Pasta alla norma
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
I made this roasted eggplant and tomato sauce for the first time this week, when we were in need of comfort food watching the unending U.S. election results. I was so pleased with the way the meal came out I mentioned to a friend of Sicilian heritage my amazing and delicious discovery, and he was like, Oh, pasta alla norma. Ok. And? I can't tell you how delighted I was when I realized I had just Columbused an Italian-American.
I haven't always loved eggplant, because too many recipes require frying it in oil. I grew dejected just watching that cold, beige sponge that is sliced raw eggplant suck up all my expensive olive oil as it turned limp, grey, and greasy. Then I started roasting eggplant in the oven before using it in stews and sauces and the results were amazing. (I have to stop here to recommend a fantastic vegan stew, featured in Yasmin Khan's Zaitoun cookbook mentioned in the last post, that also features roasted eggplant).
Earlier this week I found myself awake at 4 am wandering through YouTube cooking clips. (I get low grade euphoria watching Melissa Clark's tour of her kitchen, which is my own personal ASMR video). I found a few different versions of red sauce that I adapted for this recipe. As I look ahead to winter and the end of farmers' market tomatoes, I decided to try roasting canned tomatoes in the oven, and can report that it works as well as roasting raw tomatoes and delivers huge improvements to red sauce. I suppose this recipe could be modified to be vegetarian or vegan, but the anchovies really add some essential bass notes to the dish, and I got the satisfaction of disproving the anchovy naysayer at my house. (It is said that one marries for conversation, but I married to hear "You were right!")
Pasta alla norma is traditionally topped with ricotta salata. I didn't have any on hand, and the dish was fine without. Instead, I added some grated parmesan. I know I will be called a jabroni for this.
Any self-respecting Italian would have a hundred objections to this version. I will be denounced as an irlandese diabolica and get put on a list, but I stand by the results.
2 28 oz cans of whole, peeled tomatoes
1 medium sized eggplant
1 large onion, diced
red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
3 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped fine
1 tbsp anchovy paste (you can use canned anchovies, I just didn't have any)
1 pound of pasta (it's traditionally made with macaroni, ziti, or rigatoni, but I only had radiatore, which probably aren't entirely appropriate for this type of sauce, but one of my favorite pasta shapes and worked well)
parsley (I didn't have any basil or oregano in the house)
ricotta salata, if you have it
1) Preheat oven to 250F degrees.
2) Empty the cans of tomatoes into a colander to drain their juices (which you can save for another purpose). Tear up the tomatoes in the colander with your fingers.
3) Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and spread out the tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and dried herbs. Cook them in the oven for at least an hour, or more if you have time.
4) You can start roasting the eggplant while the tomatoes are still cooking if you have two ovens. If not, when tomatoes are done, take them out of the oven and turn up heat to 400F degrees.
5) Cut up the eggplant into 1 inch pieces. Cut it in half, then half again, and so on, until you get to even, bite-sized squares. (I know I will also be called a disgraziata for not peeling my eggplant).
6) Line another rimmed sheet with parchment, or, if you only have one sheet, wipe it down and line the sheet with fresh parchment
7) Spread out the eggplant on parchment, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes.
8) Heat a large skillet (with a lid) or Dutch oven with a few tablespoons of olive oil.
9) Add the diced onion and cook it on medium low until translucent but not brown.
10) Add a tablespoon of anchovy paste, or a few canned anchovies.
11) Season with red pepper flakes to taste. Always season with salt & pepper as you go!
12) Add garlic and cook until it is fragrant.
13) Add the roasted tomatoes and the eggplant and let the whole thing cook on low, covered, for about half an hour.
14) Chop up some parsley or basil. Add to the sauce and let it cook some more.
15) Boil your choice of pasta (something sturdy and tubular is best) and when it is ready, drain and plate, and top with the sauce.
16) If you have ricotta salata, you can shave some on top.
This will be on my regular rotation from now on. You'd have to be a jabroni not to buy some eggplant and try your own version.