Have you ever been to Sicily? A little over two years ago my Mom and I spent a few weeks there. It was a bit of a spontaneous trip so we didn’t do much research before going; we were amazed at the beauty and all of the delicious food. The island’s climate supports almost all kinds of agricultural produce except for pineapples. Figs, olives, grapes, wheat, tomatoes, eggplant, prickly pears, almonds, artichokes, capers, blood oranges — all of it grows locally there.
Here we are at a scenic overlook near Scopello.
As a minor history lesson the island also changed hands many times. In addition to their current status as an autonomous region of Italy, Sicily was also ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and the French, among others. Each rule added their own religion, cuisine, and architecture to the culture of the island. The results are often beautiful, complex, and delicious.
In addition to eating my body weight in ricotta cheese, we also enjoyed some traditionally Sicilian dishes in various incarnations during our visit. One of our favorites was the ubiquitous pasta alla Norma. Norma isn’t a person, it’s a reference to the Norman French who once governed there and had some good ideas about what to do with eggplant.
We ate this combination of eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and grated ricotta salata cheese on pasta and pizza in almost every city. Here was handmade pasta in Piazza Armerina.
When we started chatting with Salvatore, the owner of a wine and gourmet food shop in Cefalù, he insisted on us sampling some vintages, then went upstairs and cooked us dinner (pasta alla Norma, of course) to go with it.
In the medieval town of Erice we finally found a Sicilian cookbook in English that actually had the recipes we wanted. The translation isn’t great and some of the directions are a bit sketchy (measurements are often “handful” and “tuft”), but it managed to get pasta alla Norma on my table which is good enough for me! Who needs armchair travel when you can have stove top travel?
The first time I made this was for when my mother- and sister-in-law came over for dinner; they were almost ready for seconds by the time I sat down at the table.
The recipe from the cookbook is a little time-consuming, but it turns out extremely well. Two things are most vexing upon reading the recipe: salting and draining the eggplant for an hour, and blanching and peeling the tomatoes. The photos here show a version that isn’t quite proportionate to the recipe because of quantities included in our CSA, but I also skipped those two steps and it turned out fine. Honestly, blanching and peeling the tomatoes makes for a nicer texture, but it still tastes good if you skip it.
The other key is the cheese on top. Fresh ricotta is the “queen of creams” in Sicilian desserts, but the ricotta used in this recipe is ricotta salata, a dry salty cheese quite different from the soft cheese that probably comes to mind. In a pinch, feta cheese would work, but the ricotta is really lovely here. It’s grated and then toasted, lending a nutty flavor and some crunch to the dish.
Even the Veggie-Hating Husband gobbles this up. I made a full recipe and took leftovers for lunch; when’s the last time you were excited for leftovers?
Flipping through the cookbook to reference this recipe reminded me of all the other dishes from that trip I want to make and haven’t yet. Hopefully I will soon, and I will share them — and some more trip photos — with you!
Pasta alla Norma
Inspired by Treasures of Sicilian Cuisine
If you’re using a large eggplant you probably want to salt and drain it to prevent bitterness. I used two small eggplants so I skipped that step and was fine. Eggplant also absorbs a lot of oil when it cooks, so I amended the recipe a bit to help counteract that. Salted ricotta can be found at grocery stores with good cheese departments.
- 1 pound bucatini or other long pasta
- 1 medium or 2 small eggplants
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/4 cup loosely-packed fresh basil leaves
- 1/3 cup olive oil, divided
- 3 ounces salted ricotta
- salt and pepper
- kosher salt for eggplant
- Dice eggplant. Place in a colander and sprinkle with kosher salt. Let drain about one hour. Rinse.
- Bring a saucepan full of water to a boil. Slice a small “X” in the base of each tomato and add the tomatoes to the boiling water. Cook about 10 minutes and drain. Peel tomatoes, remove seeds, and chop roughly.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet. Brown garlic in oil then remove garlic from pan. Add tomatoes, most of the basil (chopped), and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat until the sauce simmers and thickens.
- Cook pasta according to directions until al dente. Drain.
- In another pan, heat about 1/4 cup of oil over medium heat. Add eggplant and cook until browned. Add a tablespoon or two of water to deglaze the pan and prevent sticking when needed.
- Grate ricotta cheese. Place on a pan and bake at 350F until golden brown. Stir occasionally.
- Add cooked pasta and eggplant to the tomato sauce. Toss to combine. Serve garnished with a crack of pepper, the rest of the basil, and the toasted ricotta.
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