Trust the Italians to name a dish after an opera written by one of their own. Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma which premiered at La Scala in 1831 is that opera and also that dish. Pasta alla Norma hails from Sicily, from Catania, to be precise. Bellini also hails from Catania, Sicily. See the connection? Since we’re on the subject of connections, he intended the soprano part for Norma to be performed by Giuditta Pasta who was said to have 3 distinct vocal registers. That just means a dream voice, kawan kawan, one in a million, next to Maria Callas’s.
Nino Martoglio, a fellow Sicilian from Catania was so smitten by this simple pasta dish that he compared it to Bellini’s Norma and promptly christened it thus.
We will be leaving for SE Asia in a couple of days. The girls and I for 4 weeks and the Italian for only 2. Someone has to bring home the bacon, you see. I wanted to cook something memorable for the Italian as he will be on his own in Paris, no doubt, with plenty of things to entertain him and lots of work to complete. I wanted to show him my appreciation for his dedication and support through the years and mostly, my amore. He loves aubergines, he also loves pasta. So nothing can be easier than Pasta Alla Norma.
Here’s the recipe:
350 g spaghetti or linguine
450g of peeled tomatoes (it doesn’t matter what brand you use, but I tend to use Italian tinned tomatoes. You can also use fresh tomatoes which are an optimum choice. Remember summer tomatoes tend to be sweeter than winter ones.)
1 medium sized aubergine, sliced to about 1 – 1.5 cm thick
2 cloves of garlic peeled and smashed
3 fresh basil leaves or a sprinkle of dried basil
2 tbsp of olive oil
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar (less if you are using sweeter tomatoes)
generous amount of grated ricotta cheese or parmiggiano
Slice the aubergines into 1 – 1.5 cm thick. Put the slices into a colander and sprinkle generously with coarse salt. Put a a heavy dish over the slices and leave for 30 minutes to allow the vegetable slices to release their liquid. When you see a blackish puddle at the bottom of the colander, the aubergines are ready to be rinsed. Rinse carefully in cold water until you remove most of the salt. Leave to drain, then squeeze out any excess water with kitchen towels. Set aside.
Heat some oil in your best casserole dish and fragrant it with the garlic. Add the tomatoes and allow to simmer for 15 minutes before adding salt and sugar. Taste to adjust to personal preference. Leave to simmer for another 30 minutes.
Bring a pan of water to boil.
Heat a good amount of frying oil in your a shallow frying pan. Make sure the heat is low because you don’t want the oil to be too hot. When the oil is warm, not smoking, add the sliced aubergines. Leave to fry until they are soft and slightly brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain excess oil on kitchen towels. Then add half of them into the tomato sauce.
Whilst the aubergines are frying, cook your pasta according to packet instructions.
When the pasta is al dente, drain and toss into the tomato sauce.
Serve in pasta dishes, decorate each dish with the aubergine slices that have been set aside and grate a generous amount of ricotta or parmiggiano over the top.
The dish will look better decorated with fresh basil leaves. Because I didn’t have any in the fridge, I used the dried version instead.
The ricotta you see in the pic above is found only in Sicily. It is sun dried to this bronzy hue and used instead of parmiggiano all over Sicily. They are left to tan in the Sicilian sun by individual ricotta producers in little sheds like this:
The chicken wire keeps the flies and insects out. The stone prevents the family cat from getting to the cheese!
And allora, you have Pasta alla Norma:
I love the aubergine/melanzana/brinjal/eggplant/berenjena/茄子 (Qiézi).
Call it in whatever language it comes in, this spongy vegetable has to be cooked just right. I hate it when it is undercooked, hence tough and bitter. Brinjal has to be cooked with love and patience and is normally delicious in a stew or curry. Thai Green Curries usually feature aubergines, but small grape shaped ones only found in Asia.
When frying eggplant, you can get away from using too much oil by slow frying. They are also lovely steamed and eaten with a fish sauce/lime juice and chilli dip.
Tell me about your aubergine dishes, kawan kawan. I would love to hear how you cook them. Look out for further posts on aubergines Asian style.