Looking for a hearty yet healthy dish? Look no further than pasta alla Norma. This vegetarian pasta dish, named for Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera Norma, is simple and satisfying – perfect for a weeknight meal. The rich flavor of the roasted eggplant, the sweetness of the basil, and the subtle spice of the sauce will win you over.
Eggplant (melanzana) is now a staple in Italian cooking, though for centuries it was unpopular and believed to be associated with madness and indecent behavior (!). Thankfully, Italians have shaken off the superstition and offer us many eggplant recipes to choose from. Most come from Sicily and Southern Italy, where eggplant was first cultivated in the 11th century (Del Conte 2013: 228). In addition to going well with pasta, eggplant makes great stuffing and is delicious both grilled and preserved.
My favorite eggplant dishes are eggplant parmigiana and of course, caponata. What are yours? Maybe pasta alla Norma will be your new favorite?
Pasta alla Norma
Adapted from Epicurious Italy Fall 2014, originally published in Gourmet: Easy Dinners 2012
2 large, firm eggplants, tops trimmed
9 tablespoons olive oil, divided
6 garlic cloves, peeled, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, pureed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lb. spaghetti
1 cup small or torn large basil leaves
shavings of Parmesan or Pecorino
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Oil 2 large rimmed baking sheets.
Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes.* Toss with 6 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl and divide between oiled baking sheets. Roast in oven, stirring eggplant and switching position of pans halfway through, until tender and browned, 20-25 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook garlic in remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring, until pale golden, then transfer garlic with a slotted spoon to a small bowl. Stir onion, red pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt into skillet; cook, covered, over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender, about 6 minutes. Add tomato puree and sugar; briskly simmer, uncovered, until thickened slightly, 10-15 minutes.
Stir spaghetti into a pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking liquid and drain spaghetti in a colander. Return spaghetti to pasta pot with sauce and eggplant; toss over low heat, thinning with cooking liquid as necessary, until well coated, about 1 minute. Stir in garlic and half of basil. Transfer pasta to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with remaining basil and top with cheese.
*The original recipe calls for the fluffy cores of the eggplant to be cut out and discarded, which I did but found to be unnecessary and wasteful. Use all the eggplant, though you may need to adjust your roasting time accordingly.