I love pasta. Any chance I get to eat pasta, I take it. I’ve felt like I have perfected many of my favorite pasta dishes, but I have wanted to add some new pasta recipes to my repertoire. My dad is from the Puglia region of Italy and has many great recipes from the area, but I wanted to branch out and try mastering dishes from other regions. This brings me to Pasta alla Norma. Pasta alla Norma is a Sicilian dish that I’ve always been interested in making. It is one of those dishes that looks like it is more complicated than it actually is. Even so, it was a trial and error process for me until I found the steps that led to the best tasting outcome of this dish.
I am not a big eggplant fan, so my main concern was to perfect the flavor of the eggplant in this dish. My first time trying it, I didn’t remove any of the skin and didn’t bother to salt the eggplant to draw out the water prior to cooking. Big mistake. The eggplant skin was inedible, as you couldn’t even chew through it. It really ruined the dish, but I was set on getting it right the next time. The original recipe calls for salting the eggplant and letting it drain for about two hours. That seemed way too long for me to wait, as I am super impatient when hungry, so I waited just about an hour and thought that should be good enough. I also removed most of the eggplant skin prior to cutting into cubes. I cooked this with a can of polpa tomato sauce by Mutti, as I was in a rush and didn’t want to make my own sauce. It turned out so much better, but I knew the flavor still wasn’t the best it could be.
On my third try I decided to salt the eggplant and let it drain for an hour and a half and then let it sit on a kitchen towel to dry out. I also squeezed some of the excess water out before adding to the sauce. This time, I decided to make my own homemade sauce using roma tomatoes, since I had to wait for the eggplant to drain anyway. I got a vegetable mill so that I wouldn’t get any of the tomato skins or garlic and basil into the final sauce. To thicken the sauce, I decided I wanted to cook the pasta somewhat like a risotto, where I would add the pasta into the sauce pan and cook by adding small amounts of the pasta water at a time. BINGO! This simple step elevated the flavor of the sauce and also thickened it, while allowing the pasta to absorb the flavor of the sauce.
If you try this recipe, I recommend taking the time to allow the salt to extract the water from the eggplant and making your own homemade tomato sauce for the best flavor. Rushing through it will still be good, but not the best it could be! Also, if you can get it, use the ricotta salata, since this is the traditional Sicilian cheese to top off the dish. If you can’t find this cheese anywhere, try it with parmigiano-regiano or pecorino-romano cheese. Follow along with the print recipe listed below or watch as I prepare this recipe step by step in the following video.
Pasta alla Norma (Pasta with Eggplant and Homemade Tomato Sauce)
- Vegetable Mill
- 10 Plum tomatoes or using a jar of tomato passata (unseasoned, just pure tomato)
- Basil leaves
- 5 Garlic cloves
- 1/2 lbs. Mezzi Rigatoni or your preferred pasta
- 1 Whole eggplant
- Ricotta Salata Pecorino, or parmigiano cheese is okay as a substitute
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Let's first start with the eggplant. Cut off each end of the eggplant. Using a potato peeler, peel some of the sides of the eggplant. If you do not wish to peel the skin, that is fine skip this step. Next cut the eggplant into cubes, about 1" x 1". Place the cubed eggplant into a strainer, and add about 3 tbsp. of sea salt to the eggplant, toss to mix. Place a heavy object such as a pot lid or dish on top of the eggplant to weigh them down, push them down slightly. This will expedite the osmosis process and help extract the liquid from the eggplant. Make sure to place the strainer in something, because water will be dripping from the strainer. Set aside for about 1.5 hours. After that, wash off the eggplant in cold water, and set aside to air dry. This may take a while, so if you need to, feel free to place the eggplant into a table cloth, and wring as much water out of them as you can.
- Now we're going to start making a simple tomato sauce. Skip this step if you will be using jarred tomato passata. Quick note, you will need to have a vegetable mill for this simple sauce. The reason is because the mill will separate the meat of the plum tomato from the seeds and skin. Leaving just the delicious sauce from the tomato. You may use a blender if you need to, but the best will be a vegetable mill. Quarter each of the plum tomatoes. If they seem to be really watery, feel free to squeeze them a bit to remove some of the liquid. Cut three garlic cloves in half.
- In a large pot, drizzle 2 tbsp. of olive oil, heat for a few seconds, add the halved garlic. Fry them for about 30 seconds on medium heat and stirring occasionally. Add in the quartered plum tomatoes, 1 tbsp. of sea salt, and a few hand ripped basil leaves. Give it a really good mix. Place the heat on low, stirring occasionally to ensure the tomatoes do not burn. Cook for about thirty to forty five minutes, or until the tomatoes have reduced.
- After the tomatoes are done cooking, pass them through a vegetable mill, extracting the skin and seeds. I used the attachment that has the narrowest holes, for a smooth tomato puree texture. I found a pretty good one on Amazon.
- Add the tomato sauce to a pot or deep pan. Turn on heat to medium-low, trying to maintain a slow simmer. Add in a few more hand ripped basil leaves. Stir the sauce occasionally.
- Bring a big pot of water to boil, season with sea salt. We will add the pasta after we finish up cooking the eggplant in the next step.
- After the eggplant has fully dried, add a large drizzle of olive oil to a frying pan on medium heat. Wait until the oil is hot, then add 3 whole garlic cloves, and the eggplant. You'll want to stir them occasionally as they fry, and eventually achieve a nice golden color. They cook for about 5-7 minutes, just make sure not to burn them.
- Once the eggplant is done, remove the garlic, and place the eggplant into a dish making sure not to include any of the leftover olive oil. Set aside the dish with eggplant for later.
- Now that the water for the pasta is boiling add in the pasta. If the pasta requires to be cooked for 10 minutes, you'll want to cook the pasta for only 6 minutes. You'll want to slightly under-cook the pasta, because we will finish cooking it in the sauce.
- Add the eggplant into the sauce, and stir. When there's one minute left for the pasta to cook, add 1/4 cup of pasta water to the sauce, and mix. Make sure to also reserve at least another 2 cups of pasta water. I find it easy to use a hand spider strainer to scoop out the pasta to transfer to the sauce. Then later using a ladle to scoop the pasta water over to the sauce.
- Now that the pasta is done cooking for 6 minutes, add it into the sauce, and give it a mix. We're going to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce and pasta water. This will take some time, but the final product will be amazing. If I had a way of describing this cooking technique, it would be as if you are cooking risotto. You will continue to add pasta water to the pasta, stir and cook, and add more when needed, until the pasta is fully cooked, also making sure to stir occasionally. Please see the attached video if you are unsure about this step.
- Once the pasta is fully cooked, serve a plate, and top off with the ricotta salata.