Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pasta alla Norma

Pasta alla Norma with Garlic Bread and Basil Garnish

Tomato and Eggplant Flavor This Classic Sicilian Dish

Pasta alla Norma showcases the deep flavor of eggplant, combining it in a spicy tomato sauce with basil and ricotta salata to create one of Sicily’s most famous pasta dishes.

But actually, it’s enjoyed all over Italy. Indeed, it’s almost a cultural institution, having been named (reportedly, at least) in honor of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. Bellini was a native of Sicily and is considered one of its finest composers — and Norma is his best-loved opera. So naming a pasta dish after it was high praise indeed.

Unfortunately, Pasta alla Norma isn’t well known in the US. I sometimes see it on restaurant menus, but not often. Which is too bad, because it’s an exceptionally tasty dish. Fortunately, it’s also simple to prepare, and once you taste it, you’ll want to make it often.

Pasta alla Norma combines all its ingredients to create a beautiful harmony — just like Bellini’s opera.


Pasta alla Norma in Bowl with Basil Garnish, with Garlic Bread in Background

Recipe: Pasta alla Norma

This recipe has 3 distinct — but easy — steps. First, you need to prepare your eggplant. Traditionally this is done by frying or sautéing, but I prefer to use Roast Eggplant, which is lighter and tastier. Second, you need to make a tasty tomato sauce. I provide instructions, but if you have a favorite homemade tomato sauce, you can substitute that. Third, you need to combine the eggplant and tomato sauce, and then add freshly cooked pasta. Toss it all together, and serve (adding ricotta salata at table).

Most recipes for this dish are pretty similar, though you’ll see a few differences. My favorite discussion of the dish can be found in Bugialli on Pasta (I have the original version of this book, not the revised one), where Bugialli details three different recipes for Pasta alla Norma.

This recipe serves 4. You can easily double it if necessary. Leftovers keep well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days. Prep time for this recipe is about 20 minutes, and cooking time is 30 to 40 minutes total.

Ingredients
  • 1 onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 28-ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (may substitute canned whole tomatoes; see Notes)
  • 2 pounds eggplant cut into cubes of ½ to ¾ inch, and Roasted.
  •  1 pound dried tubular pasta of choice (or any shape you prefer; see Notes) 
  • ~4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil 
  • 4 ounces grated ricotta salata (this isn’t the soft ricotta you may be familiar with; see Notes for details and substitutions)
Procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (for the Roast Eggplant).
  2. Peel the onion and chop it into ¼ inch dice.  Peel and mince or slice the garlic cloves.
  3. Heat a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat.  When hot, add the olive oil and let it heat (this will take only seconds; it ripples when hot).  Immediately add the diced onion and minced garlic.  Stir, salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the onion is translucent (5 - 8 minutes).
  4. When the onion is ready, add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.  Add the tomato.
  5. Cook at a simmer for 30 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, dice the eggplant and combine with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast using my recipe for Roast Eggplant
  7. While the eggplant is roasting, wash and chop the basil, and grate the ricotta salata (I use the coarse side of a 4-sided standing grater). 
  8. A few minutes before the eggplant is done, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. When it’s boiling, salt to taste (I use a tablespoon) and add pasta. Stir. Set timer for 6 minutes. Usually tubular pasta takes 7 to 8 minutes to cook al dente, but I start testing at 6 minutes. 
  9. Once the eggplant is done, remove it from the oven and add it to the tomato sauce. Let it simmer. 
  10. When the pasta is done, drain and add it to a serving bowl. Pour the tomato sauce with eggplant over the pasta, and toss to combine. Add the basil, toss briefly, then serve the pasta. Pass the grated ricotta salata at table so people can add as much as they like.
Pasta alla Norma with Basil Garnish in White Ramekin, Overhead View on Black Background

Notes
  • If you use canned whole tomatoes, either break them up with a spoon (or your hand) or whirl them in the blender for a couple of seconds before adding to the pot in Step 4.
  • I sometimes add a couple of anchovies (or an inch or so of anchovy paste from a tube) to this recipe for extra zip.  Add the anchovy when you add the red pepper flakes in Step 4.
  • You can also add a bit of tomato paste if you want a more substantial sauce.  I sometimes add a tablespoon or two.  Add the tomato paste to the onions before you add the red pepper flakes in Step 4.  Stir and sauté the tomato paste for a minute or two.  Then add the pepper flakes and proceed with the recipe.
  • I like this dish best when made with a sturdy tubular pasta like rigatoni or penne.  You can use any shape you prefer.  However, because the sauce is chunky (the eggplant), a thin pasta like spaghetti doesn’t work well, IMO — and also doesn’t look attractive.
  • Ricotta salata isn’t at all like the moist ricotta cheese that is sold in tubs (the kind you use when making lasagna or cheesecake).  Ricotta salata is firm with a sharp flavor — it’s similar in texture, shape, and taste to Pecorino Romano.  Which is what I use as a substitute when I can’t find ricotta salata.  You could also use Parmesan, but that has a milder flavor (which gets a bit lost in this dish IMO, although it’s still pretty good).
Pasta alla Norma in Bowl with Basil Garnish, with Garlic Bread in Background

