There’s something magical about giving a recipe the respect it deserves and cooking it properly to transform simple ingredients into a spectacular dish. Pasta Alla Norma is such a recipe. This recipe originated in Catania, Sicily, Italy and allegedly got it’s name when a writer tasted the dish and exclaimed “This is a real Norma!” – a reference to the opera Norma. Made with local ingredients, this simple pasta dish is rich, earthy and perfect for Sunday family dinners or sharing with friends. The flavors of old world Italy definitely come through and this is my idea of authentic Italian food.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT EGGPLANTS
Italian eggplant is smaller, sweeter and with less seeds making it a better choice for many Italian dishes. In the States, we are familiar with American (Global) eggplant – it’s big and meaty, can be a little bitter due to the amount of seeds. The eggplant is the star of this dish so if you can find Italian eggplant, buy it. You’ll need 1 Italian eggplant per person. The Spruce Eats has a great article on eggplant varieties, if you wish to learn more. Since I couldn’t source Italian eggplant, I used two large American eggplants.
Because eggplants can be bitter (the seeds), there are two schools of thought on drawing out the bitterness:
(1) slice and salt the eggplant and place it on a colander for about 30 minutes to release a bitter liquid; or
(2) you don’t need to draw out the bitterness, simply cut out some of the seeds from the center and it will be fine.
For ease of getting dinner on the table on a weeknight, I’ll go with the latter, but you decide which method works for you.
BEFORE WE GET STARTED
It’s important to coordinate the various cooking times of the eggplant, pasta and sauce so the dish comes together at the end. The eggplant is combined with the sauce in the last five minutes of the pasta cooking time. Otherwise, the eggplant will become mushy and lose the crispy texture you got by frying. Enough said. Let’s get cooking.
Fill a pot with cold water and bring to a boil. When boiling, add the pasta to the boiling water along with a three-finger pinch of salt and a little olive oil. Stir well and move on to the other parts of the recipe.
Note: Salting the water is the only time the pasta will absorb salt into the pasta. While I used rigatoni, you can use any pasta you like.
Trim both ends of the eggplant and peel the skin from top to bottom in an alternating stripe pattern with a knife or vegetable peeler – meaning you’re going to remove some of the peel, not all of it. Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices, remove the seedy center as needed, and cube the eggplant. In a wide skillet, add a generous amount of olive oil and when the oil is hot, add the eggplant, sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper and pan fry in batches until golden brown over medium to high heat. The eggplant will absorb all the oil and as it crisps up, it will release some oil back into the pan. Remove to a plate. Repeat steps until all batches have been fried and set aside. Start the sauce.
Note: Although frying yields the best flavor and texture, you can roast the eggplant cubes like I did below. Place them on a sheet pan, generously drizzle in olive oil, sprinkle kosher salt and fresh pepper. Roast at 400°F for about 30 minutes, turning every 10 to ensure even roasting. Roasting allowed me to start the sauce sooner. The dish is still delicious, it’s just missing that little extra texture and flavor frying gives.
One ingredient you shouldn’t compromise on is Italian San Marzano organic whole peeled tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are grown in volcanic rich soil outside of Naples. They are sweet and delicious and will make a huge difference in your sauce. If you can’t find them, use another brand of whole peeled tomatoes, but don’t use tomato sauce or puree. Because other tomatoes may be more acidic, you may need to add a pinch of sugar to counter the acidity. Taste and season accordingly. Pour the canned whole tomatoes in a glass bowl and crush them with your hands, removing the hard core at the top of the tomato. Set aside.
In the same skillet you fried the eggplant, coat the bottom with a little olive oil and sauté the onion until translucent over medium heat. Add mashed garlic and red chili flakes and sauté for a minute just to release the flavors. Add the crushed San Marzano tomatoes and stir to combine. Add torn basil leaves and a small pinch of salt. Stir and simmer over medium to low heat, stirring occasionally.
Pantry Tips: These San Marzano tomatoes are the only ones I buy. I use them in all of my tomato recipes. I also wanted to show you this Basil Stir-In-Paste. This is wonderful to always have on hand -it has saved me many times when I was out of fresh basil. I always have basil, ginger and lemongrass stir-in-paste tubes, even though I didn’t use them in this dish.
