Perfect Pasta alla Norma
A Sicilian Showcase for Eggplant
Pasta alla Norma, just like pasta con sarde, is an all-time Sicilian classic as it showcases the island's favorite vegetable: eggplant. Similar to the caponata recipe I shared with you not too long ago, this pasta dish also enjoys many interpretations and variations. Some home cooks leave the eggplant in large slices, others prefer a dice; some bake, while others sauté; spaghetti or penne… you get the point.
I like making pasta alla Norma as a layered baked dish using 1/4-inch eggplant slices. The success of this dish truly relies on the quality of the eggplant. Larger eggplants tend to hold more seeds, which can be bitter, so look for small- to medium-sized eggplants. I also highly recommend making your own bread crumbs because the varying size of each crumb adds a nice salty/crunchy texture while thickening the sauce. Wrap a piece of day-old bread in a kitchen towel and pound with a mallet until the desired size is reached. And, if you cannot find ricotta salata, try a young pecorino.
Lastly, I am including my recipe for a basic tomato sauce that can be used for anything and everything, including this dish. My “secret” ingredient is the addition of, what else? Red wine! This sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for 6 months. Please note that this sauce is a bit rustic, so if you prefer a smoother one, proccess it in a food mill on a medium setting.
2 pounds small to medium eggplant, cut lengthwise into ¼-inch thick slices
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 tbls extra virgin olive oil
1 cup homemade toasted bread crumbs
1 pound penne
2 cups tomato sauce (see recipe below)
½ cup freshly grated pecorino romano
10 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
8-ounce piece of ricotta salata for grating
1. Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add a healthy handful of sea salt. Remember, the salted water should taste like the sea.
2. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Working in batches, sauté eggplant slices, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
3. In the same pan, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place on medium-high heat. Next add bread crumbs and toast in pan until golden brown. Be careful to pay attention to the pan as the bread crumbs can burn quickly. Once toasted, remove from heat, season with salt, and set aside on paper towel to drain.
4. Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a 9 by 12 inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
5. Next add penne to the boiling water for 4-6 minutes; they should still be quite firm (“uber” al dente) as they will continue to cook in the oven. Drain very well, place in a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the tomato sauce.
6. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with ¼ cup of the tomato sauce. Top with half the bread crumbs, then add half the pasta. Arrange half of the eggplant slices, overlapping them slightly, on top of the pasta. Pour about ¼ cup of tomato sauce over the eggplant, and top with half of the pecorino and half of the basil. Top with the remaining pasta, arrange the remaining eggplant over the pasta, and pour remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle with remaining pecorino and basil, and then the remaining bread crumbs. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil.
7. Bake for 45 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Right before serving, grate ricotta salata over the finished dish and enjoy!
Makes 4 cups
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ medium carrot, finely shredded
1 tbls tomato paste
Two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
¾ cup “what you would drink” red wine, preferably Italian and NOT aged in oak
1 tbls dried marjoram
salt and pepper, to season
1. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and golden, about 8 minutes.
2. Next add the carrot and tomato paste and cook until the carrot is soft, about 5 minutes.
3. Now add the tomatoes, with their juice, and the wine and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat, add the marjoram and simmer until thick, about 30 minutes.
4. Season with salt and pepper.