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
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 email@example.com.