So dark, so bitter, so misunderstood. So Sicilian. Ok, enough about me. Let’s talk about eggplant which, like me, is an acquired taste.
As I watch my children gag over eggplant, I recall my own such repulsion as a child. Why and when eggplant became delicious to me is somewhat of a blur, but if I recall, the moment involved both rigatoni and olive oil. Although she didn’t call it Norma, my grandmother regularly whipped up this Sicilian classic. In retrospect, it tied well into my grandfather’s passion for opera, as the dish is probably named after Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma”. (It was supposedly named so by the Sicilian writer Nino Martoglio, who was so impressed by the dish that he compared it to the opera.)
Call it pasta alla melanzana if you prefer, and use penne or spaghetti if you please. With one taste, you will understand that this dish is neither dark nor bitter at all (like me, generally).
Sprinkle both sides of the eggplant with salt and place in a colander. Cover with paper towels and a heavy object such as another can, or two, of tomatoes. Let stand for an hour to allow the bitterness to drain out of the eggplant.
In a large skillet over medium heat sauté the onion in ¼ cup olive oil until the onion is golden. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, lower the heat and cook until reduced by about a third. In another pan, fry the eggplant in up to 1 inch of olive oil until golden. As an alternative, coat the eggplant in olive oil and bake in a 400ºF oven until golden, making sure to turn regularly. Either way, place the fried eggplant on paper towels to drain and keep warm.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Cook the rigatoni until al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package directions), drain, and add to a large serving bowl. Add a ladle of sauce and mix in 1/2 of the grated ricotta.
Serve immediately in individual bowls, covered with more sauce and 4-5 pieces of eggplant. Top with the remaining ricotta and a basil leaf.
Ed Garrubbo, Editor