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Mar 17, 2009
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Wine With . . .Spaghetti alla Norma

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       

 

Our friend Tom Maresca (an occasional contributor to Wine Review Online) and his wife Diane Darrow wrote a charming cookbook a few years ago entitled 'The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.'  One of our favorites among the book's recipes is Spaghetti alla Norma, an old, traditional dish that was reputedly re-named in the 1830s in honor of the opening of Vincenzo Bellini's opera 'Norma.' 

 

As a reflection of Bellini's birthplace--Catania, a seaport and province on the east coast of Sicily--many of the dish's ingredients are Sicilian favorites, notably tomatoes, and ricotta salata, a semi-dry, lightly salty / slightly sour cheese available today in many supermarkets as well as Italian specialty stores. 

 

'Like Bellini's opera,' write Darrow and Maresca, 'Spaghetti alla Norma is rich and succulent, the whole substantially greater than the sum of its parts.'

 

The dish is easy to make and, other than the ricotta salata perhaps, calls for easy-to-find ingredients.  While you're preparing it, we recommend listening to Maria Callas singing Norma's 'Casta Diva.'  And if you are so moved by the aria's tragic beauty that you shed a few salty tears into the sauce, it will taste even better.

 

Spaghetti alla Norma

For 4 - 5 servings

 

1 ½ pound eggplant, peeled and cut in ½-inch slices

Salt

2 cups olive oil, approximately*

1 ½ pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or pulsed in a food processor**

3 cloves garlic, chopped

6 - 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

2/3 ounces ricotta salata, grated

1 pound imported Italian spaghetti

 

Preparing the eggplant: Toss the eggplant slices in a colander with 1 teaspoon of salt and place in a colander in the sink for 30-60 minutes.  Then rinse the eggplant slices, drain, and dry them with paper towels, pressing to extract their moisture.

 

Put enough olive oil in a medium skillet to reach a depth of ½ inch and heat it to 375 degrees.  Fry the eggplant a few slices at a time, 1- 2 minutes per side, until golden.  Drain them on paper towels and set aside until ready to use.

 

Preparing the tomato sauce: Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a flameproof casserole large enough to hold all the pasta eventually.  Add the tomatoes, garlic, basil, ¾ teaspoon salt, and a generous amount of pepper.  Cook, uncovered, over moderate heat for 15 minutes, or until the sauce thickens nicely.  Set it aside until ready to use.

 

Preparing the dish: Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil with 1 tablespoon salt.  Drop in the spaghetti and cook until slightly less than al dente.  While the pasta is cooking, add the eggplant to the sauce and bring it to a simmer.

 

Drain the spaghetti and transfer it to the casserole with the eggplant and tomato sauce.  Sprinkle on the ricotta salata.  Mix all together delicately and cook 1 minute.  (Don't worry if some of the eggplant slices come apart.)  Serve at once.

 

*We used a non-stick pan which required only a couple of tablespoons of oil to give the eggplant a nice golden-brown color.

 

**We've also made this recipe with canned tomatoes which, when fresh tomatoes don't have a lot of flavor, works quite well.

 

 If you have any food and wine pairings that you think are outstanding, or if you've encountered any glaring mismatches, we'd love to hear from you.  Drop us a line at winewith@winereviewonline.com

 

 

Selection

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Columbia Winery, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2005

 

 

  $18

 

Though red wines performed better than whites with our Spaghetti alla Norma, the wines we are recommending, regardless of color, all share a soft, almost lush texture.  Neither acid nor tannin came to the fore with any of them, enabling the taste of the wine to seem as if it was another element or ingredient in this multi-faceted dish.  Our overall recommendation, then, is to think more about texture than flavor or even color when selecting a wine to star in your production of Norma.

 

This Syrah, though dark in color, is less aggressive than many other renditions of the varietal.  Its plum and cherry-scented fruit meshed nicely with the eggplant and tomatoes, and its smooth mouth-feel made for a very enjoyable match.

 

  

 

Colores del Sol, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 'Reserva' 2008

(Imported by FWE Imports)

 

 

 

  $12

 

A suppler Malbec than many, this value-priced wine complemented rather than overpowered the piquant pasta dish.  Soft tannins prevented it from seeming excessively forceful.

 

 

 

Melini, Chianti Classico (Italy) 2006

(Imported by Frederick Wildman)

 

 

 $17

 

We often think of Chianti when making pasta with tomato sauce, as the acidity in the wine seems a natural partner for the acidity in the dish.  This Chianti Classico worked well with our Spaghetti alla Norma for just that reason; but unlike some Chiantis, that acidity was not particularly aggressive, so the wine seemed especially harmonious. 

 

 

 

Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia, Valle de Casablanca (Chile) Chardonnay 2006

(Imported by Carolina Wine Brands USA)

 

  $16

 

The one white wine we are recommending, this Reserva Chardonnay seems to be drinking at its peak, as its apple and citrus fruit flavors are enhanced by nutty spicy undertones.  It also feels warm and succulent on the palate - another example of texture being the key with this dish.

 

 


 

 

Vigne Regali, Dolcetto d'Acqui (Italy) 'L'Ardì' 2007

(Imported by Banfi Vintners)

 

 $11

 

 

A gentle, almost genteel wine, with subtle flavors that might get lost with a spicier version of Norma, but that had just enough power to work well with ours.  We debated whether to recommend it, but ultimately were won over by its almost silky mouth-feel.  (A Pinot Noir we tried offered a similarly appealing texture, but tasted too sweet - a common problem with that varietal these days.)