Recipe: Spaghetti alla Norma, a real taste of Sicily
A big bowl of Spaghetti alla Norma is truly the essence of Sicilian cuisine. I first ate it in Ragusa many years ago. It’s a tomato and aubergine pasta heaven that forms a regular part of my diet. Hearty and healthy, it’s so foolproof to make that even I can do it.
This dish is called Spaghetti alla Norma after the tragic opera written by Bellini, called Norma. Bellini was a native of Sicily, being born in Catania. In the 1830s, both this dish and the opera became known as Una vera Norma, meaning “a true standard.”
This recipe is for four people, served as the main course.
First, cut a large aubergine into one cm thick slices, leaving it on the skin. Now spread the pieces out and sprinkle with salt to draw out any bitter juices for 30-40 minutes. Afterwards, wash them and pat dry.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Fry off two crushed cloves of garlic in a generous amount of good quality olive oil, then add two chopped onions and fry them until soft. Add four roughly chopped fresh tomatoes, and cook for another couple of minutes.
Time for wine – add two big glasses (at least) of any inexpensive Italian red wine. Bring to simmer and then add a tin of Italian Plum tomatoes and a tablespoon of tomato purée. Mix it all thoroughly with a pinch of salt and lots of black pepper.
Cook for another 20 minutes or so, then add a generous handful of freshly torn up Basil. You can use a tablespoon of dried Basil instead. Leave this cooking on low heat until the spaghetti is ready. Jamie Oliver adds chilli, but don’t. It spoils the flavour and isn’t authentic.
Aubergines and Spaghetti
Meanwhile, in another pan, fry the aubergine slices in olive oil until they turn golden brown on both sides; around two minutes per side is usually enough. Make sure the oil is smoking. Otherwise, the aubergine will soak it all up. Then dry the aubergine with kitchen paper and put it to one side, keeping them warm. Cook good quality spaghetti (fresh or dried to taste) in well-salted water until al dente.
Drain the spaghetti and place it in large bowls. Spoon the sauce over, then add a layer of aubergine slices. Finally, for maximum authenticity, top off with crumbled salty Ricotta Salata cheese. This Sicilian cheese brings this dish to life, but parmesan or feta will substitute if you can’t obtain it.
A Sicilian red wine makes the perfect foil to wash it down. Try an Etna Rosso DOC or a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOC. Those happy to push the boat out should also check Palari Faro or one of the Etna Contrade (Cru) wines.
You could also try playing Casta Diva, the tragic aria from Bellini’s opera, in the background for a dramatic effect to get you in the mood.