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Recipes and Stories

4 August 2013: Pasta alla Diva

Pasta alla Norma

This past weekend The Savannah Voice Festival debuted, and for the next two weeks, the steamy Lowcountry air will seem a little less heavy as it is filled with the glorious sounds of Fifty-three promising young performers who have gathered in our little town to study with more than two dozen seasoned singers, coaches, and accompanists.

The festival is sister organization to The V.O.I.C.Experience Foundation, an outreach program founded by world renowned baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife soprano Maria Zouves. The foundation seeks out budding singers and brings them together with seasoned performers eager to share their wisdom and experience and help these talented young people take their artistry to the next level. Some of these singers are already building successful careers, some are on the edge of a breakthrough, and still others are just beginning, but they share three things: incredibly beautiful voices, a deep love of singing, and determination to be better than they already are.

My own singing is like Scarlett O’Hara with her pistol: I can shoot straight if I don’t have to shoot too far. So, needless to say, hearing them sing, watching their artistry grow, and sharing their teachers’ wisdom is a joy and inspiration. By way of giving back a little of the pleasure they bring, I can think of nothing better to offer than

Pasta alla Norma

Arguably the most famous of all Sicilian pasta dishes, Pasta alla Norma is of course named for Vincenzo Bellini’s brilliant bel canto opera. There are many versions, but it’s basically spaghetti (or another long factory pasta) dressed with a spicy sauce of fried eggplant and tomatoes and finished with basil and Sicily’s mildly tangy ricotta salata. A specialty of Catania, Bellini’s hometown, it is probably much older than the opera whose name it bears, but its exact origins are now lost in legend.

Ricotta salata is ricotta that has been salted and compressed until it’s dry and hard enough to grate. Though a staple in Sicilian kitchens, it has only recently become readily available in our country. If you can’t find it, Pecorino Romano makes a plausible substitute.

Serves 4

2 small eggplants, about ¾ pound
2 pounds ripe Roma or other sauce tomatoes (or 2 cups canned whole San Marzano tomatoes, seeded and diced)
Olive oil
1 small yellow onion, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
Crushed hot pepper flakes
12 ounces (3/4 pound) spaghetti, thin spaghetti, or linguine
8-10 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
About ½ cup coarsely grated ricotta salata or Pecorino Romano

1. Bring a large kettle of water to a rolling boil. Trim and slice the eggplant into ½-inch thick rounds. Layer them in a colander set in the sink, sprinkling each layer generously with salt. Let them sit 30 minutes. If using canned tomatoes, skip to step 3.

2. Meanwhile, put the tomatoes in a heatproof bowl and cover them with the boiling water. Let stand 1 minute, then drain. Working over a wire mesh sieve set in a bowl, peel and seed the tomatoes. Roughly chop them and add them to their collected juices.

3. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with about ¼ inch of olive oil and warm it over medium high heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, but not smoking, wipe the eggplant dry with paper towels and add enough to the pan to fill it without crowding. Fry, turning once, until both sides are golden brown. Lift them from the oil with tongs and transfer them to a shallow bowl. Don’t blot them. Repeat with the remaining eggplant.

4. Put 4 quarts of water in a 6 quart pot and put it over medium high heat. While it’s coming to a boil, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and add the onion to the skillet. Turn on the heat to medium and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5-8 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, and hot pepper flakes to taste, and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute longer. Add the tomatoes and their juices, bring to a boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and their juices are thick, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat.

5. When the water is boiling, add a small handful of salt, stir, and stir in the pasta. Cook until al dente, using the package cooking time as a guide. Begin checking it about a minute before the recommended cooking time. When the pasta is almost done, gently re-warm the sauce and fold in the eggplant. Heat until it’s just beginning to bubble and turn off the heat.

6. When the pasta is done, lightly drain and immediately add the sauce, basil, and ¼ cup of the cheese. Toss, taste and adjust the seasonings and cheese, and serve immediately, passing more cheese separately.

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