It’s cold in New York. We all hustle to and from work wearing as many layers possible. Trudging through the snow and digging out parking spots. I look longingly into my backyard, dreaming of summer, and thinking of how this is the same backyard that I grew up in. I feel like that’s not the typical scenario these days. People growing up in a house, in a neighborhood, in a culture and being able to look back to that exact same place 35 years later, reflecting on all that happened.
Every happy moment, every cut and bruise, every triumph and failure—it’s all here. But the memories that truly stay with me about that backyard are the foods we enjoyed there as a family. Menus, which always included something off the grill, simple foods that were just fresh and properly seasoned. However, with each of these meals, there was always a pasta course, prepared with great care throughout the day and often with freshly made pasta. The first thing that comes to mind is Pasta con le Sarde. Yet, there was another that left just as much of an impression and makes for a perfect fit during these winter months: Pasta alla Norma.
Pasta alla Norma speaks to me of Sicily. When I taste it, and when I breathe in that mix of wonderful aromas, I am transported to a simpler time when food seemed to magically appear out of your nonna’s kitchen. It’s a rustic dish that must be tasted to be believed, including a simple list of ingredients that meld perfectly into a melody of flavors that taste, to me, of Sicily. Imagine a pasta dressed with fried eggplant, fresh basil (grown right in this backyard), a tomato sauce and ricotta salata. Separate, these components are simple and highly enjoyable in their own way. However, together, they are magical.
This is also the first recipe of mine that appeared on a restaurant menu. I had been asked to prepare a pasta dish for family meal, only to be tasted by the head chef, who decided it was so good that it belonged on his menu. I present to you, my Pasta alla Norma.
Pasta alla Norma
3 medium-sized eggplants (look for the small to medium-sized Italian eggplant)
Durum wheat pasta (I like Piccheri)
24-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes (remove the seeds for the best results)
4 cloves garlic (crushed or fine dice)
1 small onion (fine dice)
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
½ teaspoon of red wine vinegar
1 tbls olive oil
Ricotta Salata, crumbled or rough grated (look for a drier, crumbly style)
Basil (one fresh bunch)
Oil for frying (grape seed oil is my preference)
Optional, ½ pound Pancetta or Guanciale
*A note about tomatoes. There are many options for tomatoes to make a sauce. You can use fresh (ripe) plum tomatoes, tomato passata (purée) or a can of San Marzano tomatoes (my preference). Honestly, there is nothing to be ashamed of in using good canned tomatoes. Finding ripe plum tomatoes can be very difficult, and I like to have tomato chunks in my sauce. Just look for canned tomatoes that are San Marzano, D.O.P. certified from Italy.
1) Prepare your ingredients. 1 ½ hours ahead of time, slice the top and bottom from each eggplant (do not peel them). Then, make ¼ inch slices vertically from top to bottom. Take the outermost pieces with the most skin, and slice them again into strips, creating both strips of eggplant and whole slices. Next, lay them out on a sheet pan lined with parchment or over a cooling rack. Salt each piece liberally. Allow them to sit for 45 minutes to an hour. (You can use this time to prep your other ingredients, and start a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.) Once the time is up, you should see a large amount of dark juices that have come up out of the eggplant (these are the bitter flavors that the salt has extracted). Rinse each piece of eggplant to remove all of the water. Then lay them out on a paper towel. Take another towel and press it against the tops of the eggplant, absorbing as much water as possible.
2) In a heavy gauge pan (I like to use a roasting pan over two burners), add enough grape seed oil to fry the eggplant. Turn your burners up to medium-high and allow the oil to heat through. You can test the oil by dipping the tip of an eggplant slice into the oil. Add the eggplant to the pan, but do not overcrowd it, as you can always cook the rest in a second batch. Brown them well and then flip to the second side. Once done, move to a paper towel-lined pan to drain. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.
3) Place a saucepan over a medium flame and, once heated, add the olive oil. (*If using pancetta or guanciale, add them to the pan and cook off until crispy. Remove the cooked pieces from the pan and place them to the side. Then drain about 1-2 tablespoons of oil from the pan). Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt. Sweat the onions, then add the garlic. Once the garlic and onions have browned slightly, add the tomatoes, oregano and red wine vinegar, making sure to crush any large chucks with your spoon. Bring this mixture to a steady simmer, stirring regularly.
4) Add the pasta to the boiling water, following the instructions on the package for cooking time. The sauce should continue to reduce as you stir, and you should make sure to scrape any sauce from the side of the pan. When there’s about three minutes left for the pasta, take the strips of fried eggplant and slice them into a medium dice, then add them to the sauce. Place the remaining fried eggplant slices into the oven to warm. (*If using pancetta of guanciale, add ¾ of the cooked pieces to the sauce when there’s about one minute left for the pasta.) Taste the sauce, season with salt and pepper if necessary, and turn off the burner.
5) Strain the pasta and split between four plates. Spoon the sauce over the pasta and fan out the fried eggplant slices onto the plate. Add a healthy serving of crumbled or rough-grated ricotta salata. With a scissor or shears, snip the fresh basil leaves over the plating and drizzle a small amount of extra virgin olive oil over the pasta, and serve. (*If using pancetta of guanciale, add the remaining piece on top of the pasta as a garnish.)
So what should you pair with Pasta Alla Norma?
In the past I gravitated toward Nero d’Avola, which worked well for its rustic, dark fruit and brisk acidity. Yet with time, as I began to explore more Sicilian reds, I found Nerello Mascalese to be a perfect pairing. One of my favorites is from Terre Nere, a winery which is making some of the best examples from Mount Etna. If you can imagine, these vineyards span the slopes of an active volcano, yet what’s in the glass has far more in common with red Burgundy than your typical Sicilian red. Much of this has to do with the poor volcanic soils and high altitudes of the vineyards. Frankly, it’s one of the most exciting, emerging wine producing regions in the world today. If you can’t find Nerello Mascalese, then your next best bet is Pinot Noir. Some of the most interesting Pinot I’ve ever tasted is being produced in cool-climate locations throughout California. These wines provide all there is to love about pure Pinot fruit, yet also pair perfectly with a meal. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
My top recommendations:
2013 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Calderara Sottana – This is a gorgeous wine of rich textures balanced by intense, focused fruit and dusty tannin. The nose showed depths of dark red fruit, spice and black earth. On the palate, it was intense and concentrated, yet perfectly balanced with crushed raspberry turning more to earth and minerals with a tannin heft, begging for at least of few years in the cellar before optimal enjoyment. The structure here was perfectly balanced to it’s fruit intensity. (Terre Nere at Morrell)
2013 Kutch Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – The nose showed cool wild berry tones with floral perfumes, dusty soil and a hint of undergrowth. On the palate, focused red berry fruit, which seemed to touch on all the senses with a finessed and brilliant feel, was contrasted by a coating of crunchy sweet tannin. On the finish, I found strawberry with inner florals and an almost woodland persona of crushed dried leaves and spice. Very well done and an amazing value. (Morrell)
Article, Recipe and Tasting Notes by Eric Guido