This is a recipe I fell in love with during my semester in Italy a million years ago. Our Regional Cooking Instructor was a master. I tasted everything we made, relished everything he brought us, and went every place he suggested: those “authentic” places senza touristas (hey, it’s been awhile and my Italian is rusty).
Pasta alla Norma is a Sicilian dish from the region of Catania. It’s one of the more simple dishes we made but it made a lasting impression. I remember how the classroom smelled when we added the eggplant to the oil, how fragrant the tomatoes were we bought that morning, and most of all I remember it being the first time I ever enjoyed eggplant. It changed my eggplant world. It was as if something shifted in my brain and I decided that morning I would like eggplant from there on out. I am still very particular about the eggplant I cook and eat but as the season is upon us, I pull out my notebook of recipes and serve this one up. It’s still a favorite and a big crowd pleaser too.
I made this version with Le Veneziane and my friends were in disbelief that it was gluten free. This spaghetti had the best texture and flavor and worked perfectly with this dish. Even if you’re not gluten free, I might suggest a corn pasta.
Pasta alla Norma
2 large eggplants, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (or more to taste)
1 cup of basil, torn
salt and pepper
1 pound corn pasta
plenty of olive oil
ricotta salata or pecorino (any salty-hard sheep cheese will do)
Sprinkle the sliced eggplants with salt and leave them in a sieve to drain while you prepare the sauce*.
To make the tomato sauce, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and saute until soft. Add the tomatoes and garlic along with a pinch of salt and the chili flakes. Cook over low-medium heat for about 20-25 minutes. Stir occasionally. The sauce is done when the tomatoes have broken down and it has thickened. I like to use the hand-held immersion blender for a moment or two for the consistency at this point. But that is up to you. Add half of the basil to the sauce.
Rinse the eggplant and squeeze the excess water and salt out with your hands. Don’t worry about the shape. In a clean skillet, heat enough olive oil to make about 1/2 inch depth in the pan. When it is nice and hot, add the strained eggplant. Fry quickly until the eggplant is browned. Remove the eggplant onto paper towels or brown paper bags to drain a bit. Make sure the eggplant is completely soft and not at all spongy.
Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water and strain. Toss the pasta with the tomato sauce. Place eggplant atop the pasta and then the remaining torn basil. Grate ricotta salata on top to your liking.
*If you know the eggplants are not bitter at all, you do not need to sweat them. You can go straight to frying them. Here in Texas I suggest sweating them first.