Pasta alla Norma. Whenever I hear the name of this dish, I can’t help but wonder who’s Norma? Turns out I’m not the only one wondering this: Google “Pasta alla Norma” and you’ll see scores of self-proclaimed pasta aficionados quibbling about the dish’s elusive name.
Some say the Sicilian pasta dish thick with meaty eggplant and spicy tomatoes is named after the heroine in Bellini’s opera Norma. In the opera, the druid priestess heroine perishes alongside her lover on a burning pyre, perhaps reminiscent of the spicy red sauce. Others say the dish’s name simply means “in the normal tradition,” while others—probably the least likely, but I’m certain I read it somewhere—believe the name recalls an archetypal Italian grandmother who spent hours in her kitchen crafting homemade pasta and coaxing bright red tomatoes and eggplant into a thick sauce.
Origin aside, the name (and the image of the Italian grandmother) stuck with me, and last night I decided Pasta alla Norma would be a fitting dinner to soften the chill of a foggy San Francisco summer evening. Jamie Oliver’s recipe for Pasta alla Norma yielded just the sort of comfort food I was hoping for—steaming hot tomatoes and eggplant, chewy pasta and a kick from the red chili. I may not know for certain who Norma is, but I know this: I like her pasta.
The Basic Method
First, panfry the eggplant and dried oregano in a skillet. Be warned: this step can take a while because the eggplant must be fried in batches in order to brown the eggplant evenly. Alternatively, you could broil the eggplant in the oven. Pasta alla Norma purists, however, say this method destroys a texture only possible by pan frying. You choose.
Put all the browned eggplant back in the pan. Stir in canned tomatoes, a dried red chili, garlic, basil stems and white wine vinegar. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Meanwhile cook your pasta of choice. Jamie Oliver uses spaghetti, but I used fusilli (corkscrew) because I like how the spiral traps the tomato sauce. My fusilli were whole wheat, which works well with hearty sauce. Before you drain the al dente pasta, reserve about ¼ cup of the pasta water to incorporate in the sauce later.
Drain the pasta, toss it in the skillet with the sauce. Add the reserved pasta water, half the cheese, half the basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Let the pasta mixture simmer for a few minutes so the elements meld.
Spoon onto plates and top with remaining cheese and basil.