Apr 15, 2009

Pasta alla Norma recipe

I am in love with an island. Sicilia is her name. A natural museum of art and culture between sun and sea.

Tears of lava, limestone plains swept by the wind, sunny lands the color of bronze, a sea perennially the color of sapphire, home to dolphins and swordfish. And a people of unmeasured hospitality and creativity.

At least once in a lifetime, one should visit Sicily. To see, to learn, to enjoy, to savor what has enchanted all those who have ventured through its expanses in the past four thousand years. And to dream. Rove the archaeological parks of Piazza Armerina, Agrigento or Selinunte; witness the sunset in the Greek theater at Taormina or from the ruins of Megara Hyblaea. Swim in the sea of the Eolian archipelago, or in Camarina, knowing that buried under the sand lie the relics of ancient ships.

And to sail along the coasts witnessing dawns and twilights, while the coast stretches out before you with its monstrous architectural horrors, which can be pardoned only by the sudden appearance of a temple or twin columns still standing on a coast that is sometimes unspoiled.

In the Sicilian language, behavior, food, and religion – its people carry fragments of Greek culture, but also Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Norman, Angevin, Aragon, Catalan… Each of these has left a mark, architectural traces, masterpieces of art, transforming the island into a unique open-air museum.
Rather than a cultural residue, la cucina Siciliana is the most resistant trait of a whole culture. The dining table is the place where the many different civilizations that have passed through the island come together.

Sicilians are masters of cooking eggplant, and their island home is the source of countless other delicious and interesting ways to prepare it. The queen of popular cuisine, caponata, for instance–which is the aubergine appetizer/side dish served as a sweet and piquant sauce–was originally created in the kitchens of the courts of pre-Islamic Persia.

Today, I will be sharing another eggplant recipe from Sicily, one that I am particularly fond of: Pasta alla Norma.

In the past when meat was scarce, eggplant, with its chunky look and meaty flavor, was often used as a substitute. This recipe, named for the opera Norma by Catania-born Vincenzo Bellini, is quintessential Sicilian home style food. Here's what you need to make your own:

1 kg large or medium eggplants, about 2 lb total
Extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 to 3 lb fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 can (28 oz) plum tomatoes with their juice
100 g (1/2 cup) fresh basil leaves, hand torn into small pieces (cutting basil with a knife kills the flavor)
500 g (1.1 lb) ribbed penne or rigatoni
100 g (1/2 cup) ricotta salata cheese, coarsely grated (plus more for garnish)
Salt for purging the eggplant, plus more to taste

Cut the eggplants crosswise into slices 1/2" thick. Make a layer of slices in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Continue layering and sprinkling with salt until all of the slices are used. Top with a plate and a heavy weight, such as a pot. Place the colander over a bowl or in the sink. Let this stand for 1 hour to drain off the aubergines' bitter juices. Rinse off the salt and dry the eggplant slices with paper towels.

Tip: Salting the eggplant slices draws out their bitter juices. If the eggplant is very fresh, this step is not essential, but if you are unsure about their provenance, it is a good habit against a disappointing dish. Ricotta salata is a salted, pressed form of goat's milk ricotta.

In a large frying pan over medium heat, pour in 1/3 cup of olive oil to a depth of approximately 1/2". Add enough of the eggplant slices to make a single layer in the pan. Fry the slices, turning once, until tender and lightly browned on both sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat until you've used up all the remaining slices.

In another very large saucepan over medium heat, sauté the garlic in the olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and season with salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove the tomato sauce from the heat. Cut the eggplant into strips and stir them into the sauce along with the basil.

Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring frequently, until very al dente. Put the tomato and eggplant sauce back on the stove over medium heat.

Drain the pasta and pour it into the simmering sauce. Stir in some cheese and blend well by stirring and one-handed swooping in chef-like manner. Top with more grated ricotta salata cheese, torn basil leaves and serve immediately.

This serves 6 epicureans.


  1. I'm reading this at 4:15 p.m. just thinking about what's for dinner. Now, making different pasta sauces is not a new concept for me. Yet, I had never had eggplant over pasta. It worth the trip to the local market to procure the main ingredients. Buon

  2. Wow - delicious!!! That must taste absolutely amazing.

  3. I love your posts, Lola. :D

    Wonderful, they are and I look forward to every one of them.Oh! and I love you too.