Norma

Exactly how Pasta alla Norma got its name is unclear; there are several competing stories.  The one I favor says that Nino Martoglio — a Sicilian writer, publisher, journalist, and theater producer — was so impressed by the dish that he compared it to Bellini’s operatic masterpiece, Norma. True or not? Who knows? It’s a good story, though.

As it happens, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is a self-described “operaholic.” So I’m turning to her to finish this post, and tell us about Bellini’s opera:

Norma premiered at La Scala opera house in Milan in December 1831, and was an immediate hit. It’s a perfect example of the operatic style called bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing”) and it features one of opera’s most storied arias, “Casta diva.” Many of the world’s best-known sopranos have braved the title role. In the mid-20th century, it was a favorite vehicle of Maria Callas.

Norma is a gorgeous potboiler, with all the elements that opera fans find irresistible: love, betrayal, violent death, and blood-curdling high notes. Here’s the storyline: Norma is a druid high priestess in Gaul at the time of the Roman occupation, circa 50 BCE. Though sworn to fight the Roman invaders, Norma has secretly been engaged in a love affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. She has borne him two children, whom she is raising at a hidden forest location. But now Pollione has fallen for Adalgisa, a young trophy temple virgin.

The clueless Adalgisa innocently confesses her love of Pollione to Norma — who goes ballistic as only a druid priestess can. She first vows to kill her children, Medea-style, but can’t bring herself to carry out the deed. Instead, she strikes the Druids’ sacred bronze shield, summoning them to war, shouting “vendetta . . . sangue!” (“vengeance . . . blood!”)

When the hordes arrive, she tells them that a priestess has violated her sacred vows and must die. Pollione assumes she means Adalgisa, and tries to stop her from speaking further. But then Norma dramatically announces that she herself is the transgressor, and orders a funeral pyre to be lighted. At last, Pollione recognizes Norma’s nobility. Remorseful, he vows to die with her, and the two mount the pyre together as the music swells to a thrilling crescendo.

At this point, 19th century opera goers might have been shrieking in grief, rending their garments, throwing bouquets, and shouting “brava . . . bellisima!” Nowadays, we just stand up and applaud politely. I like the old way better myself.

You may also enjoy reading about:
Pesto Pasta
Pasta Puttanesca
Pasta with Tomato and Bacon Sauce
Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Hungarian Noodles and Cabbage with Bacon
Old School Macaroni and Cheese
Summer Pasta Salad
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Tuna Pasta Salad
Tuna Noodle Casserole

76 comments:

  1. I love that you roasted the eggplant for this delicious pasta dish! My stomach is growling right now {not kidding} just from seeing your photos. Another great dish, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kristy, this is a super dish - well worth making your stomach growl! ;-) Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  2. I feel like this pasta is calling to me, it looks gorgeous :D

    Cheers
    Choc Chip Uru

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Uru, I think it is calling you! And you should probably answer. ;-) Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  3. I love eggplant and this sounds like a wonderful way to use it. I think I saw Lidia Bastianich prepare something like it and thought then that I really need to make this
    Thank you for the reminder

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sawsan, this is a great dish. I know Lidia Bastianich has done a baked version of this dish, and probably does a regular version as well. This is really nice - you'll enjoy it. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  4. Both hubby and I are huge eggplant fans. This is a fab recipe! Thanks for sharing:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Spicie Foodie, you and hubby both would enjoy this if you like eggplant - really terrific flavor. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  5. Roasted eggplant sounds great for this! Wishing I could grab the plate off the screen for dinner. Adding anchovies sounds great too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lisa, the anchovies really kicks it up - adds super flavor. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  6. This is one of my all time favorite pasta dishes - up there with Puttanesca. Love this!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi everydaymaven, isn't this a great dish? And Pasta Puttanesca is one of my all time favss! Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  7. I came here at the perfect time. This savory pasta is just what the doctor ordered for these chilly Minnesota eves. Plus I have 3 small eggplants that I rescued from the frost! In my opera going years, I thought I covered them all - but no. I didn't. And I just thrilled at the tale of Norma.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Claudia, the music in Norma (the opera) is quite good - definitely something you want to hear. And the flavor in this dish is even better! Well worth making. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  8. This is such a great dish, John. Well, any dish that celebrates eggplant like this one does has to be good. My recipe is very similar to yours and I love it! I don't roast the eggplant, though, but I will next time. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chicago John, isn't this a great dish? I think roasting eggplant gives a somewhat better flavor than fried, but not everyone agrees. Anyway, this has become one of my favorite pasta dishes. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  9. I love roasted eggplant and this dish looks so wholesome!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Asmita, yes,this dish really is pretty healthy - lots of good veggies, not too much fat. Good stuff! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  10. i like the name you gave this pasta :P
    as a lover of pastas and veggies, especially eggplants... i am drooling just looking at your vibrant pictures! hehe

