him.  Right now Gil is sleeping in a pack ‘n’ play in the guest room while Lena still sleeps in her crib in her room.  I thought we’d transition them to the same bedroom with Gil in the crib and Lena in a regular bed after Gil was a few months old.  However, it’s made more sense to keep them separated because we usually have two bedrooms at our disposal and they sleep/nap much better apart.  Also, Lena still can’t get out of her crib by herself… and I am not going to encourage any escapism around here!


I quickly dress my children and pack a picnic lunch, and then strap them into the back of our Honda Civic.  Two kiddos are excited for “da playgroun’ an’ yunch wiff Daddy!”


In 10 minutes we’re parking, and I text Elliott to come meet us.  I love to see him walking towards us, stretching his legs after a long morning in the vet clinic and so happy to see his family!  It’s a beautiful day on base, and we let Lena run around for awhile before sitting down to eat.  Unfortunately, I’m learning that Lena rarely eats a full meal when there’s a playground nearby, so I’ll probably have to feed her something else by the time we get home.  Oh well, it’s worth it to see her joy… so much so that we’ve made this a weekly tradition.


After the meal, I had a few errands to run in the commissary (grocery store) and NEX (military version of Target).  The kid are troopers, but they were tuckered out by the time I finished!  (Lena is faking, Gil is not.)  Time to head home for naps.  I strapped them into the car, and by the time I parked in front of our house, Gil was fast asleep.  I carried his car seat to his room, slipped him out, nursed him, and laid him down, and then Lena and I read a couple of stories together before I tucked her in with a song and a prayer.

On most days, I usually get an hour or hour-and-a-half to myself in the afternoon.  Precious, precious time!  Some days I use this whole time to blog, other days I curl up hungrily with a book or knitting project I’ve been itching to enjoy all day.  Today I needed to get various things done around the house, so off I went…


I gathered my supplies for my knitting class that night.  It was the last one in a series of four classes, and I was excited to help my students finish up the hat and handwarmers they had started.  I teach classes through MWR (community activities organization) on base; this was the second class I’ve taught, and I’m teaching an advanced class in December.  They’re a lot of fun!


I also folded and delivered some laundry…


… and put the clean, dry sheets on our bed.  It won’t be long before I’ll need to change out the light blanket for our toasty-warm feather duvet for the winter months.  Our house has no central air and electricity is prohibitively expensive in Italy, so it gets cold in the wintertime!


I walked back into the kitchen just as the sun lit up the valley below Mt Etna.  I love this enormous kitchen window; it’s like having a painting on our wall that magically transforms with the changes in weather and seasons.


I frosted cupcakes for dessert that night… and might have treated myself to an extra one!


And finally I prepared dinner, because I wanted to have everything ready by 5pm so we could eat before I left for my knitting class at 6:15.  I put the final touches on this delicious recipe, made baked potatoes according to this great tutorial


… and made my favorite salad: greens with dried cranberries, chopped walnuts, and goat cheese, and usually finished with a blush wine viniagrette.

And then the kids were up and Elliott was home!  How did I only take two pictures of Elliott all day?!  But there he is, handsome stranger.


We opened presents and cards before dinner, where there were many fun surprises.  I was so excited to get this sweater from my parents, which I’ve been eyeing for awhile.  There were other gifts and gift cards from sweet family members, including these books and immersion blender (thank you, Elliott… soups all winter!!!):


And then we feasted, and then we ate cupcakes!  I couldn’t find a birthday candle for me (and Lena) to blow out, but my family did sing me “Happy Birthday,” Lena with a gigantic smile spreading across her face as she realized we were singing one of her favorite songs for a real birthday, not just for fun.  I love them so.


And that is where I forgot to keep taking pictures… oh well.  After dessert we dashed around in a flurry as Elliott bathed the kids and I put food away, and then I put Gil to bed and raced out the door.  The knitting class was so much fun, as was coming home to find my hubby had once again cleaned the kitchen.  Elliott and I spent a quiet evening together, reading and talking as we always do, thankful for this peaceful time at the end of the day.

I know I’ll look back on these days and probably be amazed by the simplicity of our lives.  I will remember being bored at times, overwhelmed at others, and often numbed to the joys because of the endless needs of my young family.  But I hope I also remember that I knew I was richly blessed, and that I was very happy, and that I was so well loved.