    Ti amo te, Lola?

  4. Lola, I'm almost in tears I want to visit Sicily so badly now - in the good way :)

  5. This is lovely - and thank you for stopping by my blog :)

  6. Hi Lola,

    My minestrone a la Lola was excellent..so now we move on to eggplant which we adore...its true it can be mistaken for meat. I make a lasagna with eggplant and pumpkin layers and recently my husband asked if it was chicken!!!

    Happy days master chef or (chefette)

  7. This is a incredible piece on Sicily! My Family also founded a town in Sicily. I have been there several times and Lola, you explain it well!! O yes, the dish is elegant!
    Grazie! :)

  8. You are such a mesmerizing cook and storyteller that your photography tends to be overlooked. You do a fantastic job of presenting dishes through the camera...and that is a wonderful shot of the island.

  9. What absolute bliss to be transported again to that magical island. Oh, and in such style, Lola. Your words (yes, like roses), the stellar photographs, the fascinating history and, oh again, the food! Yes, Guy and I will go to Sicily tonight when he comes home hungry. How delighted he will be to find that there is Pasta alla Norma for supper. (I have four shiny purple eggplants in a bowl in the kitchen just waiting to be transformed!

    (I bought two simple and unadorned terracotta doves in Taormina which sit now on either side of a row of my favourite travellers' tales.)

  10. Thank you so much for your warm comments, I sort of knew a post on Sicilia would be met with smiles.

    princessparkle - It is truly a magical place...

    City Girl - Thank YOU for swinging by here for a bite to eat!

    Delwyn - I'm happy the miestrone was a success. Relay the Norma news asap :)

    Chuck - Wow, tell me more about the family town!

    Michael - Thank you! I have to admit I did enhance the island shot a bit. Woo hoo for photoshop. I think the Sicily Region should endorse me after this post...

    Tessa - Let me know if Guy seduced you after the aphrodisiac Norma. Glad you liked, dear friend.

  11. Okay I get it now.

    You don't love rain but you do love an island.


    Wonderful post again Lola. Are you writing a cookbook and your stories.

    I think you should be a tv cook because you are beautiful, extremely beautiful and loving and fun and interesting.

    Love Renee xoxox

  12. I am Renee, I am. It's finished actually...waiting for a daring publisher to take it on.

    Thank you so much, you'r comments are so great.

    How are you feeling today, sweetheart?

  13. ummm, now this I can sink my teeth into!

    And Sicily seems so far beyond anything that I might ever touch...but yet something to yearn for. Beautiful.

  14. Your introduction to the Island that holds so much of my soul, made me cry. I was born there and have in recent years been back 3 times. The last to take my fathers remains back.
    I adore that you speak of the beauty and the ugly things one see's along the coast.
    I make my father's caponata and pasta with eggplant as well,I also make Panellie made with chick pea flour, but I never got to make his olivie scachati. Its green olives split and soaked in water for I don't know how any days, and then the dressing of olive oil garlic .Would you happen to know the proper way to make these. I would be ecstatic. Thanks...Nell

  15. Nellie~
    thank you very much for your lovely comment. You were born in Sicilia? How lucky!

    I have to find out about the olive. Schiacciate, did you say? What part of Sicilia was your father from? It may be a recipe native to his area, because I have never heard of it.

    Come back soon and again thanks for your words.
    Lola xx

  16. I'm in love with the same island! We lived in Sicily for 6 months and it was not enough to see everthing we wanted to see or taste everything we wanted to taste - but we tried our best! I can't wait to try your pasta alla norma! Your recipes and photos are so gorgeous!
    Ciao, R

  17. ROFL. I always order this dish. Where? Wait for it........The Cheesecake Factory. It's great but I always thought the name was a joke, like after the owner's Mom-in-Law. LOL Who knew?

  18. Thank you for your lovely comments!

    Bob & Rosemary~
    sorry for replying this late! This comment must've slipped unnoticed... Scusa!! Thank you for your kind words.


    That's too funny! No, it's Bellini's Norma.
    ...What's the Cheesecake Factory?

  19. Yum!

    I want Sicily, and I want pasta- right now. Mmmm mmm

  20. Esther~
    Sicily rocks! Thank you for stopping by. Ciao!