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi cakewhiz, if you like pasta and eggplant, you'll love this dish. The flavor is much better than the pictures, trust me. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  11. You had me at "spicy eggplant''! Yum. You're right -- you don't see this on the menu very often. But it looks like the perfect dish to make at home. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Carolyn, this is a great recipe for the home cook - really easy to make and quite flavorful. I'd definitely serve this to friends. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  12. This sounds like a wonderful dish. The flavor must fantastic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Words of Deliciousness, it is a wonderful dish, it is! ;-) It's worth making - trust me. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  13. Whether this was pasta alla norma or pasta alla Judy it would be wonderful on my plate! Loved this post from you both!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Maureen, ;-) It's really good stuff! Thanks for letting us know that you enjoyed it, and for commenting.

      Delete
  14. Another tasty looking dish! And, it does look quite easy to make, which is an added bonus!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ali, this is really easy to make - it's just combining 2 recipes (roasting eggplant and making a tomato sauce). And the flavor is excellent! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  15. I'll be right over with my own plate and fork. You did save me some right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kim, no need to bring your own plate and fork - we have plenty. ;-) Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  16. This IS a simple dish, I like that you used roasted eggplant which is sure to boost flavor. Well done!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Judy, simple and it delivers so much flavor - really good stuff. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  17. This is another beautiful and delicious looking eggplant dish. Very nutritious I would say just by reading all of the ingredients. This is another winner, John! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ray, thanks for your kind words, and your comment.

      Delete
  18. I haven't seen a lot of opera, but Norma sounds fantastic. Thanks for the great story summary! And if the dish really is inspired by it, then it must be fabulous too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Beth, Norma is worth listening to - and seeing - if you have a chance. Bellini is a nice composer. And the dish really is worth eating, too! Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  19. The combination eggplant and pasta is a win!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Alex, it really is a nice combo - so flavorful and satisfying. Really, really good. Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  20. I love how it looks and I will try to find that drier ricotta (is it something like queso fresco?). We love eggplant and this is a good combination. Bet I can prep the eggplant earlier and just combine during a week night!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ilke, really Parmesan or Romano would be the closest substitute cheeses. For Mexican, a cotija, although more crumbly, would be pretty close. And yes, I would definitely make the eggplant ahead of time, then assemble the dish when ready to eat. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  21. That's a great looking pasta and one that I might cook tonight. I love eggplant and I too like to roast mine. xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Hotly Spiced, it's an easy, tasty, nutritious dish - what's not to like? And agree that roasting is a great way to cook eggplant. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  22. brava . . . bellisima! What a great post! Great story, tasty recipe. I wasn't familiar with ricotta salata, but since you say it's like Pecorino Romano, at least I know what it taste like. I always have a chunk of Pecorino Romano in the fridge and I use it with pasta dish all of the time!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi MJ, it's really worth trying to find ricotta salata, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find it - Romano really does a nice job, too. Thanks for your kind words, and your comment.

      Delete
  23. I have never seen Pasta alla Norma at any restaurant here in the US! Yours looks incredible, I want to try the recipe soon. I love eggplant =) Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kristi, I've seen it on restaurant menus in the US, but at least in my experience it's rate. If you like eggplant, this recipe really is worth trying - you'll like it. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  24. I don't know an ounce about operas, but all of my friends in the department have been flocking to see them recently--I may have to go just so I can press my hand melodramatically to my forehead and swoon at the sight of Pollione. In the meantime, though, this looks like a fantastic recipe--thanks for sharing, John!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi wallflourgirl, you'd love swooning at the sight of Pollione! ;-) Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.

