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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

 

Penne alla Norma


by Nanette Geller

Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian eggplant and tomato dish created in the 19th century. It was supposedly named in honor of  the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini's enormously popular opera "Norma."  Although sometimes made with spaghetti or other pastas, it is most commonly made with penne.

American recipes sometimes call for fresh ricotta, a soft, creamy product which is universally available here. In Italy, however, it is made with ricotta salata, which is sheep’s milk ricotta that has been salted, pressed and aged. It is a little like feta, but firmer and less salty. It can be grated, shredded or crumbled, and gives the final dish a very different flavor and texture than fresh ricotta. While not available everywhere, I have found it at Kokua, Foodland, and Whole Foods. It’s worth seeking out. In addition to Penne alla Norma I use it frequently for other vegetable-based pastas. Crumbled sheep's milk feta would probably be a better substitute than fresh ricotta and is more readily available than ricotta salata.

Where I do break with tradition is in preparing the eggplant. It is usually sautéed in lots of olive oil, or even deep fried. I prefer to cut the eggplant in thick slices, brush lightly on both sides with olive oil, then broil until the outside is brown and slightly crisp, and the inside is tender. Cut into bite-size pieces and set aside. It can even be made ahead and refrigerated.

 

penne alla norma 1

 

Start the sauce by sautéing onion in olive oil with a pinch of salt. I happened to have a little leftover celery and red  bell pepper, so I added them.

Two things missing: I was out of garlic and fresh chilies. Substituted dried chili flakes, left out the garlic. No problem.

When the aromatics are lightly browned, add a can of diced tomatoes (juice and all). Simmer uncovered about 15 to 20 minutes.

I added fresh ground black pepper, a couple of bay leaves, and a good shake of Ceylon cinnamon with the tomatoes. The cinnamon is my own variation – I like Ceylon cinnamon in tomato sauces. It’s not that outrageous in a Sicilian dish, there’s a lot of Moorish influence in Sicilian cooking.

Mint is also my own variation, added as a fragrant garnish instead of basil. It goes well with both eggplant and tomatoes, and keeps within the exotic Sicilian/Moorish theme.



Meanwhile, bring the pasta water to a boil. Add plenty of salt and throw in the pasta. Time it to drain about a minute before it reaches al dente. We’ve switched to whole wheat pastas for robust tomato sauces and actually enjoy the nutty flavor.

When you drain the pasta, reserve some of the starchy, salty cooking water.

 

penne alla norma 2

 

Add the pasta and eggplant to the sauce. Stir gently. Add pasta cooking water as needed. The starch in the water helps bring the sauce together.

Continue cooking until the pasta is al dente, adding more of the reserved cooking water if it gets too thick. Taste for seasoning.

Remove from the heat. Stir in shredded ricotta salata and torn-up mint. You can add a little extra virgin olive oil as well.

After plating, top with more cheese and mint.


 

The eggplant was a beautiful young specimen from Milner farm, firm and almost seedless. Onion, celery and red pepper from Pit Farm. Mint from SKA.



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