Classic Pasta alla Norma
This is down-home, primal Sicilian cooking, using inexpensive and commonly available ingredients: olive oil, eggplant, tomato and pasta. A showering of grated ricotta salata and toasted bread crumbs adorns this humble yet justly famous dish. The Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini adored it with such a passion that it was eventually named after his 19th-century opera "Norma" — or so goes the story.
- Serves: 4 persons
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1small onion, diced
- Salt and pepper
- 2garlic cloves, peeled
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 12basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs for garnish
- 4cups peeled, chopped tomatoes with juice, fresh or canned
- 3or 4 small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1pound pasta, such as penne, rigatoncini or spaghetti
- 1cup coarsely grated ricotta salata
- ¼cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
Step 1Make a quick tomato sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
Step 2Stir in garlic, red pepper and basil leaves and cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and let sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside. (Sauce may be prepared up to 2 days in advance.)
Step 3Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Turn heat to low and cover pot until it’s time to cook the pasta.
Step 4Put a wide cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil to coat surface of pan. When oil is wavy, test by adding a cube of eggplant. It should begin to sizzle and brown immediately. Fill the pan with a single layer of eggplant cubes. Turn eggplant with a spatula or tongs and brown nicely on all sides. Lower heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature; if the pan is too hot, the eggplant will burn.
Step 5Remove cooked eggplant to a plate and continue to fry remaining eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Season finished eggplant with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, roast the eggplant on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, lightly drizzled with oil, until cooked and nicely browned, about 20 minutes.)
Step 6To assemble and serve, boil pasta until al dente, leaving it a little firmer than normal. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Add eggplant to sauce and gently stir to combine. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or tongs, toss pasta and sauce, and let cook 1 minute more. Thin sauce if necessary with a little pasta cooking water.
Step 7Transfer to a warmed wide pasta bowl. Sprinkle with grated ricotta salata and bread crumbs. Garnish with torn or whole basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.