We’re crazy about eggplants. We adore them, we treasure them, we eat them up whenever we can. We roast them, we fry them, we toss them in sauce, we smash them into spreads, we layer them on sandwiches, we make them into caponata. We are indiscriminate in our eggplant love. But, of course, the way these purple gems mostly get into our cooking on the regular? Pasta. And the queen of the eggplant pastas is—hello—Pasta alla Norma.
Pasta alla Norma is one of our favorite pastas of all time, but with each delicious bite, we’ve often wondered who is Norma? What incredible woman could have inspired such a perfect dish? Sweet tomatoes and eggplants meld with fresh herbs, fragrant garlic, and spicy red pepper flakes. Everything is topped off with the gloriousness that is Ricotta Salata—a cheese that has one of the most fantastic, saltiest bites around. So, we looked into it, and it turns out the lady is actually an opera: the dish was apparently named to honor Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. Ok, we’ll buy that.
But as with all great stories, there are apparently a couple of possibilities for the way it came about. Some say that Vincenzo would often order an eggplant pasta dish at a restaurant he frequented. Eventually, he ate it enough that the chef dedicated the dish to him. The other story says that Italian writer Nino Martoglio loved the dish so much that he compared it to Bellini’s opera and the name caught on. Either way, Pasta all Norma originated in Sicily (like Lou’s parents…maybe that accounts for some of our adoration…) Leave it to the Italians to align food with art—and we are in total agreement.
So because we love this dish just as much as Vincenzo or Nino, we wanted to share it with you this Valentine’s Day. After all, pasta and love are both meant to be shared. Besides, what makes a better valentine than a bowl full of pasta?
When people talk about love, they say all kinds of different things. They love their families and partners, they love movies and music and food, they love their books and their sweaters, they love traveling and staying home, they love pasta and eggplant, they love many, many things. We say: Serve pasta, love all, and mend.
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Pasta alla Norma
Notes: Since we bought small Italian eggplants, which have few seeds, we didn’t salt them before using. Just be sure the eggplants are firm, smooth and unblemished. We also left the skin on—it’s your call if you want to peel or not. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. Also, be sure to use a good extra virgin olive oil. It flavors the eggplant.
For the tomatoes, use whole peeled tomatoes. We always find that crushed or diced tomatoes are oddly bitter.
– 2 pounds small Italian eggplants, washed, cut into ½-¾” sticks and about as long as your pasta
– 5-7 tbs extra virgin olive oil
– 5 cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
– 1 18-oz jar or 28-oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
– 1 pound short pasta (ziti or penne)
– 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil
– Red chili flakes to taste
– 1 tsp dried oregano
– Sea salt and pepper
– Small wedge of Ricotta Salata for grating
* Pre-heat oven to 400° F.
* Lightly oil the bottom of a roasting pan or baking sheet and add the eggplant.
* Toss with 4-5 tbs more of olive oil. Spread everything out so the sticks don’t overlap and you have one even layer. If your roasting pan isn’t large enough, you may need to use two.
* Roast the eggplant for about 25-30 minutes, until it’s brown and tender. Turn the eggplant with a spatula approximately halfway through. Remove pans from the oven and set aside.
* While the eggplant is roasting, fill a large pot with plenty of water for the pasta—4 to 5 quarts. (The pasta likes room to move while it cooks.) Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
* In the meantime, heat a large sauté pan over medium-low heat.
* Add 1 tbs of olive to the hot pan.
* Heat up the oil and sauté the garlic with a good pinch of salt and chili pepper flakes to taste. Don’t leave the pan unattended or the garlic will burn fast. Cook until the garlic is fragrant.
* Stir in the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add black pepper to taste, along with the oregano.
* At a very low simmer, cook the tomato sauce uncovered for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes are cooked and sauce has thickened a bit.
* Add the eggplant to the sauce and heat through.
* When the water boils, add a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. (Pasta water should taste like the sea.) Give everything a good stir. Cook, stirring regularly, until the pasta is al dente. Drain, reserving a cup or two of the pasta water.
* If your sauté pan is large enough, add the pasta to the sauce. If not, put the pasta back in the pasta pot and add the sauce with the eggplant. Add the chopped parsley or basil and 1/2 cup of the pasta water to loosen everything up (more if it seems a little dry). Toss and dish out into bowls.
* Pass the Ricotta Salata along with the cheese grater and serve.
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