The Italians love eggplant and no place is it better celebrated than in Sicily. For proof of that, one need look no further than today’s recipe, Pasta alla Norma. Named in honor of Bellini’s masterwork “Norma,” eggplant takes center stage in this recipe and the resulting dish, like its operatic inspiration, is sublime.
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Eggplant was no stranger to our table growing up. Mom often served them halved, topped with bread crumbs, and baked. Sometimes she cut them into discs before breading and frying them. Still other times, she cut them lengthwise to make planks, layering them with cheese and sauce to make a lasagna-like dish. Of course, like most Italian households, she also used eggplant to make her caponata. Comparing the two, caponata is actually more complicated than Pasta alla Norma. Whereas caponata consists of chopped eggplant and a variety of vegetables, Pasta alla Norma’s sauce is a product of just eggplant and marinara sauce. It’s hardly a difficult recipe to follow but it sure is a delicious way to dress a dish of pasta. And with our vegetable stands and markets just beginning to display this season’s bounty, there’s no better time to try this little taste o’ Sicily.
The recipe calls for 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. of eggplant. Rather than buy one large eggplant, I’ll buy 2 or 3 medium-sized ones. The larger the eggplant, the more seeds it will have and the more bitter it will be. The recipe, also, states that the eggplant should be cut into 1/2 cubes before being salted. You may find it easier to cut the eggplants into 1/2 inch slices and, after salting and rinsing, cut the slices into cubes. If you use small or “baby” eggplants, you needn’t cut them into cubes at all, but leave the slices as-is. The choice is yours.
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Pasta alla Norma Recipe
- 2 tbsp olive oil, more as needed
- 2 – 3 small/medium eggplants (1 – 1 1/2 lb total), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 – 3 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, more to taste (optional)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 – 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 large (28 oz.) can tomatoes, whole or diced
- 2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped.
- 2 – 3 tsp Italian seasoning
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- salt & pepper, to taste
- 1 lb pasta, i.e., rigatoni, penne, campanelle
- reserved pasta water
- 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata, reserving 2 – 3 tbsp
- Cut each eggplant into 1/2 inch cubes. Place 1/3 of the cubes in a colander and sprinkle with 1/3 of the salt. Add another third of the eggplant and sprinkle with another third of salt. Place the remaining 1/3 of the eggplant cubes in the colander and sprinkle with the last of the salt before carefully mixing the colander’s contents. Allow excess water to drain for 15 – 30 minutes. Give the colander & eggplant a quick rinse of tap water. Dump the rinsed eggplant onto a paper towel-lined baking sheet and use more paper towels to pat dry.
- Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over med-high heat.
- Begin sautéing the eggplant cubes. Do not overcrowd and work in batches, if necessary. Continue cooking until all cubes are lightly colored, adding more olive oil as needed. Remove cooked cubes and reserve for later.
- If needed, add 2 tbsp olive oil and heat. If using the pepper flakes, add them now and cook for one minute.
- Add onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.
- Season lightly with salt & pepper, add the garlic, and continue sautéing for another minute.
- Add tomato paste, stir well, and continue cooking for a minute or so.
- Add tomatoes. If using whole tomatoes, tear them into pieces before adding to the pan.
- Add the Italian seasoning & parsley, return the eggplant to the pan, and stir to combine everything. Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce the reduce heat to a simmer.
- The sauce will cook for 30 minutes. Check the pasta’s package directions and time its cooking so that the pasta is about 2 minutes shy of being al dente when the sauce is ready.
- Reserve some of the pasta water before adding the basil and the not quite al dente pasta to the frying pan. Mix well and continue cooking until the pasta is done to your liking. Add some of the reserved pasta water to the pan if the pasta becomes dry during this last step of the cooking process.
- Just before serving, add most of the ricotta salata and mix well. Check for seasoning and add salt & pepper, if needed.
- Serve immediately, garnished with the reserved 2 – 3 tbsp ricotta salata.
Like I said, it’s is a simple dish with relatively few ingredients and, as such, there’s little room for variations other than the pasta selection and the cheese. For the pasta, I prefer to serve this sauce with pastas like penne, rigatoni, or campanelle (little bells) and not any of the ribbon-like pastas. As for the cheese, if I have ricotta salata, that’s great. If I don’t have any, I’ll substitute some crumbled feta or, if all else fails, some grated parmesan cheese. I’ve even used some grated fresh mozzarella, so, I wouldn’t let the absence of ricotta salata prevent you from enjoying this dish.
