Pasta alla Norma, one of Sicily’s most iconic recipes, features fried eggplant simmered in tomato sauce and served with pasta, all seasoned with a generous flurry of ricotta salata. My first experience with the dish was on an estate near Catania in northeastern Sicily, the birthplace of the dish, where my stepmom Shari trained horses in the 1980s. Twenty years after her tenure, we returned to visit her former boss Gaetano, a suave aristocrat with a sprawling property on the lower slopes of Mount Etna. It was the fanciest place I had ever been. The regal dining room was filled with beautifully painted ceramics from Caltagirone, a town in central Sicily famous for terra-cotta. Outside, citrus trees packed with fruit obscured the silhouette of the active volcano beyond. Horses neighed in the distance. The eggplant (from their garden) had been fried in olive oil (their own production) and simmered in tomato sauce (again, homemade). It was a dramatic backdrop for simple pasta alla Norma, and it comforted me to know that such a humble dish has a place in such a stately locale.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds eggplant (about 2 medium globe), cut into ¾-inch cubes
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
6 fresh basil leaves, plus a few leaves per person for garnish
1 (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 pound dried paccheri or rigatoni
3 ounces ricotta salata cheese, coarsely grated (about ¾ cup)
Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle all over with abundant salt to draw out the water. Set aside to drain for 1 hour. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
Fill a 10- to 12-inch frying pan or cast-iron skillet with ½ cup of the olive oil and heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375°F. The temperature of the oil will drop slightly when you add the eggplant. Regulate the heat to fry at 350°F. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, fry the eggplant, turning to ensure even browning, until deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add more oil as needed. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Discard any remaining oil and wipe the pan clean.
Heat the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil in the same pan over medium-low heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic. Cook until it just starts to take color, 3 minutes. Add the basil, cooking until fragrant, 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes and season with salt. Cook until the tomatoes have lost their raw flavor, about 10 minutes. Stir in the eggplant and cook for 1 minute more.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water until it tastes like a seasoned soup. Add the paccheri and cook until al dente . Drain the pasta, reserving the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to coat. Add a bit more pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce as needed.
Plate and serve with the ricotta salata on top and a basil garnish.
Recipe from Food of the Italian Islands. Photo by David Alvarado.