Just when you thought it was safe to start reading my blog again, I decided to jump out from behind the door and yell, “SICILY!!!!!!” in your face. Ha! And you thought that I’d finished waxing lyrical about that wonderful island! 🙂 I wanted to share another recipe with you that is a staple there: pasta alla Norma. It’s very simple, but amazingly flavourful, especially if you can get your mitts on a piece of hard ricotta cheese (ricotta salata): which was one of the things I stuffed into my bursting-at-the-seams bag when we came home. Sadly, it’s all gone now, so I can only dream about what it was like to eat it, until the next time we go back to Sicily. Oh yes, there will be a “next time”….there just HAS to be if there is any justice in the world!!
Now, please don’t get too upset that I’m dangling this recipe for pasta alla Norma in front of you, when I well know that ricotta salata is not easy to find outside of Italy. I’m not meaning to tempt you and then slap you…..really!! If you manage to sniff out a block of it, grab it immediately and don’t let any of the other shoppers convince you that they saw it first! Smuggle it home and treat it with tender-loving care. It will last for a few weeks in the fridge if it’s wrapped in a paper towel (so I found out!). The word ricotta means “twice cooked” as it made from whey which is a by-product of making other cheeses (cooking number 1), which is then heated again after a fermentation process (cooking number 2). The ricotta salata is cooked YET again in the oven to make it hard…..maybe it should be called trecotta?! Now, if you want to get all energetic on me and make it from scratch, it’s apparently pretty easy. It’s something I haven’t tried yet, but I’d be interested to hear from any of you who have done it. You can try this recipe here from the lovely cooking blog: 101 cookbooks.
Now, the name Norma….you may be asking, who the heck is she anyway??!! Well, it’s not a “she” but an opera written way back by a guy called Vincenzo Bellini. The story is the 1800’s equivalent of a Mills and Boon, with the exception in the end that the….(SPOILER ALERT!!!!)….heroine gives her kids away to stop herself from killing them and then gets burnt in a pyre with her lover so that she can be with him for eternity. Uplifting story, no? So, you ask, “why is a dish of pasta called after an opera?”. That is an excellent question that I have no real answer for except to say that the person in Catania, Sicily, who was supposed to have invented this dish must’ve adored this opera, or it actually has nothing to do with the opera and the inventor’s mother or grandmother was called Norma.
Even without the ricotta, pasta alla Norma is a wonderful plate full of the tastes of Summer. It’s simple to make, and very satisfying to eat And, the most important thing of all (at least for me): MY KIDS EAT IT! That means they eat lots of aubergine, which may help the bit of their brain grow to allow them to look for things they’ve lost. Right now, they stare at the thing they’re searching for and yell, “But Mamma, I can’t find it!!!”. We’ll see if that changes if I feed them more aubergine.
To find out how to cook pasta like an Italian does, check out my handy guide.
By Lisa Watson
- 400 g – there is no set pasta for this dish. Be imaginative! Pasta
- 1 medium-sized Aubergines
- 500 ml 2 cups Tomato puree
- to taste Hard ricotta
- a few fresh leaves Basil
- 30 minutes before cooking the pasta: chop the aubergine into cubes, put it in a colander placed in a bowl, and sprinkle it with large salt. Put a plate on top and something heavy on top of that and then leave it for 30 minutes. this really makes a difference to the oil uptake of the aubergine. It cooks much better after this!
- Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. I like to use fusilli or penne rigate for this sauce, but the choice is yours.
- Rinse the aubergine and blot it dry with paper towels.
- In a pan, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped aubergine and saute it, stirring often, until it browns on all sides.
- In another pan, heat a little olive oil. Add the tomato puree and let it simmer for 5 minutes. If you want to really make it from scratch, de-seed and peel 4-5 large tomatoes. Chop them and simmer them for 20 minutes. You can also put a whole clove of garlic in the oil, if you like, to add flavour (and then take it out at the end).
- Add the cooked aubergine to the tomato. Salt to taste, but be careful as the aubergine has already absorbed some salt.
- Drain the pasta and add the sauce to it. Tear up a few basil leaves and sprinkle them on top.
- Grate hard ricotta over the top of the pasta.
- Now take a mouthful and be surprised at how such a simple thing can taste SOOO good!!!