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What a great, tasty, simple but elegant meal. I always love the stories you tell too!
To me, this is what the Italians do best: combine a few fresh ingredients with some relatively common spices & herbs to create great food. If you can’t quickly recite a recipe’s ingredients. you’re probably using too many.
I love anything to do with eggplant! And this is one of my favorite pasta dishes! I need to browse your blog as I cook mostly Italian and love to hear others’ stories and recipes. My heritage is from Sicilian parents and it’s interesting how the different regions vary in their styles of cooking and ingredients. And I so agree with your comment to Greg; that is exactly how I like to cook!
Yes, “Norma’s pasta” is great, isn’t it? Even though I grew up in an extended family setting that included some wonderful “old country” cooks, it took me a while, living on my own, to realize just how much of their cooking was season-dependent. You don’t buy a tomato in December, an apple in April, or asparagus in September, for example. Granted, the global market has changed some of that but, still, as far as Italian cooking is concerned, “fresh is best.” I need to spend more time on your blog, too. There is so much about Sicilian cooking that I love. I spent a couple weeks there one Summer and ate my way across the island.
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My husband and I had Pasta Alla Norma di Catania on our honeymoon in Sicily. Thanks for this recipe, I’ll make it for him for valentines day!
I sincerely hope it measures up to your memories. Have a great Valentine’s Day!
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Oh so wonderful. Do you think it kosher that a Mexican loves Italian dishes so much? 🙂
I hope so because if it’s not, I’m in trouble, too, since I love Mexican food. 🙂
I love penne alla norma and make it often. Interesting to read how you make it. I use fewer ingredients (no onion, parsley, Italian seasoning) and roast the eggplant in the oven because it requires less oil and is easier.
I find that a mixture of fresh ricotta and grated pecorino or parmigiano is a good substitute for ricotta salata, for which I would have to make a special trip to the Italian store.
If I’m to be true to my family’s cooking, onion & parsley must be a part of any tomato sauce. I threw some parsley in a Bolognese I just made and, as you know, typically it’s not used here. I now go to my Italian store weekly. I live within a mile of all of my shops & markets and can walk to most. The Italian market is a 45 minute drive, each way, in city traffic but so worth it. I can buy so many things there and nowhere else. Their dried pasta aisle alone is worth the trip. I will, though, keep your substitute for ricotta salata in mind. You never know when I made it. Thanks for that tip and for leaving such a great comment.
I’m afraid my Italian cooking is a mix of a lot of regional influences as I’ve travelled all over Italy and have also cooked recipes from all over.
I’ve even seen recipes with garlic in Bolognese, so parsley is a minor issue 😉
I clicked on the picture to enlarge it and dreamed of sitting in front of it at a table, ready to eat. And then looked down to my small cup of java! How did I miss this before? This looks so delectable on every level John! My mom prepared eggplant all the time and I use to but haven’t in several years. This recipe is an inspiration to go for it again. Superb as always John!!
I really like this one, Judy. Eggplant was no stranger to our dinner table growing up and I make room for it on mine now. Love how the eggplant “works” in this pasta.Even though eggplant are available year-round, I look forward to buying them in August at the farmers markets, rushing home, and making this for dinner that night,
I so admire your cooking and baking skills, Judy, so your compliments mean a great deal to me. Tahnk you.
Thank you John! I admire and cherish your stories, memories and recipes!! All beautiful.
Such a great dish! I absolutely love this. The way I usually make it is similar to your recipe, but I also sometimes make a baked version – essentially a gratin. That’s a really nice change, and perfect for a buffet. Good stuff – thanks so much.
A baked version, eh? I like the sound of that, John.Aw, heck. I like just about any dish that combines eggplant with pasta. Now that’s a great pairing!
Thanks John for leaving such a nice comment.
I love eggplant and this looks delish! It’s bookmarked for a later day.
Thanks, Richard. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do.
Another wonderful recipe John! 😉
Thank you, Giovanna. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
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