I have always been honest in describing meals in Casa Reina. My husband, who has the patience of a saint, finds himself, more often than naught, in the amusing situation of living the proverb: The cobbler’s family doesn’t have shoes. Or in my case: The chef did not make dinner. At least two to three times a week we are getting take-out because I am just too exhausted after a long day of cooking. So when Sunday rolls around I make it a point to step things up.
Who doesn’t love a good pasta dish, right? You can easily open a jar, which on some nights during the week I have admittedly done. Remember, we are “stepping things up” so for this dish a simple sauce bubbling on the stove is going to be extra special.
The sauce recipe below is going to yield about seven cups. It’s always a good thing to make enough for another dinner. Place your leftovers in a couple of plastic take-out containers and freeze for another time. Just be sure to label and date them in case they get lost in the depths of your freezer.
A member of the nightshade family, the eggplant is cousin to tomato and peppers. It is thought that the eggplant, or aubergine, originated in India. However, first written mention of this vegetable seems to have been in 544CE in the Qimin Yaoshu text. Cultivation stretched over the centuries and across the continents bringing the eggplant, or now in Italian melanzana, to Sicily in the 12th Century.
You can find eggplant in many shapes, sizes and colors. From the smallest teardrop shape called “Fairy tale,” long thin shape “Asian,” round “Globe,” and then the most typical large black “Nadia.” Generally speaking the smaller shapes like fairly tale and Asian need very little attention. The skin is thin, seeds microscopic and the flesh fairly dense. The larger varieties need a little extra love before cooking, and that will come in the way of salting.
Why salt you ask? Generally for two reasons: First, it helps pull out the bitter liquid that resides inside. Second, to collapse the air pockets making the eggplant a little tighter and denser.
Have you ever cooked eggplant and found it to be greasy and/or bitter? That is essentially the answer. Salting keeps the oil from saturating the eggplant. You can see what I have left in the pan after cooking!
As with every thing in life, timing is the key. While the eggplant is draining you will be making the sauce. I literally never just cook one thing at a time. It’s all about doing your prep first, before you begin cooking. Once you do that, you can rock the kitchen world.
So where is all this leading? To a dish called Pasta alla Norma. It was said that the 19th century Sicilian writer, poet and theater director Nino Martoglio, was so impressed when he first tasted this dish that he compared it to Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma,” a masterpiece of the day.
Start to finish you are looking at about an hour and half to two hours for this dish. It’s not one of my typical quick creations, but neither will it take the whole day. It’s delicious, hearty and perfect for Sunday night. Serve it with a yummy crusty bread to sop up the lingering sauce, and a nice bright salad on the side.
Pasta alla Norma
6 oz. pasta, I used Barilla Mezze Rigatoni
3 cups sauce, recipe follows
3 cups cooked eggplant, recipe follows
Ricotta salata cheese
1. Cook the pasta 2 minutes shy of the box directions for al dente, in boiling salted water.
2. In a saute pan bring the pasta sauce to a very low simmer. Add the almost cooked pasta to the sauce and finish cooking. If the sauce is a little too dense add some of the pasta water to thin it out a bit. It will thicken as the pasta cooks.
3. Add the eggplant and about ½ cup of grated ricotta salata cheese and toss very gently.
4. Add your basil just before serving along with more cheese.
Makes about 3 cups cooked
2 lbs. eggplant
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Trim the ends and partially peel the eggplant in alternating stripes. Cut into ¾” cubes and place in a colander. You will have about 10 cups of eggplant. Add 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and toss with your hands to combine.
2. Let the colander sit in your sink for about an hour. This is the perfect time to make your sauce! (Recipe is below.)
3. Rinse off the salt with cold water and squeeze out some of the liquid with a clean dishtowel or paper towels. You will have about 5 cups now.
4. In a large non-stick pan heat about ¼ cup of oil over medium heat. Add half the eggplant cubes and cook for 2 minutes without moving. Then toss with gently with a spatula. Flip over any that are really brown and continue to cook another 2 -3 minutes until done. Tilt the pan and scoop out the eggplant and place on a dish. Don’t use paper towels – you will scrape the little bit of oil clinging to them back into the pan with the pasta.
5. You will still have oil left in the pan – this is the beauty of salting and draining! Add the remaining eggplant and follow step 4.
6. If you are not using the eggplant right away cool it down completely and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Maria’s Basic Tomato Sauce
Makes 6 -7 cups
1½ cup, ¼“ diced onion, about 8 oz.
2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic, 2 – 4 depending on size, about ¾ oz.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
2 – 28 oz. cans of whole plum tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1. In a medium saucepot add the onion, garlic and olive oil. Season with ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes until soft and golden. Add the chili flakes and sizzle for about 30 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
2. While the onions are cooking empty the tomatoes into a large bowl and squeeze them with your hands to break them up. Into each can add ½ cup of water and swish it around to loosen anything clinging to the sides and scrap into the bowl.
3. Add the tomatoes and bay leaf to the pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 – 45 minutes. The goal is to not get this sauce extremely thick. You want to have it a little on the liquid side. It will absorb into the pasta.
4. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt, pepper and/or chili flakes to taste.
5. For the Pasta alla Norma recipe above you will need 3 cups. The rest place in a 2-cup container, label and freeze for another time.