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Pasta alla Norma: A Sicilian Delight with Eggplant and Ricotta Salata

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Pasta alla Norma is a traditional Sicilian pasta dish that celebrates the flavors of southern Italy with its combination of tender eggplant, tangy tomato sauce, aromatic basil, and salty ricotta salata cheese. This classic recipe is named after the opera “Norma” by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini and is loved for its simple yet robust flavors. Let’s explore how to make Pasta alla Norma with a recipe that captures the essence of Sicilian cuisine.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Salt, for sweating the eggplant
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional, for heat)
  • 1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn, plus extra for garnish
  • 12 ounces pasta (such as spaghetti or penne)
  • 1/2 cup ricotta salata cheese, grated or crumbled (substitute with feta if unavailable)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions:

Step 1: Prepare the Eggplant

  1. Place the eggplant cubes in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to coat evenly and let sit for 20-30 minutes to draw out bitterness. Rinse the eggplant thoroughly under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

Step 2: Cook the Eggplant

  1. In a large skillet or frying pan, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the eggplant cubes in a single layer (you may need to do this in batches) and fry until golden brown and tender, about 8-10 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the pan and drain on paper towels.

Step 3: Prepare the Tomato Sauce

  1. In the same skillet, add minced garlic and red pepper flakes (if using). Cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
  2. Add the crushed tomatoes and torn basil leaves to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the sauce for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened.

Step 4: Cook the Pasta

  1. While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water according to package instructions until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.

Step 5: Combine and Serve

  1. Add the cooked eggplant cubes to the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the cooked pasta to the skillet along with some of the reserved pasta cooking water, tossing gently to coat the pasta evenly with the sauce.
  2. Remove the skillet from heat and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Step 6: Serve and Garnish

  1. Divide the Pasta alla Norma among serving plates or bowls. Garnish each serving with grated or crumbled ricotta salata cheese and additional torn basil leaves. Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.

Tips for Success:

  • Eggplant Preparation: Salting and rinsing the eggplant helps remove bitterness and excess moisture, ensuring a creamy texture when cooked.
  • Tomato Sauce: Use good-quality canned tomatoes for the sauce, and crush them by hand for a rustic texture. Fresh basil adds brightness and herbal notes to the dish.
  • Pasta Cooking Water: Adding reserved pasta cooking water helps loosen the sauce and allows it to cling better to the pasta.

Serving Suggestions:

Pasta alla Norma is best served immediately, while the pasta is hot and the flavors are vibrant. Serve it as a main course with a side salad of bitter greens or crusty Italian bread. Pair it with a Sicilian red wine, such as Nero d’Avola, to complement the robust flavors of the dish.

Conclusion:

Pasta alla Norma exemplifies the rustic and flavorful cuisine of Sicily, combining the sweetness of eggplant with the tanginess of tomatoes and the richness of ricotta salata cheese. With its simple preparation and vibrant colors, this dish is a testament to the beauty of Mediterranean ingredients. Embrace the flavors of Sicilian tradition with this easy-to-follow recipe and enjoy a taste of Italy in every bite of Pasta alla Norma.

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Written by Robert Zelesky

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