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Becoming Sicilian with pasta alla Norma

Passport & Plate - Pasta alla Norma

Italy | Friday, 14 March 2014 | 2 photos


Ingredients
1 large aubergine (approx 950-1000g)
700g passata
1 clove garlic
1 large handful basil
Dried pasta - traditionally this should be maccheroni. However, any short pasta shape which will hold onto the chunky sauce will work - fusilli or penne, for instance
Ricotta salata (ricotta which has been salted and aged) for grating. Feta is a possible substitute.

 

How to prepare this recipe
Slice the aubergine into 1cm rounds. Layer the slices in a colander, sprinkling each layer with coarse salt as you go, then put a plate on top and weigh it down with something heavy. Leave the colander in the sink for up to an hour while the aubergine compresses and loses any bitter juices.
Chop the garlic finely, then sprinkle it with a little salt and crush it into a paste with your knife blade. Heat it with some olive oil in an ovenproof pan until fragrant. Add the passata and simmer gently.
Rip the basil into small pieces (see note) and add to the passata and garlic. Put a lid on the pan, then put it in the oven at 150C, and leave the sauce to cook gently for up to an hour until thick and dark.
While the sauce cooks, drain and rinse the aubergine slices, then dry them thoroughly. Fry them in olive oil in batches. As they brown, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and return to the colander to drain.
When all the aubergine slices are cooked, set the best-looking ones aside for decoration. Remove the cooked tomato sauce from the oven. Chop the remaining aubergine into rough slices and stir into the sauce.
Cook the pasta in plenty of salted water. Just before it's done, put the Norma sauce back onto a low heat and add a ladleful of the cooking water to loosen it and help the pasta and sauce to combine. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Stir over a gentle heat until any excess cooking water has been absorbed and the pasta is well-coated with the sauce.
Leave to rest for a few minutes before serving, decorated with the reserved aubergine slices, and with ricotta salata grated over the top.

Note:
Southern Italian superstition has it that chopping basil with a knife encourages scorpions into the home. Whether you believe that or not, it's true that ripping basil is much gentler on the leaves and will prevent bruising and blackening.

 

The story behind this recipe
I've heard it told that pasta alla Norma was created in honour of Vincenzo Bellini, Catania's favourite son and the composer of the opera, 'Norma'. This could be true, but there's another version of the story; one which I prefer.

I'm English, and I live in Catania, Sicily. Now it's home, but it didn't become that way until I moved in with two local girls. One day, as the tangy-sweet smell of vinegar and sugar from the caponata I was making wafted through the flat, my flatmates followed their noses out of their rooms. "This is the smell of every Catanese nonna's kitchen on a Sunday," exclaimed one. "You may be English on the outside but in here" - she thumped her chest - "you're Sicilian."

Following the caponata incident, my flatmate invited me to Sunday lunch with her family. "I think my mother's going to like you." Among other things on the table that day there was a dish of pasta alla Norma, dark red and basil-scented, with thick chunks of aubergine fried golden-green in olive-oil. I've eaten many versions in my time, but a mouthful of hers and I was hooked. Seeing the look on my face, my flatmate urged me to help myself to more. "Go on! There's no greater compliment!" So I finished off a second helping and moved on to a third, while my flatmate's mum shared both her recipe and the legend behind it.

The operatic role of Norma is one that is fiendishly difficult to sing. As its infamy spread throughout the theatre world, therefore, it became usual for people to dub anything really impressive 'un vero 'Norma'' (a real Norma). The main character in this story isn't Norma, however. And Bellini doesn't even get a look-in. No, the star of this particular legend is another famous Catanese writer: Nino Martoglio. On the night when he first ate what would become Pasta alla Norma, he took one bite and was smitten. In fact, he decided it was so delicious that he uttered the immortal words, 'ma questo è un vero 'Norma'!'.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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