Pasta alla Norma

April 13 - wine & cheese out with a friend for me and the Boy worked late
April 14 - Pasta all a Norma with lemon scented peas in butter
April 15 - Shrimp Scampi with roasted asparagus & baby greens salad

I've been feeling super nostalgic this week for the semester I spent in Florence in college.  I took my very first, and I guess only, cooking class there.  It was in Florence that my love for all thing Italian began.  I went to Italy hating red wine and eggplant and left loving both.  This dish is a main contributor to my love of eggplant.  My Italian cooking class was set up so that in each class we focused on a different region of Italy. Pasta alla Norma is from Sicily, which is where my grandmother's family is from.  It is apparently named after Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma, though I'm not sure about that.

Like all my favorite Italian food, it's a very simple pasta dish that is best served with uber fresh ingredients.  I probably should have waited until later in the summer to make it with some really nice eggplant.  Luckily I still have a few jars of my home canned tomatoes, that smell like summer with every jar I open, and I was able to get a nice looking eggplant from the grocery store.  When the farmer's markets are full of eggplant this summer I'll have to get creative and maybe make this dish for lunch because it truly is one of my faves.

One of the reasons I love it, aside from the fresh flavors,  is that it comes together really quickly.  The sauce is not a slow-cooked gravy, it's a just simmered fresh sauce that is done once the eggplant is sauteed and the pasta is cooked, which is why quality tomatoes are so important. Perfect for a weeknight meal because I can start it when the Boy calls and says he's on his way home.  Since I brought up the Boy, he's one who hated eggplant, that is until I did my special Italian magic on it.  Not that there's any secret to it, but eggplant fried in a bit of olive oil really is pure perfection if you ask me and I'm happy that he's finally coming over to my side of things.  He gobbled this up, something I wasn't sure would happen.

Pasta alla Norma
serves 3-4

2 medium or 1 large eggplant
2 large cans of whole tomatoes (use home canned or San Marzano you can absolutely taste the difference)
1 small onion - minced
2 cloves garlic - crushed
handful of basil leaves
pinch of crushed red pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lb pasta - rigatoni or penne is best
sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper
1/2 cup ricotta salata - crumbled

1.  Wash the eggplant and cut int 1" cubes.  Sprinkle with salt and let sit while you mince the onions and crush the garlic.  In a 4 quart saucepan, heat a Tbsp of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the minced onions and saute for a few minutes until translucent, then had the crushed garlic and crushed red pepper and saute until fragrant.
2. Add in the canned tomatoes, breaking them with your hands.  Season with a bit of salt & pepper and lower the heat to medium low and let simmer.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Cook pasta to all dente.
4. In a large saute pan heat 3-4 Tbsps of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat (it sounds like a lot but it's mainly to make sure the eggplant doesn't burn, it wont be in the final dish). Once the oil is hot add the eggplant cubes and saute the eggplant until they are brown on all sides, about 5-7 minutes.
5. Drain off the oil and add the eggplant to the simmering sauce.  Tear the basil leaves with you hands and add to the sauce.  Gently stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt & pepper.
6.  Serve bowls of pasta topped with a healthy amount of sauce and ricotta salata crumbles.

A few things to note: (1) salting the eggplant before cooking it helps to pull any bitter juices out.  (2) Ricotta Salata is a hard ricotta cheese, it's salt and very similar to a cotija or feta. That said if you can't find it I'd say go with a really nice ricotta, it's not the same but will keep the Italian spirit of the dish.


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