Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cooking Up a Storm- alla Norma!

Penne Rigate alla Norma "Sbrigativa"
Quick & Easy Penne Rigate alla Norma

Penne alla Norma- the Sicilian favorite pasta dish, delicious and easy as can be- and guaranteed to please at any time! There really isn't much to add or take away to the combination of eggplant, tomato, basil and grated salted ricotta cheese... but sure enough- I managed to do just that and to make the classic dish just a little healthier and a little swifter to prepare... 

The traditional preparation calls for the eggplant to be fried first and then added into a tomato sauce- which is fair enough. It just takes a little time and quite a bit of oil- sadly. It is the oil and the amount that gets soaked into eggplant that always puts me off frying it- but I came up with a way to do a little dodge in the preparation, skimp on oil and save time- and I did it like this...

I cut the ends off the eggplant, then halved it lengthways, and then cut the halves into slices of about 1 inch. I sprinkled them with salt and let them sit for 10-15 minutes in the usual manner, then squeezed out the excess water that appeared (and thus the bitterness) and popped them into a hot frying pan which had just enough water in it to cover the base. 

As soon as the eggplant went in, on went the lid and I let it steam for a minute, then took the lid off, flipped the eggplant over and lightly drizzled it with olive oil. The initial steam-bath, lets the pores of the eggplant swell and will with moisture, which stops the oil from immediately being absorbed. Now you can carry on cooking/frying the eggplant at a high heat as usual and yes it WILL begin to brown in next to no time!

Season with pepper and a little nutmeg- it probably has enough salt from the "curing" before we started to fry it, and keep flipping it over and pressing it down with a wooden spoon... there will be a little "hiss!" as you squeeze out the moisture a little, but this in turn will create enough steam and moisture in the pan to cook the eggplant further without you needing much more oil at all. After just 5-6 minutes the eggplant should be lightly brown and coming along nicely! And in that time, you should have managed to bring the water to the boil for the pasta- so in it goes!

When the pasta goes into the water, in another frying pan, start sizzling away a little chopped onion and garlic- you will only need a small onion and 1 clove of garlic for 2 portions of pasta. As soon as the onion is translucent, add a pinch of pepper and salt, stir well and begin cutting 5-6 cherry tomatoes into quarters. In the time it takes you to do that, the onion will have browned nicely- and in go the tomatoes- make sure to keep the heat up high! Add pepper, a pinch of chili or cayenne if you like, and stir quickly and constantly until the tomatoes fall apart- which WILL happen quickly!

Now drain the pasta, which should be just al-dente after the 7-8 minutes you have needed so far, but leave a little water in the saucepan. Back to the tomatoes- which should almost have cooked away to nothing. add a good tablespoon of tomato paste and stir this in well. This needs to cook-in at a high heat for a minute or so... and yes, the pan will be looking pretty dry now! No need to worry, because this is the time to add the pasta with that little bit of excess water...

...and again there will be a big "hiss!", a blast of steam, and as soon as you stir it in, the sticky goodness from the bottom of the frying pan will transform into a nice slick coating of tomatoey goodness before your very eyes :-) Yum, yum! Next of course, you need to add the eggplant and stir those in too- it just gets better and better!

Add a generous amount of basil- simply tear the leaves and mix them in, add a little olive oil just for the flavor and sheen, a good sprinkle of coarsely ground black pepper- and dish it up! All you need now is the grated ricotta and you are ready to go! All dressed up in a nice sauce that is not a sauce and as easy as can be! And yes- this is also a dish you are going to love... just as much as everyone in Sicily does too!

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