I usually welcome the spring season by cooking pasta alla norma. The reason? Spring brings fresh tomatoes, which are key to the success of this dish. If I close my eyes and dig into my childhood memories, I can still smell the aroma of fresh tomatoes and onions simmering on the stove of my grandmother’s house in Sicily. Actually, this is one of the very few happy memories I have about my vacations in Sicily due to the very… (how do I put this?)… rocky relationship between my grandmother and my mom.
Anyway, whenever I go on a “hunt” for the right ingredients for this recipe, it is one of those moments I miss my country and, especially, my grocer the most. The place where I live is a supermarket kingdom: everything is beautifully displayed in these endless aisles but, when you approach the people who work there and start asking questions about a particular produce you are looking for, they look at you in astonishment. No, it’s not my accent… I’m pretty sure about that. 😉 The point is they have no idea what I am talking about. Such a different experience compared to the great feeling I had when I put my
foot into my grocery store in Italy in contemplation of the wonders expecting me.
Let me be honest here. I truly believe that finding the perfect grocer, as well as finding the perfect butcher, is like finding a good friend. Let me explain my metaphor a little more in detail, will you?
You are looking for someone you can totally trust and that is going to give you the best he can offer. It’s not an easy quest and, inevitably, you will encounter a few disappointments down the road but what a fulfilling feeling when you realize that you have found the one. He starts smiling at you when he sees you coming down the street and when you explain him what you are planning on cooking, he knows exactly what you need. Most of the time, he is even a better cook than you are, so he shares tips and cooking skills with you, little secrets that you are going to treasure forever. He goes out of his way to pamper you and make you happy to make sure that you come back over and over and the friendship endures. Do you see my point now?
I still remember the first time I decided to try out this recipe not long ago in Italy. With the list of ingredients based on my dad’s memory, I went to my grocer. I had no idea what to pick but, of course, he came to my rescue and told me that I needed “sauce tomatoes”, i.e., tomatoes that are so juicy and flavorful that not using them to make a sauce would be tantamount to a crime. Then he directed me toward the right type of eggplant to be used and, finally, he made me try this divine ricotta salata coming directly from his trusted farmer. When I came back home and the tomatoes on the stove started spreading their
aroma all over, I was taken back in time to a vacation at my grandmother’s house in an instant and I took a fidelity oath to him. Something like “until death do us part” but less dramatic and permanent! 😉
Enough with the chit chat. This pasta dish originates in the Sicilian city of Catania and, allegedly, it was named after “Norma”, an opera by famous composer Vincenzo Bellini. The ingredients are few: tomato sauce, fried eggplants, basil and grated ricotta salata (a hard, saltier and drier version of ricotta). The tomato sauce takes about three hours to make, so if you are in hurry to put a meal on the table, maybe this is not the right dish. Everybody knows that perfection takes time and the taste of this pasta is heaven.
6 lb, fresh tomatoes
half, red onion
10 leaves, fresh basil
1 cup, extravirgin olive oil
1 cup, grated ricotta salata
1 lb rigatoni
Cut the eggplant into slices (about 3/4 inch thick). In order to remove the excess water from the eggplant slices, place a big colander on a plate, put some sliced eggplants in the colander and salt them. Put another layer of slices on top and salt them. Keep going until all the slices have been layered and salted. Then place a plate on top of the eggplant slices in the colander and put some kind of weight on top of the plate (I usually use peeled tomato cans). Let the slices rest for a couple of hours.
In the meanwhile, remove the stem ends of the tomatoes, cut them in halves and cut each half in 4 quarters. Cut the onion into slices.
In a large non-stick pot, put the tomatoes, the onions and some basil leaves, put some salt (to taste) and cook on a low heat for about three hours, stirring often, or until you obtain a sort of tomato mixture (the water from the tomatoes must almost completely evaporate).
Dice up the eggplant slices. In a non-stick skillet, pour 3/4 cup of olive oil and fry the eggplant cubes. When the cubes are soft and brown, remove them from the olive oil and place them on an oil-absorbing paper tissue.
Run the tomato mixture into a food mill, place the tomato sauce back on the low heat, put the eggplant cubes and the rest of the basil leaves into the sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and pour the rest of the olive oil on the sauce.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the rigatoni and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain the rigatoni and toss them to coat with 3/4 of the sauce.
Put the rigatoni into the serving plates, pour some of the remaining sauce on top of them and dust each dish with the grated ricotta salata. Serve right away and enjoy!
I wish you all a very Happy Easter!