Classic Pasta alla Norma: a dish for opera and eggplant lovers alike

Said to be named in tribute to the perfection of Bellini’s tragic opera, Norma, Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian pasta dish that makes a triumphant presentation of the fleshy, beautiful eggplant. In the opera, a Druid priestess sings a soprano’s range of emotions, from love to murderous despair. Norma ultimately commits suicide by walking into a flaming funeral pyre alongside her Roman lover.

Pasta alla Norma as a dish doesn’t quite echo the opera’s drama, but in showcasing an eggplant cooked into velvety lusciousness, maybe that’s where the voluptuous connection comes in. 

Many variations of the recipe salt the eggplant before frying it in copious amounts of oil. Instead, bake it with 1/2 cup of olive oil. The vegetable retains its shape while baking mellows the flavor. There shouldn’t be a hint of bitterness — a typical worry when cooking eggplant.

The rest of this pasta sauce — tomatoes, mushrooms (an addition to the classic), and a handful of sweet basil leaves — is a song to the end of summer.

pasta alla norma
Eggplant is a Mediterranean staple, probably because of the many ways it can be prepared. It’s beautiful, too, in its beguiling purpleness. Perhaps that’s why it is showcased in Pasta alla Norma. (Photo by Stephanie Davis.)

Pasta alla Norma Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium eggplant, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds, then quartered
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil plus 3 tablespoons for garlic, mushrooms and pasta
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
  • 1 6 ounce can tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 12-15 mushrooms (white or cremini), cleaned, dried, and sliced
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed, patted dry, and coarsely torn
  • 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 pound Rigatoni or other tube-shaped pasta
  • parmesan cheese (optional)

Cook the recipe:

Heat oven to 400°F.

Toss eggplant and red pepper flakes with 1/2 cup olive oil in small baking dish. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes, or until eggplant is tender and browned.

While eggplant bakes, prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with olive oil to prevent sticking. Cover to keep warm until ready to serve.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet on medium low. Sauté garlic for about 1 minute or until it becomes aromatic.

Add mushrooms to skillet with garlic, adding more oil if pan is dry. Sauté over low heat until mushroom juices reabsorb, about 8-10 minutes.

Pour tomatoes and tomato paste into skillet and cook, gently folding in mushrooms. Bring tomato mixture to a low boil and simmer covered for 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add baked eggplant to tomato sauce and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally.

Toss tomato eggplant mixture into pasta along with parsley. Serve in shallow bowls. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.

pasta alla norma
Pasta alla Norma can be prepared with baked instead of fried eggplant — less oil, fewer calories, and loads of taste. (Photo by Emily Kemme)

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