Pasta alla Norma

Published July 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.

Why this recipe works:

To create a bold, complex Pasta alla Norma recipe without a lot of work, we came up with a few strategies. First, we microwaved cubes of salted eggplant to quickly draw the moisture from the eggplant. We then added a secret ingredient, anchovies, to our tomato sauce to give it a deep, savory… read more

To create a bold, complex Pasta alla Norma recipe without a lot of work, we came up with a few strategies. First, we microwaved cubes of salted eggplant to quickly draw the moisture from the eggplant. We then added a secret ingredient, anchovies, to our tomato sauce to give it a deep, savory flavor without any fishiness. For the best Pasta alla Norma, we found that the eggplant should be combined with the sauce at the last minute to prevent it from soaking up too much tomato and becoming soggy.

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Serves 4

We call for both regular and extra-virgin olive oil in this recipe. The higher smoke point of regular olive oil makes it best for browning the eggplant; extra-virgin olive oil stirred into the sauce before serving lends fruity flavor. If you don’t have regular olive oil, use vegetable oil. We prefer kosher salt in step 1 because it clings best to the eggplant. If using table salt, reduce the amount to ½ teaspoon. Ricotta salata is traditional, but French feta, Pecorino Romano, and Cotija (a firm, crumbly Mexican cheese) are acceptable substitutes; see “Ricotta Salata’s Understudies,” below. Our preferred brands of crushed tomatoes are Tuttorosso and Muir Glen.

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Kosher salt (see note)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil (see note)
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, mined or pressed through garlic press (about 4 teaspoons)
  • 2 anchovy fillets, minced (about 1 generous teaspoon)
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (see note)
  • 1 pound ziti, rigatoni, or penne
  • 6 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 ounces ricotta salata, shredded (about 1 cup) (see note)

Instructions

  1. 1. Toss eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in medium bowl. Line surface of large microwave-safe plate with double layer of coffee filters and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray. Spread eggplant in even layer over coffee filters; wipe out and reserve bowl. Microwave eggplant on high power, uncovered, until dry to touch and slightly shriveled, about 10 minutes, tossing once halfway through to ensure that eggplant cooks evenly. Let cool slightly.

    2. Transfer eggplant to now-empty bowl, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and toss gently to coat; discard coffee filters and reserve plate. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add eggplant and distribute in even layer. Cook, stirring or tossing every 1½ to 2 minutes (more frequent stirring may cause eggplant pieces to break apart), until well browned and fully tender, about 10 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and transfer eggplant to now-empty plate and set aside.

    3. Add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and pepper flakes to now-empty but still-hot skillet and cook using residual heat so garlic doesn’t burn, stirring constantly, until fragrant and garlic becomes pale golden, about 1 minute (if skillet is too cool to cook mixture, set it over medium heat). Add tomatoes, return skillet to burner over medium-high heat, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 8 to 10 minutes.

    4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil. Add pasta and 2 tablespoons salt and cook until al dente. Reserve ½ cup cooking water; drain pasta and transfer back to cooking pot.

    5. While pasta is cooking, return eggplant to skillet with tomatoes and gently stir to incorporate. Bring to simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring gently occasionally, until eggplant is heated through and flavors are blended, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir basil and extra-virgin olive oil into sauce; season to taste with salt. Add sauce to cooked pasta, adjusting consistency with reserved pasta cooking water so that sauce coats pasta. Serve immediately, sprinkled with ricotta salata.

Recipe Testing

Ricotta Salata's Understudies

Ricotta salata, a firm, tangy Italian sheep’s-milk cheese that bears little resemblance to the moist ricotta sold in tubs, is an essential component of traditional pasta alla Norma. If you can’t find it, consider these options instead.

FRENCH FETAMilder but tangy, this is a close cousin to ricotta salata in flavor and texture.

PECORINO ROMANOHard and dry, with a slightly more assertive aroma and flavor than ricotta salata.

COTIJAMade with cow's milk, this Mexican cheese has a firm yet crumbly texture, but is less complex than ricotta salata.

Shopping

Take Heed of Seeds

Bulbous globe eggplants not only contain far fewer seeds than smaller sister varieties like Italian and Chinese, but their firm flesh retains shape even after cooking, making them an ideal choice in virtually any cooking application.

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