The regional diversity of Italian cuisine is as intriguing as it is delicious. Sicilian dishes are particularly compelling, having imbibed inspirations from all the different cultures that have shaped the island of Sicily over the past two millennia, from French and Spanish to Greek and Arab influences.
Sicilian cuisine today is unique and synonymous with signature specialties from arancini to cannoli. And among the parade of pastas originating from this island, is Pasta alla Norma, named after Bellini’s 19th-century opera, Norma.
A supremely-satisfying medley of macaroni, tomatoes, devilishly deep-fried aubergine, basil and grated ricotta salata cheese – this has undoubtedly been my favourite pasta for as long as I can remember for its reliably comforting nature.
This is my (healthier) rendition of this classic recipe, swapping in baked aubergines (instead of fried) and a small smattering of other seasonings to elevate the flavours a teensy bit more. While ricotta salata (salted ricotta) is key, you can also use parmesan or even feta if that’s what you have easily available. The beauty of this recipe is that it is a bit of a pantry raid – you’re likely to always have the required ingredients at hand!
- 1 large aubergine
- 5 tomatoes
- ½ onion, finely sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 – 2 tbsp tomato paste (optional, but recommended)
- Handful of torn basil
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp red chilli flakes (can increase if you like your sauce spicy)
- Crack of black pepper
- Olive oil, as required
- 250 – 300g of pasta (preferably penne, fusilli, rigatoni or any other tube-shaped pasta)
- Grated salted ricotta (alternatively, you can use grated crumbled feta or grated parmesan)
Prepare the aubergine
- Roughly chop the aubergine into 2cm chunks; put them in a colander placed over the sink and sprinkle generously with salt (sea salt is always preferable) and let it sit for at least 20 minutes (if you have time, 2 hours is recommended). This helps to draw out the moisture in the aubergine.
- Give the aubergine pieces a good rinse (to remove the excess salt) and pat dry with paper towels.
- Drizzle 1 -2 tbsp of olive oil and a crack of black pepper, tossing the pieces together to ensure that they are evenly coated, before roasting the aubergine in a preheated oven at 180C for about 25 minutes until golden-brown and tender.
Prepare the tomato sauce
- While the aubergine is roasting, prepare the tomato sauce. Blanche the tomatoes (add to a pot of boiling water and boil for about 1 – 2 minutes), peeling the skin off once they have cooled down after being removed from water. Chop the flesh roughly into chunks and set aside.
- Heat about 2 – 3 tbsp of olive oil in a large skillet, sautéing the onions until translucent. Next add in the garlic, chilli flakes and oregano and sauté until fragrant (a couple of minutes).
- Then add the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and around 1/2 cup of water. Let it come to a boil, then season with salt and pepper (according to taste). Let the sauce simmer on the stove (medium low heat) for around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in the baked aubergine chunks and torn basil and let the sauce simmer for a bit more (8 – 10 minutes) until thick and glossy.
Cook the pasta
- Simultaneously, while the sauce is simmering, bring a pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet, until al dente.
- When draining the pasta, reserve some of the starchy pasta water to add to the sauce if required (it helps to loosen up the sauce).
Bring it all together:
- Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, reducing the heat to low. Toss well until the pasta is evenly coated. Serve hot, with a generous sprinkling of grated cheese.
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