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Spaghetti with Eggplant, Cheese and Tomato Sauce (Spaghetti alla Norma)

Spaghetti with Eggplant, Cheese and Tomato Sauce (Spaghetti alla Norma)
Sicilians are masters of cooking eggplant, and their island home is the source of countless delicious and interesting ways to prepare it. In the past when meat was scarce, eggplant, with its meaty look and flavor, was often substituted. This recipe, named for the opera Norma, by Catania-born Vincenzo Bellini, is typical of Sicilian cooking.

Salting the eggplant slices draws out their bitter juices. If the eggplant is very fresh, this step is not essential, but if you are unsure about their provenance, it is good insurance against a disappointing dish. Ricotta salata is a salted, pressed form of ricotta. If unavailable, use a mild feta cheese.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large or 2 medium eggplant, about 1 1/2 lb.
      total
  • Salt for eggplant, plus more, to taste
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 to 2 1/2 lb. fresh tomatoes, peeled,
      seeded and chopped, or 1 can (28 oz.) plum
      tomatoes, seeded and chopped, with juice
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1/2 cup coarsely grated ricotta salata cheese, plus
      more for garnish
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

Directions:

Cut the eggplant crosswise into slices 1/2 inch thick. Make a layer of slices in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Continue layering and sprinkling with salt until all of the slices are used. Top with a plate and a heavy weight, such as a pot. Place the colander over a bowl or in the sink. Let stand for 1 hour to drain off the bitter juices. Rinse off the salt and dry the eggplant slices with paper towels.

In a large fry pan over medium heat, pour in oil to a depth of 1/2 inch. Add enough of the eggplant slices to make a single layer in the pan. Fry the slices, turning once, until tender and lightly browned on both sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining slices.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onion in the olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds more. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 20 minutes.

Remove the tomato sauce from the heat. Cut the eggplant into strips and stir them into the sauce along with the basil.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot three-fourths full of water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until al dente (tender but firm to the bite).

Drain the pasta and pour it into a warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce and the ricotta salata and pecorino cheeses, and stir and toss well. Top with grated ricotta salata cheese and serve immediately.
Serves 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Series, Savoring Italy, by Michele Scicolone (Time-Life Books, 1999).