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by Lynda Balslev
Pasta alla Norma is a classic and timeless Italian dish, hailing from the Sicilian city of Catania. It features eggplant — lots of it — in a simple marinara-style tomato sauce. While the ingredients technically qualify it as a late summer dish, it can be prepared year-round, which is good news for us. For something so simple, the flavors are warm, rich and comforting — which provides a perfect balm, Italian-style, during the frenzied holidays.
For an authentic pasta alla Norma, the eggplant is fried until soft, golden and slightly caramelized, then tumbled with a short tubular pasta, a shower of sharp and salty ricotta salata cheese and fresh basil leaves. In this recipe, I have made a few minor adjustments.
First, I oven-roast the eggplant to reduce the amount of oil needed to coax them into squidgy goodness. Eggplants are essentially sponges and will soak up all the oil in which they cook. Roasting the eggplant reduces the required amount of oil a notch, while still providing a good shellack for meltingly soft and flavorful results. As for the sauce, in the height of tomato season, it’s best to use the pulp of fresh tomatoes. Out of season (and for convenience), I use canned crushed Italian plum tomatoes or passata. And, finally, for the traditional finish with a generous sprinkling of the aforementioned ricotta salata, I substitute Pecorino Romano cheese, another Italian sheep cheese that is also sharp and salty, since I almost always have it in my refrigerator.
And for those inquiring minds who would like to know who Norma is, the name is a reference to the Italian opera “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini. Legend has it that this dish was created for the world premiere of the opera on the 26th of December in 1831, which affirms that even the Italians can enjoy this summery dish year-round.
Rigatoni alla Norma
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 10 minutes
Yield: Serves 4 to 5
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds eggplant, halved lengthwise, sliced 1/2-inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes or passata
1 pound rigatoni
1/4 cup torn fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup coarsely grated Pecorino Romano or ricotta salt cheese
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
Spread 3 to 4 tablespoons oil on the parchment. Add the eggplant slices and turn to thoroughly coat. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer to the oven and roast until the eggplant is golden brown and very soft, about 40 minutes, turning once or twice.
While the eggplant is roasting, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and oregano and saute until the garlic is soft and fragrant without coloring, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and simmer for 10 minutes.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 1 minute less than al dente per package instructions. Scoop out 1/4 cup cooking water and drain the pasta.
Add the roasted eggplant and pasta to the sauce and stir to combine over medium-low heat for about 30 seconds. If too thick, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons reserved cooking water. Stir in half of the basil.
Serve the pasta warm, sprinkled with the cheese and remaining basil.