What do you get when a druid priestess, a Roman proconsul, and a vestal virgin walk into a bar? Bellini’s opera Norma. The ridiculously soapy opera was a huge hit when it debuted; this pasta dish was named for the title character. Even an opera lover like myself has to laugh when I eat this dish; it is almost unseemly to name food for a woman who has an affair outside of her religion and her political ken (he was a Roman occupier, she a Celt), who upon being scorned by her illicit lover attempts infanticide (Come on! I had to do it! How many times do you get to use that word in a food blog?), and then ultimately decides it would be better to determinedly perish upon her lover’s execution pyre? Her own people, the Celtic tribesmen, lit the match. One wonders what we see in these faint-hearted music-based “reality” TV shows when gutsy entertainment such as this is to be had. Most of us would quail at the thought of it, even without the exhausting, wild, and reckless soprano part Bellini wrote for his heroine.
And yet, here she is, limned in eggplant, a bit of tomato, a few glugs of olive oil, and a dab of ricotta. The tomato sauce is just to coat the pasta, no more. It would be a crime if there were more tomatoes, masking the roasted eggplant, overwhelming the creamy ricotta. I wonder sometimes whether the dish was christened by someone who saw in these simple and untutored ingredients the makings of a rich and unctuous drama. For Pete’s sake, the dish is vegetarian and yet it is rich and fascinating enough, so much so as to be unseemly. But is this not the very meaning of civilization—the human capacity to mask all that is savage and passionate in the trappings of respectability? A truth as finely evident in opera as it is in cuisine. Go ahead and make it. I won’t tell the neighbors.
Pasta alla norma
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, or 2 as the sole course
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 eggplant, about 1 to 1 and 1/2 pounds, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 medium onion, finely diced (1 cup)
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 very large or 2 medium beefsteak-type tomato, peeled with a vegetable peeler and chopped
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
- 1/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
- 1/2 pound pasta (such as rigatoni, mezzo rigatoni, or cart wheels)
- kosher salt
1. Preheat oven to 425 F. In a large bowl, toss eggplant with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle eggplant with about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. (Only 1/4 teaspoon if using table salt.) Bake in the oven 20 to 25 minutes, removing from oven twice to stir and toss the eggplant. Eggplant should be baked until it is cooked all the way through.
2. While eggplant is baking, warm the 2 remaining tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add crushed red pepper and stir a bit. Add chopped tomato and bring back to a simmer. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt over tomatoes. Then turn heat to very low and cook, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add water a tablespoon at a time if sauce becomes dry.
3. Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Strain pasta, reserving about 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid.
4. Add cooked eggplant to tomato sauce, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Off heat, mix in ricotta and basil. Stir in cooked pasta and add reserved cooking water 1/4 cup at a time to loosen sauce and distribute it nicely. Taste to make sure the dish is properly salted, adding more kosher salt if necessary. Serve immediately, piping hot.