Pasta alla Norma is one of the most tried and traditional of Italian pasta recipes. It is considered to be a Sicilian dish and one of much fame and discussion. Given my rather capricious nature, I have tweaked this Sicilian recipe to favor my taste and whim. Thus, today, we explore Pasta Not So Norma!
So the story goes, Vincenzo Bellini, the brilliant and prolific composer of operas, created his famous work, “Norma” based on a French story of a tragic heroine in two acts. Several Druids and high priestesses later, our heroine, Norma mounts a funeral pyre and is joined by her love, Pollione. The role of Norma is said to be very challenging even for the most accomplished of divas. It was the signature role of Maria Callas who performed it over 40 times during her career and showcased the lilting Casta Diva,( <click here to experience her memorable rendition)one of the most famous Italian operatic pieces. Sicilians in the 19th century so loved this opera and the pasta dish we discuss today, that the two became entwined forever.
Traditionally, Pasta alla Norma is made with a combination of fried eggplant, tomatoes, basil and some hot pepper, topped with shavings of the sharp and lovely Ricotta Salata.
I have seen this dish all sorts of ways including an interesting deconstructed version that was presented in a series of layers of the ingredient almost like a lasagna. I much prefer the ingredients combined as they seem to intensify the flavor of the sauce as they touch and mingle reaching a fantastic crescendo of intensity – a rather sexy dish!
My Pasta Not So Norma has a similar mix of ingredients with something more! There is nothing subtle or mild about this pasta. It has plenty of flavor which seems to increase when made a day ahead. Do we love that? Troppo Bella!
A note about eggplant: I know there are different notions about whether or not to press or salt eggplant to remove any bitterness. My recommendation is to always press your eggplant unless you are using a very mild or baby variety, and there are several – such as the beautiful Rosa Bianca pictured here. This eggplant, an heirloom variety very common in Italy, is sweet, tender, creamy tasting and would not need pressing.
Also see the more familiar “Black Beauty”, your average garden variety eggplant, shown here which can be found at any grocer. The “Black Beauty” is my choice for this recipe, as I prefer a stronger eggplant for this longer cooking sauce consisting of multiple ingredients.
A word about pressing eggplant to remove any bitter flavor: My mother, Loretta, used to slice her eggplant and layer it with paper towels in a baking dish or casserole topped with a plate. She would then put an iron or heavy cans of tomatoes on top to weight it down or press it. She left it to press overnight – Then the next day all of the bitter juices transferred to the paper towels leaving sweet eggplant slices.
I still use the pressing method as described here, but I have found that pressing for about 2-3 hours is enough. Some cooks choose not to press the eggplant. However, it seems a bit risky in that we never know how much bitterness the eggplant may contain. My results are always reliable when I press, and it’s so easy.
At this point, I suggest turning on that CD of Norma with Maria Callas pining away as you prepare your ingredients. Nothing like a good aria and a tragic figure going up in flames to help ignite your appetite, turn up the heat, and get those creative juices flowing.
PASTA NOT SO NORMA
Prep: 20 minutes + time to press eggplant if needed
Cook: about 50 minutes
3 cloves chopped garlic
3 tbsp. olive oil
4 oz. pancetta chopped
1 green pepper chopped
1 Medium onion chopped
1 Medium Eggplant chopped into cubes – whether or not to skin the eggplant is your choice. (Press eggplant sliced thickly for a few hours or overnight – then chop)
1 28 oz can San Marzano Peeled Tomatoes preferred
1 tsp Kosher salt – more to your taste
Freshly ground black pepper
At least ½ c. chopped fresh basil (can also use parsley instead for a little different flavor)
2 Tbsp. Fresh Oregano ( if dried use less)
¾ c. pitted Kalamata, Cerignola Green or Gaeta Olives sliced in ½ (if using Gaetas – you might want to use a little less salt in the sauce)
1/2 to 1 tsp Red Pepper Flakes – adding the heat reminiscent of Norma’s demise (according to your taste as to how much fire you prefer!)
Ricotta Salata or Pecorino Romano cheese shaved or grated
1 lb Fusilli Pugliese or Rigatoni
Make your sauce a day ahead!
Saute garlic in oil in a deep fry pan or pot for a couple of minutes – then add pancetta.
Cook for a couple of minutes until it crisps up; add onion, green pepper and eggplant. Cook til tender – about 8 minutes. When you first add the vegetables to the pan, it will look like a lot, but will reduce and cook down.
Crush your tomatoes with clean hands or a knife and fork and add tomatoes with juices to the vegetables.
Crushing the tomatoes this way keeps them a little chunkier than if canned crushed tomatoes are used.
Add red pepper flakes, basil, oregano, salt, black pepper and stir. Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, adding the olives in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Give it a stir occasionally.
To serve: I like this sauce over Fusilli Pugliese (small rolled strands of pasta from the Puglia Region of Italy) or Rigatoni. I serve this dish in shallow bowls topped with coarsely grated or shaved Ricotta Salata or Pecorino Romano – sharp cheeses suited for spicy sauces.
Usually, this serves 4 with a pound of pasta. There will be plenty of sauce – so if serving 6, the sauce should accomodate – just increase your pasta amount to 1 1/2 lbs.
My daughter, Jessica, likes to put diced Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella on this when it is very hot along with the other cheeses.
Wine: Barbera d’Alba – I particularly like the Mauro Sebaste Barbera d’Alba Santa Rosalia. The perfect accompaniment to this dish.
PARLA COME MANGI!
Reminder: Be sure to visit my website,Linda’s Italian Table, for the new Recipe Of The Month!
Food Photos by Tommy Hanks Photography