Making Music with Eggplant
Today’s post is by our resident farm foodie – Debra Dubief
For reasons that are probably rooted in old ideas about time-consuming preparation, I too frequently bypass eggplant. Even though I know all that salting, draining, rinsing and drying are completely unnecessary, I still find myself shying away from it — secretly believing my laziness was tricking my taste buds.
It took a compelling Saveur article from several years ago: Bitter Truths: Why Your shouldn’t Sweat Eggplant, to finally convince me those extra steps really weren’t necessary. After that I vowed to enjoy eggplant a lot more often. Yet when I heard our farm was harvesting it I realized it had, once again, been far too long and quickly added a couple to my Full Circle box.
I had no idea what I was looking for as I stumbled around the internet and happened on this fabulous-sounding recipe. This beloved Sicilian dish was named for a famous opera, has been around for something like 200 years and is apparently famous all over Italy. A mouth-watering pasta classic featuring an end-of-summer bounty of eggplant, tomatoes and basil, this dish will help you move into a new season without lamenting the shift to indoor dining quite so much.
All of the versions of this recipe I found online were pretty similar and the most traditional sounded like they would come together quickly if you didn’t fuss too much with the tomatoes. Most agreed that, while authentic, ricotta salata could easily be replaced by a variety of cheeses—Parmigiano, Pecorino, creamy ricotta and feta were top choices. I opted for the Parmigiano because that’s what we had, but now that I’ve made this, I think Quillisascut’s goat’s milk feta would be a fantastic choice.
Few ingredients, a little spicy, a bit smoky and deeply satisfying, Pasta alla Norma is a great dish to transition into cooking more on the stove and (just a little) less on the grill. You can still soak up all those sun-drenched flavors of fresh eggplant, tomatoes and basil, but in a dish that will help make that move out of summer a little easier to swallow.
Pasta alla Norma alla Debra
2 small eggplants (about 3/4 pound each), cut into approximately 1/2” x 1” pieces
Sea or kosher salt
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
4-5 good-sized fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1-28 oz can organic, whole plum tomatoes, crushed by hand, with juice)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup torn fresh basil leaves
3/4 pound dried pasta, like penne or rigatoni
1 cup crumbled ricotta salata (you can easily substitute good quality fresh ricotta, Parmigiano, Pecorino or feta)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. When hot, add a portion of the eggplant so that your pan is not too crowded, a good sprinkle of salt, and fry until golden brown. Do this in two or three batches – until all the eggplant is browned, adding additional oil with each batch. As each batch eggplant browns, remove to a large plate.
Once eggplant is all browned, add a bit more oil to the skillet and sauté onions until just beginning to soften, add garlic and toss another minute until slightly golden, then add tomatoes and pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer, return eggplant to the pan, add half of the basil and continue to simmer on low.
Cook pasta until al dente, reserve 1/2 cup or so of the pasta cooking water and drain. Taste sauce and add additional salt if needed. Add cooked pasta to pan and stir well to combine. If the sauce seems dry add some of the pasta water. Add cheese and remaining basil and serve with a drizzle of very good olive oil, if desired.