Since we’re on the topic of eggplant these days, I’m hoping that by now, you’ve conquered your fears and realize that it’s an easy and delicious vegetable to cook. So let me introduce to you “Pasta Alla Norma.” Pasta Alla Norma is a traditional dish in Sicilian cuisine. When I first was introduced to this dish many years ago, it was made simply with tomatoes, eggplant, olive oil and grated ricotta salada cheese (which is just hardened ricotta cheese), and basil. It certainly did not need improvement, but as the “food craze” took over the airwaves and book shelves, different versions of this classic dish started to emerge. I’m guilty myself. But honestly, the ingredients alone just can’t miss, so why not mix it up a bit now and then. So that’s what I’m giving you here…..the variation on Pasta Alla Norma that my family loves the most.
When I visited Sicily, I ate only the traditional version, as we tend to dine mostly in local trattorias that Italians frequent (you can never go wrong doing this). They never tried to make this dish fancier, but it was always beyond delicious. As I always say, it is very difficult to get the exact, same taste as in Italy when you’re back home. I still salivate at the thought of this dish in it’s native surroundings. But that being said, we can get pretty darn close.
So as far as my variation on this recipe goes ( I suppose I’d better give my husband some credit here, as he really is the mastermind behind this particular version), to begin with, I didn’t use ziti, which is the traditional macaroni shape used. I used long cavatelli. My next break in tradition was the use of sautéd red onion. And lastly, instead of ricotta salada, I used fresh ricotta (that was totally my idea). So if you want to try the classical preparation, you now know how to change my version. And please note, there is no garlic used in either, but if you like spicy, do add some red pepper flakes. I realize that long cavatelli are difficult to find. I’m fortunate to live in an area where you can get almost any ethnic ingredient you desire, especially Italian. It’s almost as good as living in Italy. So, certainly substitute with ziti or any long tubular macaroni like this. I even love it with bucatini, perciatelli or spaghetti, even though Sicilians would flinch at the thought! Also, supermarket ricotta is just fine….no need for fresh if it’s not available to you.
And lastly, any variation of Pasta Alla Norma is delicious baked in a 375 degree oven for approximately 45 minutes. Just remember to cook the ziti al dente, and line the bottom of the baking dish with the sauce. You can even throw a little bit of seasoned bread crumbs on top for some crunch.
And so now for my version (oops, “our” version) of Pasta Alla Norma…..
1 pound of pasta
2 medium eggplants, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 medium size red onion
1 36 ounce can of whole peeled imported San Marzano tomatoes, squished in hands.
1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for cooking the eggplant and onion.
20 basil leaves
1 cup ricotta cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese, if desired
1. Heat some of the olive oil in whatever pan you like for making sauce (I’m hoping you have a favorite). Here I used a modern day Dutch oven, and I coat the bottom with olive oil for sautéing.
2. Add the eggplant, and stir well to coat it with oil. Cook for approximately 10 minutes, stirring often until eggplant is soft. Add some salt (a pinch or two) while cooking and more olive oil if needed.
3. Once the eggplant is cooked, remove it to a plate with paper towel to drain it of some oil.
4. Now add more oil if needed, heat and sauté the onion until soft.
5. Add the remaining olive oil and heat.
6. Add the squished tomatoes and their juice.
7. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for seasonings and add half the basil leaves, torn in half.
8. Add the eggplant back to the sauce and heat through for 5 minutes or so.
9. Drain the pasta and put in a serving bowl. Drizzle with just a little olive oil and toss.
10. Add the ricotta cheese, sauce, remainder of the basil leaves and toss gently.
11. Serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, if desired.