I used two types of cheeses – fresh mozzarella (cubed) and Pecorino Romano (grated), because my local Italian market didn’t have Ricotta Salata.
Note: Ricotta Salata is salted, formed into a wheel and aged for several months. It’s a bit saltier than regular ricotta yet the texture is still creamy, but firm enough to crumble, grate or slice.
When the pasta has about five minutes to go, add the eggplant to the sauce along and more torn basil leaves. Stir and allow the flavors to marry over medium to low heat. Have your cheeses cut and ready to be grated.
Note: You don’t want to over cook the eggplant in the sauce. Five minutes is all you need.
Use a kitchen spider to drain the pasta and add it directly to the sauce. Turn the heat off. Toss to coat the noodles and add the cubed mozzarella cheese. As you fold the pasta together, the mozzarella will melt from the heat of the pasta and sauce.
Grate or crumble the ricotta salata cheese directly over the pasta and stir to combine. The cheese will be the glue that pulls together all the ingredients. If you don’t have ricotta salata, you can substitute with Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese. All great cheeses! I love to garnish with extra basil leaves and serve immediately.
A little opera music, a little wine, some bread or salad and you have all the makings for a memorable evening! This eggplant sauce is also delicious over crusty bread. For an appetizer, bypass the pasta, serve the eggplant sauce with a crusty Italian bread to sop up all the goodness. Amazing!
No matter how you serve this, your family and friends will rave and just like Norma, it will end in applause and adoration! Leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you.
Pasta Alla Norma
An authentic Sicilian eggplant pasta dish like nonna makes. This is so hearty and satisfying, you wouldn't know its a meatless recipe.
- 1 lb penne or rigatoni pasta substitute with pasta of your choice
- 2 medium size eggplants, seeded, peeled and cubed remove the core seeds to reduce bitterness
- olive oil as needed
- kosher salt and pepper to taste prefer Diamond brand kosher salt
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 1 Tablespoons garlic, finely minced (about 2 large cloves)
- ⅛-¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more for topping to taste
- 1 28-ounce can San Marzano organic peel tomatoes
- ½ cup basil, torn, plus more for garnishing
- ½ cup mozzarella, cubed into bitesize pieces
- ricotta salata for grating substitute with Pecorino Romano or Parmesan
Fill a pot with cold water and bring to a boil for the pasta. Cook pasta according to package instructions or desired doneness.
MAKING THE EGGPLANT
Trim both ends of the eggplant and peel the skin from top to bottom in an alternating stripe pattern with a knife or vegetable peeler. Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices, remove the seedy center as needed, and cube the eggplant.
To maximize the flavor and texture, you will pan frying the eggplant in batches, without overcrowding. Add a generous amount of olive oil to a wide skillet and heat the oil over medium to high heat. When the oil is hot, add the eggplant cubes. They should sizzle. Season with kosher salt and pepper and cook until the eggplant is golden brown and tender. Remove to a plate and repeat batch frying until all the cubes have been fried. Set aside.
MAKING THE SAUCE
Pour the whole peeled tomatoes in its juice in a Pyrex mixing bowl. Crush each tomato with your hands, removing hard pieces like the core. Set aside.
In the same skillet you fried the eggplant, coat the bottom with olive oil and sauté the diced onion until translucent and edges begin to brown. Add the mashed garlic and red pepper flakes. Sauté for a minute until they release their fragrance. Add the crushed tomatoes, a few pieces of torn basil and a small pinch of salt. Simmer over medium to low heat.
Note: If not using San Marzano tomatoes, you may need to add a little sugar to counterbalance the acidity.
COMBINING THE PASTA
When the pasta has five minutes cooking time left, add the eggplant cubes and torn basil leaves to the tomato sauce and warm through over medium to low heat.
With a kitchen spider, drain the pasta and add directly to the tomato & eggplant sauce. Turn the heat off.
Add the cubed mozzarella pieces and fold with a spatula. The heat from the sauce and pasta will begin to soften the mozzarella cubes. Grate ricotta salata, Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese. Fold to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning, but note each component has been salted and the cheeses are salty.
Transfer to a serving platter and serve with extra cheese, red pepper flakes and torn basil leaves. Buon appetito!
Note: If roasting the eggplant, generously coat in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 400°F oven and roast for about 30 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes to ensure even cooking.