Well, after that culinary excursion across the Atlantic at the weekend with my chowder recipe, it didn’t take long for The Single Gourmet Traveller to be hankering after some Italian again. In fact, I went so far as to book myself a little holiday – 3 nights – in Bologna at the end of April, inspired by the i newspaper’s guide to ’48 Hours in Bologna’ at the weekend. This is a great series that’s been running for years telling you the best way to see a city in a short space of time – i.e. 48 hours. Though in this case, because I’ve been longing to go to that heady seat of gastronomy for ages, I thought I’d book 72 hours!
I reconnected to Italy with a pizza last night, meeting up with some Italian friends in central London. The group was great but I didn’t think much of the pizza. But then I am used to the best. I mean of course the wonderful Ruben’s Refettorio in Twickenham. And if you thought Twickenham was only about rugby, you must read my Twickenham’s Little Italy post. We have lots of great Italian here! Later in the week I’m excited to be off to Angela Hartnett’s Cafe Murano and then an aperitivo evening organised by my friend Lucia but meanwhile I thought I’d reconnect with Italy in my kitchen tonight.
I was surprised to find I’d never blogged about Pasta alla Norma before. I’ve been cooking it for years. Before I even knew it was ‘pasta alla Norma’ and just thought aubergine in a tomato sauce with pasta would make a great supper when my now very grown-up kids were still at school! I just love that combination of aubergine and tomato and it’s such a classic throughout many cuisines. On the blog, I’ve already written about Melanzane alla Parmigiana, that delectable layering of aubergine, tomato sauce and mozzarella, but I have also made a Moroccan Aubergine & Tomato Tagine and more recently, an Aubergine, Tomato & Chickpea curry.
Writing about any classic dish on a blog is fraught with the possible comeback about how authentic or not your recipe is. Thus I consulted one of the great modern gods of Italian cuisine, Signor Giorgio Locatelli in his Made in Sicily book. I really love Giorgio: his cooking and watching him on TV. He is just so passionate about food and cooking. There’s been a wonderful new Italy Unpacked series on TV very recently and I only wish it had run for more than three weeks. There was lots of interesting reading in Giorgio’s book but his recipe was more complicated than I thought the dish deserved on a Monday night after quite a few hours’ work at my desk today. I thus turned to Jamie – Oliver, that is – and his Italy book. Plus a few other books and the internet. You see how hard I try to be authentic for you, dear reader. I even went out and scoured the supermarkets and Italian delis in Twickenham this afternoon in search of some salted ricotta, which is the authentic cheese addition to the dish. Andrea at the lovely Sapori TW1 told me he no longer stocked it as people didn’t buy it. Come on you Twickenham people, don’t you know what you’re missing! Further down the high street the great little Italian deli Corto in Church Street told me they did stock it – but they were sold out and wouldn’t have more until Thursday. I’m going back! But meanwhile, tonight’s Norma had to settle for Parmigiano.
So who was the eponymous ‘Norma’? Giorgio tells me in his book that this Sicilian dish was named in honour of the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania. But now to the cooking. It seems that there’s no particular one pasta shape that is necessary for the authentic ‘Norma’ and thus I plumped for fusilli which I already had and which I thought would work well. Giorgio uses reginette, which isn’t easily available here, and suggests penne as an alternative, while Jamie uses spaghetti. The first essential item is, of course, an aubergine. This needs to be cut into fairly large bite-sized pieces, put in a colander, sprinkled with salt, and left for about 30 minutes for any bitter juices to be extracted. Then wash the salt off and dry with kitchen towel. Now heat a good glug of extra virgin olive oil in a big pan and put the aubergine pieces in.
Cook, stirring frequently, until they are nicely browned. Now add 1-2 cloves of garlic crushed, 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes (or some passata would be good) and a little chopped basil with stems. (Giorgio adds rosemary at this stage; Jamie some oregano. Please do as you wish!)
Season with salt and black pepper and then simmer for about 10 minutes or so until the aubergine is nicely soft and you have a nice ‘sauce’ consistency. Add some more chopped basil (or, more foodie-correct, torn basil) at the end. Check seasoning.
Meanwhile, cook some pasta according to the instructions on the packet, and drain, saving just a little of the liquid. Now add the prepared ‘Norma’ sauce to the pasta, with a little of the reserved liquid from the pasta. Toss gently then transfer to a serving plate. Grate over some Parmigiano – or use the salted ricotta if you’ve been able to source it – and a few more basil leaves.
It did taste good! That wonderful vibrant sauce packed full of flavour; rich and punchy, wrapping itself round the pasta, with gorgeous chunks of soft aubergine which had that lovely creaminess they get from frying. It’s great. And if the opera is half as good, I should go and see it!