9 :: in a picture an hour, Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom Series, family, home sweet home, life lately

how we spend our days {Part 1 of 2}


Right before Gil was born, I did a two-part blog series documenting a regular day at home with Lena.  I knew those days were precious, and I wanted to capture the whole day in images as best I could (mostly for my own sake!).  Little did I know that Gil would be born the next day.  That really was the very last day in that stage of our lives.

Just like last January, change is on the horizon for us now.  We will only be in Sicily for another 8 months, and after that I don’t know where we’ll be or what my everyday life will look like.  I could very well go back to work, and/or my children might be in school or daycare.  Who knows?

There is also change in the weather here, as the autumn winds begin to whistle around our house on the cliff and the fields below us once again turn lush and green with the winter rains.

And there is change in our children.  They are not the same from day to day or even moment to moment.  When I took these pictures last week, Gil preferred to scoot everywhere, hoisting himself forward on his two arms and dragging his legs behind him.  Now, just four days later, he’s marching around on all fours with military precision.  Lena has probably learned 10 new words.  How can I keep up with all this change?

Of course the answer is that I can’t keep up with it.  I can only enjoy these fleeting days filled with growth and development and constant newness.  So, in order to capture a little bit of these days for my memory, I grabbed my camera on the morning of November 14th — my 27th birthday.  It was a special day in some ways (hot breakfast and cupcakes and presents, oh my!), but in others it was just the same as most others, because sameness — rhythm, routine — is necessary with young ones.

How we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives. (Annie Dillard)

So here is a day in our lives.


On that morning, Elliott let me sleep in… which was blissful!  We’re terrible at going to bed on time, and so we end up getting 6-7 hours of sleep most nights.  It just isn’t enough for either one of us, but we are starved for time to work on projects and spend time together after the kids are in bed, so I doubt our bedtime will change anytime soon.  To cope with this, we’ve started helping each other sleep in, which makes a monumental difference in our attitudes.

As soon as I stepped into the living room, Lena ran towards me holding a birthday card, her face lit up like the sunrise and words bubbling out of her with excitement.  She showed me the balloons, heart, and letters she and Elliott had drawn together, and then she opened up the card to show me five globs of scribble, which she pointed to in turn and described as, “A blue lion… and a red lion… and a yellow lion… and a green lion… and a… a pink lion!”  Except “lion” was more like “yion.”  You could have cleaned me up off the floor with a sponge; I totally melted into a little puddle of love.

I scooped her up and took her back to bed with me for some snuggles while Elliott disappeared into the kitchen…


… and returned a short while later with breakfast on a tray!  Hot coffee, bacon, an egg, and two pancakes (one with syrup and one with Nutella and banana, just the way I like them).   He then took Lena and left me to eat and read quietly in bed.  For some reason, this seemed like the very height of luxury to me right then.  I didn’t have to jump up to grab anything, and I didn’t have to feed anyone but myself.  And I could read!  “Honey, that was wonderful,” I told Elliott, “We have got to treat each other to it more often!”


Elliott had to run out the door to work, so I took over duty in the kitchen.  He gave us each a kiss and dashed out the door as we made plans to see him later for a picnic on the playground.

Out the kitchen window, I drank in the view of Etna, the volcano that dominates the eastern Sicilian skyline.  On winter mornings there’s barely a cloud in the sky.  Breathtaking!



My little ones were finishing their breakfast.  They are both huge fans of pancakes and eggs, a treat in our house!


Lena and Gil love to “snuggle” in Gil’s bed, where they play with toys, roll, and tumble.  Lena particularly enjoys this because it’s the only time she gets to have a pacifier (Gil’s, of course), which she still misses very much.  Sometimes she seems so mature, and sometimes I see glimpses of the little girl that was Gil’s age… wasn’t it just last week?!


Since they were safe and happily playing in Gil’s bed, started a load of laundry in our tiny Italian washing machine.  Afterwards I moved them to my bed for more snuggles as I got ready for the day.



Gil’s gets busier by the day.  Drawers, cupboards, and doors are his favorite things, and he loves to open and close them and see what’s on the other side.


Caught ya!


