Sunday, 19 February 2012

Pasta Alla Norma

Pasta Alla Norma is such a spectacular Sicilian recipe that it was named after the equally spectacular Bellini opera "Norma". I am not opera connoisseur, but I am a pasta expert and this dish is definitely worth an aria of praise. It's an elegant vegetarian sauce, with typically Sicilian, bold flavors.

My love for eggplants is no secret, so combining them with pasta in a lovely sauce full of tomatoes and basil sounds to me like a stroke of pure genius. If you can't find ricotta salata, don't freak out: ordinary ricotta does the trick. You can also use Parmigiano Reggiano, but don't grate it finely; use the biggest holes of your grater to get chunky pieces, instead of a dusting. As for the pasta, penne rigatte and spaghetti are the traditional choices (but I used fusilis for the pictures cuz I think they are the cutest pasta!). Here's what you need to make this recipe for 4 hungry folks:

1 large, firm eggplant
Olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 large bunch fresh basil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 (14-ounce) cans plum tomatoes
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 package dry pasta
1 cup ricotta salata, for garnish

Cut the eggplant into quarters, lengthwise. Cut them, across the length, into finger-sized pieces. Put the eggplant pieces in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry. Preheat a large pan over medium-high heat and add a glug of olive oil. Fry the eggplants, making sure the oil coats all the pieces well. Sprinkle with the oregano. Use tongs to turn eggplants until they are golden on all sides. Proceed with the eggplants in batches, if needed. Turn the heat to medium and add the chile, onion and garlic. Stir everything and add a swing of white wine vinegar and the canned tomatoes. Break them up with the back of a spoon so that they aren’t too chunky. Turn the heat down and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Add half the basil leaves to the sauce and stir well. Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente, drain, then add to the sauce, adding a bit of the pasta’s cooking water if needed. Mix well to cover the pastas in sauce. Divide between serving bowls and sprinkle with the remaining basil leaves and some ricotta.

You can also cube your eggplant instead of slicing it all fancy like I did, but that really boils down to presentation of your dish. I like it when what I cook looks pretty, and if you do, it's worth the extra effort.

I've also read one recipe where the eggplant was roasted, instead of fried. I haven't tried it, but if you are looking for a way to cut the grease from the frying, this is a great option. To roast an eggplant, slice it in half lengthwise and sprinkle with salt, to sweat. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchemin paper. Give the eggplant a few minutes, then rinse it and pat it dry. Brush each half thoroughly with olive oil and place them, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Roast for 1 hour. The eggplant will "collapse" and the bottom will look a bit caramelized. Let it cool until you can cut them without burning your fingers, and cut it into chunks (or slices) as desired. Throw them in a pan over medium heat and proceed with the recipe.

By the way, roasted eggplant is an awesome veggie to serve as a side-dish, straight from the oven, with a drizzle of lemon juice and a sprinkling of dried thyme.

Even if I personally think that a life without cheese is simply not worth living, here's a little tip for vegans who want to enjoy this delicious sauce: basil-tofu ricotta, straight from the pages of "Vegan with a Vengeance". It won't fool any cheese-lover's palate, but it makes a very decent substitution for the veg-heads!

1 pound firm tofu, pressed
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
10 to 12 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 cup nutritional yeast

In a large bowl, mush the tofu up with your hands until it is crumbly. Add the lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and basil. Mush with your hands again until it has the consistency of ricotta cheese; this may take up to 5 minutes. Add the olive oil, stir in with a fork. Add the nutritional yeast and mix all the ingredients well with the fork. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. This recipe wields about 2 cups.

A chianti is the ideal wine to serve with pasta all Norma, but any dry Italian red wine can stand in.

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