The sleepy, hill-surrounded area of South San Jose where my stepmother Kickie lives is suddenly hot property — thousands of new apartments surrounded by shiny shopping centers, Costcos, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes. While I enjoy the modern amenities, what I love most is the proximity to the country — just a few miles down a dusty road, and you’re in the middle of open fields and farmlands.
The area has long been eyed by Silicon Valley for development, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who landed in one of those fields with a real estate agent in a helicopter and considered it for Apple’s headquarters. Unfortunately for Jobs, many of the landowners go back generations and weren’t interested in selling. The rest, as they say, is history, with Apple instead putting Cupertino on the map just a few miles from where I grew up (which led to me working at Apple).
While I know that some of the fields and farms traversing San Martin, Gilroy, and Morgan Hill may eventually be sold to developers, I selfishly hope Spina Farms (408-463-0125, spina-farms.com) isn’t one of them. Established by John Spina in 1944, the farm spans three generations, with son and daughter-in-law John and Linda Spina taking the business to the next level by selling direct to consumers. With a produce stand at the intersection of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Bailey Avenue, many of the vegetables are grown in the fields behind the stand, including sweet corn and beefsteak tomatoes.
Those beefsteak tomatoes — softball sized with juicy, ruby red flesh — are the best you’ll find, and Kickie waits for them all year. They’re only available for a short time each summer, so I head to Spina frequently to get them, along with the green ones that Kickie fries just like her “Mammy” did while she was growing up in the hills of Kentucky. On a recent visit, I discovered just-ripe yellow and red roma tomatoes and some beautiful baby eggplant, which got me thinking about what my mom used to make with the last eggplant and tomatoes from her summer garden — a simple Sicilian dish called pasta alla Norma (purportedly named for the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini).
Tips and tricks: This recipe calls for ricotta salata, a pressed, salted, aged sheep milk cheese with a firm texture ideal for crumbling and grating, which can be found at most Italian delis, cheese shops, and gourmet markets. If you can’t find ricotta salata (trust me — it’s worth finding), pecorino Romano or even feta can be substituted.
Some people don’t like working with eggplant because of its “wet, slimy texture,” but there’s a trick: After peeling the eggplant (if large), cut into cubes, place pieces in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and allow to sit for 45 minutes; rinse with cold water and pat dry. This draws out the moisture so the eggplant will turn golden brown when sautéed.
If you don’t have fresh in-season tomatoes from your garden, local farmstand, or farmers’ market, you can substitute a 28-ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (crushed by hand), juice included, for the fresh tomatoes and the can of tomato sauce.
PASTA ALLA NORMA
(SICILIAN-STYLE PASTA WITH EGGPLANT AND TOMATOES)
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 8–10 baby eggplants or 2 medium eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 4–5 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 14 ounces chopped fresh tomatoes (preferably Roma)
- 14-ounce can high-quality tomato sauce (I like Hunt’s)
- 1 pound spaghetti or tube pasta (such as penne or rigatoni)
- 4 ounces ricotta salata, grated
- Handful fresh basil leaves, torn by hand
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a 5-quart enameled French oven or a heavy 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add eggplant and cook, shaking pan or tossing occasionally, until golden brown (about 10–12 minutes). Add garlic and pepper flakes and stir constantly until fragrant (30–45 seconds), being careful not to brown the garlic. Add chopped fresh tomatoes and stir constantly for several minutes. Add tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Lower heat, partially cover pan, and stir occasionally until liquid thickens into a sauce (10–15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add pasta and cook one minute less than package instructions. Reserve one cup of cooking water; drain pasta and return to pot. Turn off heat. Carefully add sauce to pasta and gently toss to coat, adding reserved pasta water to thin sauce if desired. Portion pasta into serving bowls and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil (optional); top with grated ricotta salata and torn basil leaves.
Mangiare e godere!