      Delete
  25. John...this is a truly gorgeous dish! I am a HUGE fan of eggplant and I look to cook with it as much as I can. I look forward to trying this dish. I'm happy that you roasted the eggplant! And I love that anchovy paste, too and try to sneak it in when I can! Your photography is lovely! : )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anne, isn't this a nice recipe? And anchovies add such great flavor, a flavor many people can't identify (it doesn't taste fishy) but know is there. Thanks for the kind words, and the comments.

      Delete
  26. Your pasta looks outstanding!!! Using roasted eggplant was a great idea and your pictures are just stunning as usual.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Baker Street, it's hard to go wrong with roast eggplant! Thank for your kind words and for commenting.

      Delete
  27. Mmmm - it's a classic for a reason! Just looks SO good :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Donalyn, you're right - there definitely is a reason this one is a classic! Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  28. This looks amazing and reminds me that I haven't had this in ages. I'll be making your recipe soon for sure since I often have all the ingredients on hand. I'm dreaming of it right now in fact...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Katherine, isn't this a nice dish? I'll bet this is one you probably had when growing up. Glad I could remind you of this. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  29. Like I mentioned in your previous post, I loooooooove eggplant, and often add in pasta too, but I have never roasted eggplant and added it in the pasta! I am already looking forward to trying this. Pasta is definitely great week night meal for us. And thanks for introducing ricotta salata! I love checking out new kind of cheese and I even love the big cheese section of supermarket too. I like reading cheese review before buying them (some can be expensive and taste is not my favorite...). Have a great weekend John!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Nami, roast eggplant + pasta = mouth delight! Really nice stuff. Ricotta salata is definitely worth trying, IMO, particularly if you like Romano. Thanks for the weekend wishes (and comment!) and I hope you have a great weekend too!

      Delete
  30. Your pasta alla Norma looks so good. It inspires me to use eggplants more often in my daily meal routines. Thanks for the Bellini's opera story. Always love it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Holly, eggplant is a really nice veggie, but I don't use it as much as I should. I like this dish so much, though, that it's becoming a regular for us.Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.

      Delete
  31. I've never put eggplant in my pastas but I really love eggplant so I'm not sure why I haven't done it before! It looks soooo good! Will definitely have to try it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jenny, eggplant, tomato, and pasta is a wonderful combo. If you like eggplant, you'll like this dish. Enjoy! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  32. Beautiful looking recipe for a weeknight meal and love that you've incorporated your awesome recipe for roast eggplant in it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christine, I often like to combine two different recipes - it makes for easier cooking! ;-) Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  33. I don't use eggplant often enough. It's such a healthy vegetable, but short of eggplant parm, I never know what to do with it. This recipes sounds delicious, and I'll bet I can get my husband to eat his eggplant with this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi motherrimmy, eggplant parm is probably the dish most people think of when they think of eggplant; at least it's the first one on my list. This is a really nice alternative, and frankly much healthier. Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  34. Roasted eggplants will definitely give a lot of flavour to that dish

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Raymund, isn't roast eggplant wonderful? It really does add quite a bit of flavor and body to this great pasta dish! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  35. A big thank you to Mrs. Kitchen Riffs for a a great over view of the opera, Norma. I am also a hopeless closet lover of Italian Opera and still cry ever time I ever watch or listen to lyrics from La Boheme. I think that I would be in perfect harmony if I was in your kitchen making this beautiful roasted egg plant pasta dish listening to the opera in the background.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bam, when Mrs K R is in the kitchen doing some baking, there usually is opera playing in the background! Anyone who loves the sound of the human voice singing should at least try to get acquainted with opera - it's such good stuff. As is this dish! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  36. Yay! More eggplant. I work for Australia's national opera company as my day job, so I am loving Mrs Kitchen Riffs telling of Norma. You have got to love the bel canto repertoire of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti - my favourite operatic period!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Amanda, I didn't know that you worked for Australia's national opera company! That must be tremendously fun. I'd have to check with Mrs K R, but I'll bet we have recordings of most, if not all, of the operas by Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti. Such a terrific trio of composers! Thanks for your comment.

      Delete
  37. I LOVE spaghetti alla norma! There's a little Italian trattoria a couple blocks away from me that makes the most fantastic version. Perfect for a cozy fall dinner!

    (BTW, this would be a perfect contribution to this month's pasta-themed Shine Supper Club!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sarah, isn't it a nice dish? You're lucky to have a neighborhood restaurant that serves this - I don't see it all that often on menus. Thanks for the comment, and I'll check out the Supper Club.

      Delete
  38. As soon as I saw this, it made me smile...because I know I'll make it! Love pasta, love eggplant so it's definitely something for me! :) Wonderful shot, by the way. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sarah, you'll enjoy this, trust me! It's really good stuff. Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.

      Delete