It’s Opera Night here at Casa Becci! I have been dying for a heaping plate of ‘Pasta alla Norma’ – a Sicilian speciality named after Bellini’s tragic opera, Norma, composed in 1831. It was first performed at La Scala in Milan and in typical Italian fashion, this opera does not disappoint! (Act Two – Norma considers murdering her own children. Hmmm…) This extremely popular Sicilian dish was created in 19th century Sicily to honor the opera and is a mingling of creamy eggplant, tomatoes and a hard cheese known as ricotta salata.
When I used to visit my boyfriend who lived in Sicily, I would look forward to this pasta from the moment my little ‘piedi’ touched Sicilian soil. The Ristorante Pizzeria Trocadero just outside the stone wall of Taormina (Via Pirandello) makes a mean Pasta alla Norma (and mouth-watering pizzas). I used to love sitting outside on their little piazza, watching the bustling Sicilian life go by while happily munching on my Pasta alla Norma. (If you visit, please tell them that Michela from America says hello.)
This pasta is one of my staples and simple to whip up. (OK, the photo is not my most creative but at least give me a few points for my artfully arranged basil. ) I also normally use a short shaped pasta like long tubes of penne but when I went to the pasta shelf, there was none to be found so I used spaghetti for this opera night. Go the extra mile and try to find Ricotta Salata for this dish. Ricotta Salata is a salted, semi-hard cheese and gives this dish its rustic character. (If you must, substitute fresh ricotta. Although it changes the complexity of this wonderful dish, it is still worth making.)
So go ahead – open a bottle of vino, crank up Norma on the iPod and enjoy!
Pasta alla Norma
2 medium eggplants
4 cloves of garlic; divided
2 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes or about 1 pound of plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
8 basil leaves, shredded
1/2 to 1 cup ricotta salata, crumbled
1 pound pasta (penne or spaghetti)
-Peel and slice the eggplant into about 1/2 inch slices. (I sometimes do not peel the eggplant – yummy either way.) Salt the slices and put them into a colandar to drain. Leave for about an hour.
-Rinse and pat the eggplant dry. Dice the eggplant slices.
-Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium hot heat. Place 1 whole clove of garlic in the oil and allow it to simmer to flavor the oil. Do not let the garlic become black or it will make the oil bitter. Remove the garlic from the oil.
-Place the diced eggplant in the frying pan and fry until they are soft and browned.
-Remove the eggplant when done and allow to drain on absorbent paper.
-In the same saucepan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Mince the remaining 3 cloves of garlic and saute briefly. Do not allow it to brown.
-Add the tomatoes to the garlic. Season with salt and the red pepper flakes.
-Lower the heat to a simmer and continue cooking for about 15 minutes.
-Meanwhile, set water for the pasta to boil. As soon as it boils, salt it and cook the pasta according to package directions.
-About 5 minutes before the sauce is done, add the sauteed eggplant and basil.
-Drain the pasta and add to saucepan. Stir to coat the pasta.
-Plate the pasta either in individual serving bowls or a single large serving bowl.
-Sprinkle with the ricotta salata and more shredded basil.
-Serve extra ricotta salata on the side and enjoy!!