Pasta alla Norma is a popular Sicilian tomato and eggplant dish that gets its name from Bellini’s opera Norma. Unlike the opera which is said to involve one of the most intricate and difficult soprano roles, Pasta alla Norma is actually pretty simple to make – there aren’t very many ingredients and it’s ready in under an hour including cooking time. The familiar combination of pasta, tomatoes, eggplant, cheese and basil might seem pretty boring at first glance. But the way it is brought together makes it a very delicious dish with complex flavors. If you haven’t tried cooking with eggplant yet, this would be a great recipe to try it out.
Ricotta salata is a type of aged/salted ricotta that I was able to find at my local Whole Foods, it’s pretty much the same texture as a block of feta. This was my first time trying it, and I must admit I’m not a huge fan. That’s probably because what I got was made from sheep’s milk, and having raised sheep for a number of years I’m not a huge fan of that strong sheepy flavor :) It was less pungent after it melted in with the pasta, but I’ll probably substitute feta or fresh ricotta the next time, unless I can find a cow’s milk equivalent. Please do try it with the real stuff if you like stronger flavored cheeses – that’s the proper way to eat this dish, I’m just a cheese wimp!
Pasta alla Norma
1 lb. eggplant
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c. olive oil
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
35 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes (about 4 c.)
1 lb. ziti or penne pasta
6 large basil leaves
2 c. ricotta salata (this is a lot of cheese, if you’re watching calories you could get by with less)
Start by peeling and cubing the eggplant. Toss the cubes with a bit of salt in a colander and leave it in the sink to drain for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, crush the canned tomatoes with your hands (a great stress reliever!) and set aside the crushed tomatoes with their juice. You can do a full puree of about half the tomatoes for a smoother sauce, or leave it more chunky – according to your own tastes. Brown the garlic cloves in olive oil over medium heat, adding the red pepper flakes just at the end so they cook for about 30 seconds in the oil. Then add the crushed tomatoes and juice to the pan, bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer. Let this cook for at least 12-15 minutes while you prepare the rest of the dish, but it can cook longer too. If it gets too thick, just add a bit of water and keep cooking.
Rinse eggplant and pat dry with paper towels. Fry eggplant over medium heat in a good amount of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until it is nicely browned and tender.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. Boil the pasta until al dente, then drain and add to the tomato sauce. Mix well so that the pasta gets nicely coated with the sauce. Remove from heat. Sprinkle some of the cheese on top, then the eggplant. Tear or chop the basil leaves into pieces and sprinkle on top with more cheese.
Adapted from : Lidia’s Italy, by Lidia Bastianich