Eggplants are to Sicily what potatoes are to Ireland. Eggplants, or aubergines, are used in numerous dishes on the island. Whether fried, sautéed, baked, or grilled — each cooking method brings out a different quality in the fruit which, as a member of the genus Solanum, is related to both the potato and tomato. Who knew, right?
I’m not sure who Norma was but legend has it that this Sicilian dish called “Pasta alla Norma” was inspired by the Bellini opera Norma and eggplants are the star of this simple Sicilian dish.
Although I always plant a couple of different varieties of eggplants in the garden and cook with it, I learned a few tricks on that trip I took to Sicily and posted about recently. I’m sure every Italian Nonna around the world has her secret ingredient or method for cooking this dish, but I’m certain she never uses a microwave. Or does she?
Eggplants are great to cook with because they add a wonderful texture and assume the flavor of whatever you are using them in. But, because they are spongy, they can soak up too much moisture or oil and become soggy if not prepped correctly. Cook’s Illustrated introduced me to a method — or did they steal it from Nonna? — where the eggplant is cubed, tossed with salt, and then microwaved to quickly remove some of the moisture before adding it to the dish. With this method, the eggplant retains it’s meaty texture and adding it at the last minute to the dish prevents it from becoming soggy.
Also, by adding a small amount of anchovy paste to the dish, you achieve a robust complexity. If you’re concerned it will taste fishy, don’t worry — it won’t. But, you’ll become an instant fan when you realize the depth of flavor you can achieve with just a small amount of this briny deliciousness!
So, let’s get started!
- Gather your ingredients.
- Prep the eggplant.
- Sauté the sauce.
- Cook the pasta and combine.
- 1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds), cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional as needed
- ¼ cup Colavita extra virgin olive oil, divided use
- 4 garlic cloves, minced (a generous tablespoon)
- 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 pound dry penne rigate, or other desired pasta
- ⅓ cup chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon good quality Marsala wine
- ¾ cup ricotta salata, shredded (about 3-ounces)
- Toss the eggplant with salt in a medium bowl. Line a microwave-safe dinner plate with paper toweling and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray. Spread the eggplant cubes in an even layer and microwave on high power, uncovered, 5 minutes. To ensure even cooking, toss and continue microwaving for another 5 minutes. The cubes should be dry to the touch and slightly shriveled when done.
- Place the eggplant in a medium bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil; toss to coat. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the eggplant and cook until brown and tender, about 10 minutes. (Note: The goal here is to keep the eggplant cubes in tact so only stir or toss about every 2 minutes.) When done, remove from heat and transfer the eggplant to a plate.
- To the still-hot skillet over low heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, anchovy paste, and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes (with juice) and increase heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced in half.
- Meanwhile, cook pasta to al dente according to package directions. Reserve ½ cup pasta water. Drain pasta and return to pot.
- While the pasta is cooking, add the eggplant to the tomato mixture and return to a simmer to blend the flavors, about 3 minutes. Stir in the basil, Marsala, and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season to taste with salt. Add to cooked pasta and stir to combine. If needed, add a little pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to ensure the pasta is well-coated with sauce.
- Divide among 4-6 warm plates and and sprinkle with ricotta salata.
You can use a dollop of regular ricotta if you can’t find the salted ricotta.
Recipe adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, Jamie’s Italy, and all the Nonnas I met in Sicily!
This dish comes together quickly and you’ll think you’re eating in Nonna’s Sicilian kitchen in no time!