This is by far my favourite sauce, I just adore aubergines (egg plant) and cannot have enough of them! It's a Sicilian sauce, and there are 2 basic versions of it (plus a lot of small varieties and differences): the one from Catania, where the aubergines are sliced, and the one from Messina, where the aubergines are cubed. Since my granny Nonna Lu was born in Messina (she wasn't Sicilian, her parents happened to be there at the time) I do prefer that version.
La Norma is one of the most famous operas composed by Vincenzo Bellini in 1831, and a Sicilian chef from Catania came up with this recipe on the occasion of the first performance.
2 ingredients are absolutely crucial: grated salted ricotta, and lots of fresh basil.
I seldom came across this specific type of ricotta, and alas, this time I didn't have any basil. Not that that stopped me! It is rigorously served with short pasta shapes, the types with a hole in the middle. Typically it would be maccheroni, but I had penne this time.
Ingredients (serves 2):
1 big aubergine, cubed
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped but not minced
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (not in the original recipe, but it does give it a nice kick without making it a hot sauce)
2 slugs of olive oil
1 tin of chopped tomatoes (400gr) or (it would be better) similar quantity of tomato passata
2 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
200gr of grated ricotta salata (which is a type of ricotta made with sheep milk and let it to rest with salt for 7-30 days, during which time it loses a lot of liquid and hardens, enough to be grated)
2 Tbsp parmesan (not part of the original recipe, but use it if you cannot find the ricotta salata)
6-700ml of vegetable oil, to deep fry the aubergine
160gr short pasta shapes (maccheroni or penne)
Like for any time you want to deep fry aubergines, you would need to cut them in thick slices, sprinkle them with coarse salt and place them in a colander with some weight on top, and resting for 30 mins
Once they lost their liquid, wash the aubergines under fresh water to reduce the saltiness, then carefully pat dry them with kitchen paper
Cube the slices
TIP: I personally omit the above each time, as each time I tried the aubergines end up being way too salty for me, especially if I do add the Ricotta salata. But everybody from the south of Italy would shudder at this as they swear by this step
Heat up the vegetable oil until quite hot, then add the cubed aubergines in batches (they need room) and fry them up stirring them every now and then
Drain the aubergine onto kitchen paper and set aside
Meanwhile, stir fry the garlic and chili in the olive oil until slightly golden (don't let it burn!)
Add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt (omit if you salted the aubergines, or if you're using the Ricotta salata)
Add 1 Tbsp of basil, reduce the temperature to a simmer, and cook for 10-15 mins covered with a lid, stirring every now and then
Once the sauce is ready and thickened, add the aubergines and stir well
Keep the sauce warm, and cook the pasta in aboundant salted boiling water (wait until the water reaches a roaring boiling point before adding the pasta) until "al dente"
Drain the pasta, then add it to the pot with the sauce, stir and cook for a further minute
Add the other Tbsp of fresh basil and half of the grated Ricotta, stir well
Serve sprinkled with some more grated Ricotta (or parmesan if you don't have the Ricotta)
Note: As I mentioned, there are a moltitude of ways to serve this dish, changing from town to town in Sicily, or even from family to family. Some would add the aubergines to the sauce only once the pasta is ready in the serving dish (I tried, but the saue isn't "auberginy" enough for me in that way), some would actually serve the pasta bringing to the table in separate bowls both the fried aubergines and the grated Ricotta, for diners to add them to their taste to their plates (but if you do this, the Ricotta won't melt enough in my opinion). Most would say that basil is to be added only at the end, but I always add half of it when cooking the sauce as I do like the overall flavour better in this way.