Eggplant and tomato, just the basics
It’s the first chilly weekend of fall here in New York, and we’re staring down the last few weeks of greenmarket produce. When it gets to this point of the year — which has me unabashedly excited for colder months — I like to seek out those transitional dishes that still utilize late-summer vegetables but are sufficiently cozy in anticipation of the winter meals ahead. Pasta alla norma, a Southern Italian classic of tomatoes and eggplant, is pretty much the banner meal for this in-between time of year.
Alla norma is a fundamentally versatile dish that can be as simple or dressed-up as you want it to be — although, in keeping with the spirit of the title, I lean towards simple (with a few flourishes, of course). If you have tomato sauce in the fridge, it could be as straightforward as chopping up an eggplant and tossing it in the sauce as it heats up. This method is delicious — I particularly like how the water from the eggplant will thin out the sauce — but perhaps even better is frying the eggplant in olive oil. Fried eggplant is, in my opinion, one of the great gustatory pleasures in life, and it helps to create a meaty, fortified sauce for pasta.
However: why choose? As long as I have the time, I like to do both: chunks of sautéed eggplant that cook with the sauce, and eggplant cubed and fried until golden brown, added at the last moment. This recipe goes by that method, but you can mix and match as you please.
Finally, I like to add two things: a dusting of fennel pollen, and a big dollop of fresh ricotta.
Pasta alla Norma
1 eggplant, cubed; can be peeled or unpeeled
2-3 large red tomatoes, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1 cup tomato passata
2 tablespoons triple-concentrated tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
1 half onion, diced
1-2 cups water or ricotta whey
1 pound pasta (I like shells, short rigatoni, or lumache for this; you can also use spaghetti or linguini, or really anything!)
Extra virgin olive oil
Fennel pollen (optional)
1 tablespoon ricotta (optional)
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
Make the sauce: add garlic, onion, and tomato paste to a generous amount of olive oil in a medium-hot pan. Cook until soft and fragrant, roughly 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, half of the eggplant, tomato passata, and liquid (whey or water), along with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for an additional 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are fully broken down and the eggplant is very soft. Add water as necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a large pan for frying, heat olive oil until shimmering. Add the remaining eggplant chunks and cook until golden brown. Let drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
Off the heat, add the fried eggplant in with the sauce.
Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the pasta to the package instructions.
Once the pasta is cooked, set the sauce over high heat. Add the pasta to the sauce along with a bit of pasta water, and stir to emulsify. Salt to taste. Turn off the heat, add a bit more pasta water and grated parm, and stir/flip until glossy.
Plate the pasta; add a dollop of ricotta, a drizzle of olive oil, and a generous dusting of fennel pollen.