Pasta alla Norma is a staple Italian first course almost unknown in North America. The dish, native to Sicily, is especially known in southern Italy but can be found all around the country.
Alla Norma sauce (likely named after the opera Norma, by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini) can be recognized from other eggplant-based sauces for the use of fried eggplant and for a finish of ‘ricotta salata’ (salted ricotta), not replaceable with fresh ricotta.
Unlike fresh ricotta (a mildly flavored dairy product resulting from the coagulation of the proteins left in the whey after the production of cheese), ricotta salata contains sea-salt and is allowed to ripen for up to 30 days, while being pressed. At the end of this process, ricotta salata reaches a firm consistency and can be shaved or grated. When added to a pasta dish, it brings a savory touch, but also some creaminess, while remaining separate from the sauce (just like regular ricotta, ricotta salata doesn’t melt).
This recipe has been adapted from La Cucina Italiana (October 1986, page 18).
- 150 g dried spaghetti
- 350 g crushed or diced tomatoes
- 1 small eggplant, sliced
- 25 g ricotta salata, shaved
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly diced or mashed
- 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
- salt & ground black pepper
- a few basil leaves, sliced (optional)
- lots of paper towel!
- Lay the eggplant slices on absorbent paper, sprinkle them generously with salt (fig. 1-3).
- Let them rest for at least 15 minutes to draw out some moisture through osmosis (fig. 4).
- Wash each slice under running cold water to remove the excess salt, then vigorously squeeze the slices to eliminate even more water (which has a hint of bitterness) and to collapse some of the air pockets that constitute the eggplant's spongy structure (so that less oil will be absorbed when deep fried).
- Dry the eggplant slices with paper towel, then dice them into uniform cubes (fig. 5).
- In a tall pot, pre-heat the olive oil to 150 °C; deep fry the eggplant dices (fig. 6) for about 5 minutes until golden, then drain and lay them on paper towel (fig. 7); pat them with more paper towel to soak up any excess oil.
- In a large non-stick pan, fry the garlic in 1 tablespoon of olive oil (fig. 8), then add the tomatoes (fig. 9) and the fried eggplant (fig. 10). Simmer for about 15 minutes, adjusting the salt.
- Meanwhile, boil the pasta in plenty of salted water then drain it briefly and toss it in the pan with the sauce.
- Serve with a generous sprinkle of shaved ricotta salata, the (optional) basil, and some black pepper.