Pasta alla norma
I truly don’t know what we would do without our neighbors. They’re the ones who made us feel totally welcome when we first arrived in Australia, and they’ve been making us feel more and more at home ever since. We’d moved off the street for a few days – to escape the dust, tarps and general destruction at home – and promptly began to miss it terribly. In a truly stunning display of street-love, Francesco – who will hardly sit on a park bench because of the dirt – even offered to sleep in our back garden. The separation was too much.
Luckily, after an unfortunate set of circumstances, we’ve moved out of our friend’s apartment building (which, it turns out, wasn’t dog-friendly) and moved in with one of our neighbors. I’ve mentioned our neighbors before – there’s a whole lot of them – and this hospitality is just another example of how great they are. We don’t just bond over the trials of keeping our identical 600 sq ft 1880s worker’s terraces built on active soil with rising damp from being swallowed alive by the earth. We truly like each other. We eat dinner together, celebrate together, drop in for tea, borrow each other’s cars, walk each other’s dogs, feed each other’s cats, water each other’s plants and collect each other’s mail. And now, in a truly unbeatable act of neighborliness, we move in together.
Settling back into the street means I’m dangerously close to my baking sheets and le creusets, and, as it’s been a week since I’ve done anything more than making sandwiches or the occasional cup of tea, I’m starting to get itchy. Things I want to make? Chocolate chip cookies (my supply is running dangerously low!), that apricot cake, and pasta alla norma.
Pasta alla norma is an oldie but a goodie. It’s truly one of my favorite pastas, not to mention the one I usually turn to when a vegetarian is coming to dinner. It’s a classic dish from the Sicilian city of Catania, and there have long been discussions on the origins of the name (which possibly comes from the 19th century opera Norma), but never on the ingredients: macaroni (not egg pasta), eggplant, tomato, basil, ricotta salata. In other words, an unbeatable combination.
Fortunately, it’s also relatively easy to make. If you want to go whole horse, you can fry the eggplant separately or, to keep things light (and splatter-free), you can bake it. Either way, keep things simple and make sure you use ricotta salata (also known as cacioricotta) – it truly makes the dish.
This week we’re being fed by our neighbors, and we’re certainly not complaining. But as soon as I get my hands on those pots, this pasta will be the first thing I make. Maybe you can beat me to it.
PASTA ALLA NORMA
A delicious Sicilian pasta that turns eggplant haters into believers. Serves about 6
3 large eggplants, cubed
3 garlic cloves, halved
6 cups tomato puree or diced tomato
2 cups basil leaves
1 cup ricotta salata, grated coarsely
TO BAKE EGGPLANT: Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Cube the eggplant and, in a large bowl, toss with ample olive oil. Line two baking trays with tin foil, then spread the eggplant on them. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until cooked through, stirring occasionally.
TO FRY EGGPLANT: Heat up 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large, flat-bottomed pan then fry the eggplant cubes on medium-heat heat, stirring often, until cooked through, about 25 minutes. Add more olive oil as needed; the eggplant really soaks it up; you want to make sure the eggplant doesn’t stick to the bottom.
If you’ve baked the eggplant, in a large, flat-bottomed pan, heat about 1/4 cup olive oil (make sure the bottom of the pan is completely covered) over medium heat, then add the garlic. If you’ve fried the eggplant, just add the garlic to the pan. After 5 minutes, add the tomato puree and/or chunks. Let it bubble together for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the eggplant, about half of the basil, and a few big pinches of chili flakes. Stir and cook for 15-20 minutes. Add salt to taste.
Meanwhile, cook 1.5 boxes (750 grams) pasta such as rigatoni, paccheri, penne rigati or tortiglioni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just al dente.
When pasta is just cooked (about 2 minutes less than the time on the box), strain and add to the sauce. Mix everything together over high heat for a minute, then serve in individual bowls with heaping piles of ricotta salata on top and the remaining basil.