This Sicilian ricotta and aubergine pasta dish is simple, fresh and will please a crowd. A perfect Friday night feast for the entire family.
In Catania, this is called pasta alla Norma in honour of the operatic masterpiece by Catania’s favourite son, Vincenzo Bellini. Others call it spaghetti alla coppola (spaghetti with a hat on). My Vincenzo calls it pasta con le melanzane, so I do too. It is a favourite (along with all the other favourites), especially in the summer, when it is made with vegetables that are full of sun.
It can be a winter dish too though, with tinned tomatoes and an unseasonal aubergine. It was a good moment last year when I made this with one of the jars of tomatoes I had bottled the previous summer. I was aware, a bit embarrassed even, of my meagre output compared with nonna Sara’s extraordinary bottlings. Vincenzo, however, is moved by my efforts.
This is his history, taken from one kitchen to another, a single taste that calls up the memory of his grandmother and Gela. Tradition demands spaghetti for Norma, but we often use thick tubes of ridged rigatoni.
Pasta con le melanzane
- 2 large aubergines
- olive or groundnut oil, for frying
- 1kg fresh tomatoes or 500g passata
- 2 garlic cloves
- a small handful of basil
- 1 tsp sugar (if you need it)
- 500g pasta, such as spaghetti, rigatoni, casarecce, mezze maniche or penne
- 200g salted ricotta, grated
- Peel strips from the aubergine so that they are striped, then cut them into 5mm slices. If you’re going to salt them, do it now; otherwise just dry them with a clean tea towel.
- Heat about 5cm oil in a frying pan and fry the slices, turning them halfway, until they are golden brown on both sides, then drain very well on kitchen paper. Set the slices aside, ideally near the stove so they keep warm-ish.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pan of water to the boil. If using fresh ones, peel the tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for 1 minute, then lift them out with a slotted spoon and cool under cold water, at which point the skins should slip away. Roughly chop the tomatoes, removing the seeds if you wish (I don’t).
- Crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife so that they split but remain whole. Warm some more oil in a frying pan and add the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant and lightly gold, remove it from the pan, add the fresh tomatoes (or passata) and cook until they collapse into a sauce. At this point you can pass the tomatoes through a food mill back into the pan, or if you’re happy with the texture, simply tear in most of the basil, add the sugar if you think the sauce is too sharp, and a good pinch of salt.
- Bring the pan of tomato water back to the boil, add salt, stir well and add the pasta. Cook it until al dente, then drain it. Mix the pasta with the sauce and a handful of salted ricotta, then divide it between bowls, top with several slices of aubergine, a little more salted ricotta and a couple more basil leaves. Pass around the remaining aubergine slices and cheese so that people can help themselves.
Extracted from Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy (Headline).
Photographs by Nick Seaton and Rachel Roddy.