This Sicilian classic, made with sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and red pepper
flakes, is Italian comfort food at its best—it really embodies the flavors of the island.
A tasty and colorful recipe from the Sicilian gastronomic tradition, Pasta alla Norma is a triumph of Mediterranean flavors and was so called in honor of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma”. The story says that in 19th century, Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian writer, poet and theater director, was so impressed when he first tasted this dish that he compared it to “Norma”, Bellini’s masterpiece. And the name lasted ever since.
Traditionally, I believe that penne was the pasta of choice, but here, we’re using a more healthy whole wheat fettuccini. Choosing pasta is no longer just about the size and shape. Whether it’s fettuccini, rigatoni or good ol’ spaghetti, white versus wheat is the latest supermarket quandary. While the stripped-down white stuff boasts a longer shelf life, not to mention a cheaper price tag, it’s considered nutritionally weaker.
It may take some getting used to, but in many pasta dishes we prefer its strong, nuttier flavor and more grainy consistency. With the right sauce or topping, adding whole wheat pasta is an easy way to enjoy a healthy meal and sneak those whole grains into the menu.
We were leaving for a two-week vacation a few days hence, so we made a concentrated effort to use up any foods that might spoil while we’d be away. Eyeballing a small piece of fresh mozzarella in the fridge, I cut that into small chunks and tossed it in when mixing everything together. We didn’t have ricotta, and I wasn’t about to buy any when all we needed was a few dollops, so I grated up our chunk of Grana Padano.
Note my optional comment in Step 1 concerning removal of excess moisture from the eggplant. The original recipe did not include this notation, but I find that eggplant is less mushy if you follow this process. And in the end, the amount of kick you add with the red pepper flakes is certainly a personal preference… you know my take on that…
Spicy Pasta Alla Norma
- Kosher salt
- 3 Tbs. olive oil; more as needed
- 1-1/2 lb. Italian eggplant (about 2 medium), cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 2 large cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 lb. ripe tomatoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice (or one 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice)
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 to 1-1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
- 12 oz. fettuccine, preferably whole wheat
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil; more for garnish
- 1/3 cup fresh ricotta or 1/4 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.
OPTIONAL: Before sautéing the eggplant, place the cubes in a colander over the sink, sprinkle with salt, and let drain for 30-60 minutes to remove the excess liquid. Pat dry with paper towels, and omit the salt in Step 2.
- Heat 2 Tbs. of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add one quarter of the eggplant and 1/4 tsp. salt, and cook, stirring often, until the eggplant is browned and softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, adding more oil as needed.
- Heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in the same pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and oregano, and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 2 minutes.
- Add the eggplant and pepper flakes and toss to combine. Keep warm.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and transfer to a large bowl.
- Add the eggplant mixture, toss to combine, and add a little of the cooking water if the pasta seems dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve with a dollop of ricotta or some grated cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with basil leaves.
Adapted from a recipe by Lisa Lahey from Fine Cooking