I moved into the bathroom, and they followed me… and disemboweled my toiletry bag.  Lena found something for her lips…

becca-garber-27-birthday-16 becca-garber-27-birthday-2

I caught Lena jumping on the bed — a forbidden but also an irresistible temptation for her! — and moved the group to the living room rug, where we keep a rotation of toys.  Gil pounded one of the cat’s toys onto a vintage Fisher Price xylophone, which I was stoked to find at a junk antique fair last week.


Lena asked me to help her make a “choo-choo train,” which is a line of blocks that she can then roll her cars over.


Gil found an actual choo-choo train.


Siena, our constant companion.  I have been so grateful for her tolerance and even fascination with my children as they’ve grown.  She lets Gil almost smother her before she disentangles herself, and she has always been gentle but firm in letting the kids know her limits.  She’s eager to be right on the periphery of our activity, a quiet shadow following us around the house.

After this, it was about 10am and Gil was ready for his morning nap.  I changed his diaper, zipped him up in a sleep sack, and then nursed him on the guest room bed.  Lena — who is not very good at amusing herself — quietly slipped into the room and snuggled up next to us, doing her best not to talk.  After a few minutes I laid a drowsy Gil down in his bed, and Lena and I tiptoed out of the room.


In the kitchen, clouds obscured Mt Etna already.


Lena read a library book while I gathered ingredients for carrot cupcakes.  I had to teach a knitting class at 6:30 tonight, and we like to eat and put Gil to bed before I go.  Because of this, I needed to have dinner ready by 5pm.  I wanted to make it special — it was my b’day! — and fun for my family.  I’ll cash in on my birthday reward of a husband-cooked meal some other time!


As the cupcakes baked, I mixed spices to marinate the meat for this incredible recipe


… and chopped onions, tomatoes, and peppers as part of the criolla salsa to accompany the meat.

That’s about half of the photos from that day.  I’ll pick up tomorrow with some cloth diaper-folding, a visit to base, my task list during the kids’ nap time, and a birthday dinner!

6 :: in a picture an hour, Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom Series, family, home sweet home, life lately, Mt Etna

Olive Picking in Sicily


In late October, the officer’s club organized a trip to pick olives on a local farm.  The season was at its peak, and trees were heavy with darkening olives.  We decided to go along, mostly because I’ve wanted to go olive picking since we moved here, and this was really our last chance.  We planned to only stay for a few hours, because we couldn’t fathom that we’d be much help in the grove with our two little ones.


The farm was just outside Mineo and owned by Agrippina and her husband Franco, who runs a butcher shop in the beautiful hilltop town of Mineo.  There were about 20 of us there, including some little children, and the whole atmosphere was very carefree.  I wondered how long it would take before we were sweating and miserable, as I’d heard that olive picking is no walk in the park.  Agrippina, however, informed us that olive trees only produce olives every two years.  Last year 100 of their 125 trees produced olives.  This year… only six.  Only six!  That sounded manageable.  How long could six trees take for 20 people to pick?


We headed down into the groves and got a quick tutorial.  We could either pick the olives by hand — as Elliott is doing on the left — or we could rattle them out of the trees with long- or short-handled rakes — like the ones our pediatrician is using and has stuck in his back pocket!


Lena enjoyed helping out after some guidance… and she probably picked more than I did!


I did have a sleeping baby attached to me, though.  And camera duty.


It was easy to slow down in the warm, dappled sunlight… only to be roused again by the furious pace of our Italian hosts.


As we picked olives, we tossed them down onto green nets laid out under the trees.


When one tree was finished, everyone helped shake the olives onto one net…


… and then picked out all the stems, leaves, and debris from around the olives.


We then funneled them into crates to be transported to the olive press.  It’s dirty work, especially if you like sticking your fingers in your mouth!


The group moved quickly from tree to tree, but it still took a couple of hours to pick all six trees.


The group is dwindling…


Elliott and Lena found a peaceful spot under a tree.


And then Gil woke up and wanted to join in the fun!


When all six trees were picked, we walked back up the hill to Franco and Agrippina’s house, which is over 100 years old and looks out over the valley.  On long tables under old pine trees, they served wine and grilled meat from Franco’s butcher shop, and we contributed side dishes.  The meal was delicious and–for some of us more than others–well earned!  Afterwards we ate Italian pastries and sipped limoncello and espresso before the drive home.


A relaxing day… especially considering we were sort of working!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
3 :: in Italy, Sicily

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes