Who can resist a tried and tested family recipe? On a recent visit to Malta to reconnect with my family heritage and meet long lost cousins, aunties and uncles, one of my most treasured and memorable experiences was that of a cooking session with my wonderful Maltese Nanna Tessie.
Before leaving, my mother begged me to get the recipe off my grandmother for her basic tomato pasta sauce- the most important and versatile base in Maltese cuisine. Being smack bang in the middle of the Mediterranean with a hot and dry climate, the staple food of the Maltese usually involves pasta, rice, bread, cheese, meat, rabbit (fenech), fish often with a tomato base- thus the importance of a perfect and simple tomato sauce.
Here I share with you a visual snapshot of our little cook-off and of course, Tessie’s family recipe for the sauce… including what Tessie swears is her ‘secret’ ingredient which will certainly surprise you!
What about the recipe for the actual ravioli itself you may ask? Well, I thought the same thing when I turned up to lunch expecting a kitchen armed with a pasta-machine, flour dust storm and production line of settling fresh curd cheese. I instead arrived presented with a neat bag of ready-made fresh pasta on the bench! It turns out that most Maltese buy the ravioli fresh and pre-made from their local pasta master of choice because the quality of the bought product is so good and only about €3 for a big bag of 3 dozen ricotta-filled morsels (or so my Nan convinced me anyway). However, If you really want to have a stab at making the pasta yourself to go with it, here are some good resources:
A video response tribute and step by step guide by the talented ‘Pip’ from MeetMeAtMikes showing how she made ravioli from scratch with Nanna Tessie’s recipe
Setting the scene- here’s my Nanna Tessie with her pot of sauce
Ready for that recipe now?
Here it is! (serves approx 4)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 6 whole tomatoes (Tessie insists they must be super-red vine ripened roma tomatoes)
- 1 tsp white sugar (start with 1/2 teaspoon and add the remaining half to taste as some may find the full amount a little too much)
- 2 bay leaves (dried)
- 1 tbsp good quality tomato paste
- Extra virgin olive oil (preferably Spanish)
- Freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste
And now for her ‘secret’ ingredient…
Wait for it….
1 chicken stock cube!
Yes, that’s right- a chicken stock cube! A little unconventional and I’m sure they were never part of her own mother’s repertoire, but to Tessie, those things are like butter to a french chef!
The other big no no, she insists, is never to put onion in the tomato sauce, and always cook it slowly slowly, gently gently.
Here she is again- reminding us not to use onion!
Now for the method:
Using a medium sized, heavy based pot, fill the base with olive oil to the depth of approximately halfway up your index fingertip. Peel and dice the garlic lengthways. You can add 2 extra cloves if you wish, it only intensifies the flavour (in a good way). Add the diced garlic to the pot with oil and gently fry the garlic at a low heat being careful not to burn them.
Fill a separate small pot with water and bring it to the boil. Add the tomatoes and boil for approximately 3 minutes, until you begin to see the skin peeling away from the flesh. Remove from the boiling water, discard water and then peel tomatoes.
Add the tomatoes to the pot with oil and garlic and chop them into small pieces with sharp knife. Simmer at a low heat and stir continually as the sauce begins to thicken and reduce. Gradually add a few drops of water, then add the stock cube and the bay leaves. Stir and simmer for a further 10 minutes then add the tomato paste, sugar and salt and pepper. Keep on a low simmer for a further ten minutes for the sauce to reduce and flavours intensify. Remove bay leaves before serving.
In a large pot bring water to the boil at (3/4’s) full and add 1 tbsp sea salt and a dash of olive oil.
Add the ravioli (fresh bought version or homemade) and cook until all the pasta has floated to the top.
Immediately drain in a colander.
Serve on a wide pasta dish with generous servings of freshly grated romano or parmesan, cracked black pepper and finely diced parsley (optional). Traditionally this is served with a side of mortadella ham and a local delicacy- black pepper chesee with crusty Maltese bread called “hobz.”