Pasta alla Norma, Sicilian Eggplant, Tomato Pasta
A Sicilian classic, pasta alla Norma has a charming historical story. In the Sicilian town of Catania around 1831, Vincenzo Bellini composed an opera called La Norma. The story goes that while writing this masterpiece Bellini frequented a restaurant and always order this pasta. The restaurant owner then named the dish pasta alla Norma to pay homage to Bellini. Triumphantly, the dish highlights distinctive Mediterranean ingredients including eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, oregano, basil, and of course pasta.
This dish is naturally vegetarian and if the cheese which is more of a garnish than a main component is omitted it would be vegan. Nutritional nerd alert: To increase the nutritional value, I tried several of the new chickpea, black bean, red lentil and whole wheat pastas on the market. The bean-based pastas had a higher protein content with fifteen grams for chickpea, fourteen grams for black bean, and thirteen grams for red lentil compared to seven grams for whole wheat which would be important to those on a vegetarian or vegan diet. The red lentil and whole wheat had the least amount of sugars at one gram each whereas the chickpea and black bean had two grams each. No sugar was added to any of these pastas as each was made from whole bean or whole wheat flours exclusively. The black bean pasta had the highest amount of dietary fiber at fifteen grams, whereas the chickpea had eight grams, whole wheat had six grams and the red lentil had three grams.
As for the aesthetic quality, the Italian whole wheat pasta won hands down with a slightly chewy texture and nutty flavor. The bean-based pastas had a softer texture and if cooked too long (box directions gave cooking time ranges like five to nine minutes) an undesirable gummy texture.
Classically this dish is garnished with salata ricotta (salted dry aged ricotta) cheese which can be difficult to find. An excellent quality Greek feta cheese can be substituted if allowed to air-dry for an hour or more before grating. Nutritional yeast can be substituted for vegan. Dry Greek oregano has a preferable flavor, but then generic dry oregano will work. Hand-torn fresh basil freshens the overall flavor of this dish. Choose your pasta according to your particular nutritional goals. However do not let this nutritional information make you shy away from this flavorful, satisfying, and attractive dish!
4 to 6 servings
1 ½ pounds whole eggplant, cut into 1” pieces (about 1 large or 2 small eggplants)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoons for sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28 ounces) can certified San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dry Greek oregano
3 cups dry penne pasta of choice* (about 8 ounces)
½ cup fresh basil leaves, hand torn small pieces
½ cup grated ricotta salata or feta cheese, grated
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. On a silicone mat or parchment paper-lined sheet pan toss the eggplant with the one-fourth cup of olive oil and salt. Roast in the oven for twenty-five to thirty minutes, until soft. Remove from oven and reserve.
3. In the meantime, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil in a non-reactive sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes. Heat until fragrant, about one minute. Add the hand-crushed tomatoes with their juice, tomato paste, and oregano. Simmer until sauce-like but not too dry, stirring occasionally. Add the reserved eggplant cubes. Taste, Think, Transform into salt and/or fresh ground black pepper to taste. Remember that the cheese is salty too.
4. While the sauce is simmering bring a half gallon of filtered water to a boil. Add the salt and penne pasta. Cook according to package directions or until al dente. Drain through a colander, reserving some of the liquid.
5. Toss the pasta with the eggplant and tomato sauce mixture.
6. Place in a large pasta bowl or four serving bowls. Top with the basil pieces and cheese. Serve hot.
*I use organic 100% whole wheat penne rigate (with ridges to hold the pesto) by Bionaturae from Italy.