Pasta alla Norma

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Eggplant is a funny vegetable. It’s not a vegetable that inspires passion, the way that asparagus or ramps do in springtime. It’s not a vegetable that anyone would put on a short list of favorite foods. If the farmer’s market held a prom, I’m pretty certain eggplant would be sitting by itself on a bench, chatting uneasily with a turnip, and waiting—hoping—someone might just ask it to dance.

Well, eggplant, here I am in my tux: waddya say we ménage a trios with some tomato and basil? No, no, silly eggplant, we’re not going to make love—sorry—but we ARE going to make something better: Pasta alla Norma!

Yes, summer is at an end, but as Mario Batali often said on “Molto Mario”: the best time for tomatoes and corn and all those summer vegetables isn’t in August, it’s in September and October. Why is that? I imagine it has something to do with late tomatoes spending more time on the vine and having more flavor? Or maybe just as the season changes the flavors change too?

Whatever the case, in September and October I’m still wont to gather tomatoes and corn at the farmer’s market and make a simple salad or a simple pasta. What I rarely grab is eggplant. That is until recently when I grabbed the following ingredients on a farmer’s market jaunt:

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Isn’t that a pretty trio? For those of you who don’t farmer’s market, isn’t this some kind of motivation? Soon you’ll be chilly in your winter coat, cursing yourself for not gathering your rosebuds—or your eggplant, tomato and basil—while ye may. But the real question is: what to do with your late summer / early fall bounty?

The answer’s name is Norma. Specifically: Pasta alla Norma. This pasta dish, much like ratatouille, works its magic by marrying the unique qualities of cooked eggplant with the unique qualities of cooked tomato. Their marriage is one of supreme harmony and beauty; the kind of wedding you wouldn’t interrupt, no matter how bad the wedding dress. Wait, huh? Sorry. The point is: this is an excellent dish to make at this time of year, when the eggplants are plump and the tomatoes are juicy and fruity.

Though Mario Batali, quoted above, also says the only thing to do with a fresh tomato is serve it raw. He says when you cook it, you may as well use a canned tomato. I’m not sure I agree. Maybe it’s psychological, but when I cook with fresh tomatoes in summer I taste—admittedly, on a very minor level—a slight difference. And really, it’s not much more expensive or more difficult than opening a can to just use a few fresh tomatoes right? So I say go for it.

This recipe is my own interpretation of various recipes I found online. One key ingredient, that I didn’t have on hand, is ricotta salata. Serve it with that and your Norma will be more authentic than mine; but my Norma inspired your Norma, so we’re even.

Pasta alla Norma

Ingredients:

One eggplant, cubed

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4 or 5 fresh tomatoes chopped (keep the skins on, it’s fine) (or, if you’re feeling Batali-ish, just use one can tomatoes, crushed by hand)

3 or 4 garlic cloves sliced

Pinch red pepper flakes

Lots of fresh basil, chopped (or chiffonaded, if you’re fancy)

Extra virgin olive oil

1 lb dried pasta, like penne or ziti

Ricotta salata (or, if you don’t have it, Parmesan or Pecorino work fine)

1. Heat several table spoons of olive oil in a non-stick skillet. When hot, add a portion of cubed eggplant–not too much: you don’t want the eggplant to steam, you want it to brown nicely. Do this in batches until all your eggplant is browned, salting casually as you go. (You can chop your tomatoes and place your sliced garlic in cold olive oil in a separate pan while you’re doing this, as evidenced below.) Set the cooked eggplant aside.

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2. Actually, while you’re cooking your eggplant, you can start on your sauce. Heat that garlic in that oil and add some red pepper flakes too. When the garlic just starts to brown, add all of your chopped tomatoes. Careful, it’ll splatter! Add a big pinch of salt, a small handful of your basil, bring to a boil, put the lid on and lower to a simmer. Cook like that for ten minutes while you finish your eggplant. Oh, and you should bring a big pot of water to a boil here too.

3. Take the lid off the sauce and let it thicken. When it’s a consistency you like (this is a good time to taste it for salt), add the cooked eggplant and stir all around. Now salt your big pot of water, add the box of pasta, and stir that around.

4. Let the eggplant cook with the tomato sauce on a low simmer while you cook your pasta.

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5. When the pasta is just al dente, add it all (I use a spider, but you can drain it in the sink if that’s easier) to the tomato / eggplant sauce. Add the rest of your shredded basil, stir it all around and taste. Adjust for seasoning, add a splash of cold high-quality olive oil and whatever cheese you’re serving. You’re done!

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