February 17, 2008

Pasta alla Norma - 'na vera Norma


What I like about Sicily is all the history you can actually taste there. Yes, because of the Greeks who settled there during the 7th century BC, the Romans during imperial times, the Arabs by the first millennium, Europeans from everywhere during the crusades, the Spanish during Renaissance times, and a large etcetera - they all influenced one of the richest Mediterranean cuisines, which is what we can find in Sicily nowadays. You can have pasta, as everywhere in Italy, but you can also have rice which is almost a monopoly of the North, and this unique combination tells you a lot about the wide range of flavors and influence of Sicilian cuisine. If I add that you can also have a dish of typical Sicilian couscous, now you can be sure you can get it all down there. Add perfect weather, nice beaches, even nicer islands, and you get the full package.

As the ultimate Mediterranean agro-producer, Sicily produces the best oranges I've ever tasted, nice lemons, olives (and great olive oil), capers, tomatoes, persimmons, grapes (and great wines), almonds, pistachios... even mangoes, kiwis and bananas! Eggplants too, which are intensively used... from caponata to pasta alla Norma (pasta in the style of Norma).

Pasta alla Norma is a typical dish from the city of Catania, on the east coast of the island. Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted with this dish that he compared it with the splendor of the opera Norma, written by catanese composer Vincenzo Bellini. Well, opera would have to be part of this super Italian story!

Ingredients
1 lb mezze penne
1 large eggplant
1.2 lbs ripe tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
3.5 oz ricotta salata
1 bunch of basil
olive oil
salt and pepper

Wash the tomatoes with hot water and peel. Take out the seeds and chop. In a saucepan heat 4 Tbsp of olive oil and add the three entire garlic cloves. Sauté until the garlic turns golden. Take the garlic out of the saucepan and add the tomatoes and some roughly chopped basil leaves. Add salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

Cut the eggplant into thin slices. Then cut each slice into quarters. If you are using a Japanese eggplant you could leave the slices just like that. In Italy they use a lot of oil and they deep fry the slices of eggplant until nice and golden. You can do that, but prepare some paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Then season with salt and pepper. Or, you can make a lighter version by brushing some olive oil on each side of each eggplant slice, and then sauté them for a couple of minutes until golden.

Boil the pasta following the label instructions. Once the pasta is al dente, drain and toss over the tomato sauce. Give a quick stir and pour in a serving plate. Put the eggplant slices and grated ricotta salata cheese on top. Enjoy!

Tips

Catania is the port of entry to eastern Sicily. You can get there by plane from Rome or Milan, and then you have easy access to wonderful places like Taormina.

Ricotta salata is a very typical Sicilian cheese, which is an aged version of the traditional fresh ricotta. It's salty, crumbly, dry but soft, and by texture and flavor it's more like an Italian feta than really related to its fresh counterpart used for filling yummy cannoli.

Mezze penne pasta or pennette is a shorter version of classic penne pasta. To make pasta alla Norma just use any shape of dried short pasta.

If you are in a hurry or you can't find any good ripe tomatoes, use about 600 ml of passata di pomodoro, which is an uncooked and lightly seasoned Italian tomato purée.
Posted by Daziano at 10:58 AM |  
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