Pasta Alla Norma (Rigatoni with Eggplant)
Whenever I think eggplant, I always think of my favorite Mediterranean dishes, among them moussaka, baba ghanoush, and ratatouille, but also my favorite Italian eggplant dish of pasta alla Norma. The recipe's name doesn't quite indicate the fact that it contains eggplant, which to this day I still don't quite get. But as the story goes, the dish was invented during the time when Bellini's opera Norma was popular. Since the opera was considered a masterpiece at the time, it's safe to say that this pasta dish with eggplant was received with the same amount of praise.
My take on this Sicilian dish is very close to the classic. My recipe includes some heat from the crushed red pepper flakes. And I serve it with the traditional touch of grated ricotta salata, an aged cheese that has a pleasant salty, briny flavor. Although my recipe is "classic" in its ingredients, I do diverge in technique.
Instead of frying eggplant slices in olive oil, I roast cubed eggplant in the oven without any oil. Then I add the eggplant to the tomato sauce, which I've simmered on the stovetop. The result is a sauce that has a much better texture. It's not so oily, and it's ultimately less caloric. This doesn't mean you can't drizzle the finished dish with a little olive oil if you desire. But the fact is you won't have an oil slick from the spongey eggplant absorbing more oil than needed.
Pasta Alla Norma (Rigatoni with Eggplant)Note: The classic recipe is popular with either rigatoni or spaghetti. I prefer the shorter pasta shape of rigatoni because the ridges help trap the sauce and it ends up being much less messy when you're eating it.
2 medium eggplants, cubed
fine sea salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces rigatoni
1 cup torn fresh basil leaves
ricotta salata, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Spread the cubed eggplant in a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Season liberally with salt and toss to coat. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom lightly with olive oil. Add the chopped onion. Season with salt to help draw out the moisture. Saute for 3 to 5 minutes, or until translucent.
If needed, refresh the skillet with a touch of oil. Add the minced garlic and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and toast for 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and toast for 1 minute.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them with the back of a spoon to create a nice chunky texture. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until it's darkened and thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season liberally with salt. Add the pasta and cook until just under al dente, about 9 minutes.
Remove the eggplant from the oven and add it to the tomato sauce. Simmer on low for an additional 5 to 8 minutes so the tomatoes and eggplants can cook together.
Scoop the cooked pasta into the sauce, and add a ladleful of pasta water. Continue to cook the pasta in the sauce for 3 to 5 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the pasta has absorbed some of the sauce.
Stir in the fresh basil. Spoon into bowls for serving, and grate over with ricotta salata. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 servings.