I’ve always loved travelling, even though I haven’t done much of it (compared to some people I know!). My family and I have been on a couple Caribbean cruises, our honey moon was to the Dominican Republic, and a couple years ago Nick and I spent two weeks in Ireland, Scotland and London. There are so many more countries I want to visit, but it may be a while before we can get there (hello buying a house and having a baby).
I love my daughter more than anything, but it does make me a teensy bit sad that we probably wouldn’t get to travel until she’s a bit older. So, I had this idea. I would immerse myself into one country at a time and learn all about their culinary traditions and special dishes. I call it my “Global Culinary Tour” – digitized! And I want to take you all along.
Our first stop? Italy. It’s a country that I’ve ALWAYS wanted to go to. Ideally, you’d spend at least a couple weeks traveling to all the different regions (there are 20 of them!). Italy is romantic, beautiful, and has such long standing traditions around it’s iconic food. Italian food has always been my favorite type of cuisine here in the US, but I know that much of it has been Americanized and taken away from it’s true Italian roots.
So we aren’t going to be spending weeks tasting spaghetti and meatballs, ziti, pizza, etc. We’re going to dive deep into the traditional, authentic recipes of Italy. Sounds fun and delicious, right?
As I started researching Italian cuisine, I realized that it’s actually quite diverse in each region (especially between the north and south). Italian food is very simple, with many dishes having just a handful of ingredients. Chefs rely on the quality of ingredients rather than elaborate preparation.
North Italy is known for risotto, tortellini, pizzas and spaghetti. Fish, potatoes and rice are very common. Southern Italy uses more peppers and olives, eggplants and zucchini. Pasta of course is used all over Italy and tomato sauce is the most popular. Italians like their food subtly spiced and olive oil is the main source of fat used.
We are starting our journey though Italy with the southernmost province, Sicily (in the region of Catania). Sicily is just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”. It has a very rich history and has many tourist sites like the Valley of the Temples (Greek temple ruins), famous royal chapels and Mount Etna, one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes.
While the cuisine of Sicily has a predominately Italian base, it has plenty of Spanish and Greek influences.
Pasta alla Norma is one of Sicily’s most iconic dishes. The original recipe is made with pasta, tomatoes, fried eggplant, grated ricotta salata cheese, and basil. I had to look up what ricotta salata was, and found that it’s an Italian cheese made from pressed and salted sheep milk and aged for at least 90 days. It looks a lot like Parmesan or Romano and can be crumbled or grated.
I searched for this cheese at both of my town’s grocery stores and quickly realized that it’s probably a little too authentic for my little Texas town to carry. So I substituted Parmesan (the good stuff though, aged and freshly grated). I bet I could find ricotta salata at Central Market, but didn’t want to drive 30 minutes just for a little block of cheese. Plus, I wanted this recipe to be accessible for my readers and having you all search for a specific type of cheese just didn’t seem very nice!
Today’s recipe is quite simple: fry diced eggplant tossed in oregano until browned. You want to make sure to buy a heavy, firm eggplant (that’s how you know it’ll be good inside). The tomato sauce is kept simple with just a few herbs and spices.
Highlighted ingredients for Pasta alla Norma:
- Thin spaghetti pasta: be sure to cook this in a large pot of heavily salted water — I use 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of pasta. This is essential to getting delicious tasting pasta. Be sure not to rinse after you drain the water!
- Olive oil: I used extra-virgin here from my local grocery store.
- Eggplant: Choose a large eggplant that’s firm to touch. You want it to feel heavy for its size, without marks or soft spots.
- Canned tomatoes: You’ll use canned tomatoes here for simplicity, so be sure to choose a high quality brand. Bonus points if you can buy San Marzano diced tomatoes – a variety of plum tomatoes with a strong and sweet taste that’s less acidic than other varieties.
- Parmesan: I like to keep a block of Parmesan in my fridge (wrapped tightly in plastic) so I can always have fresh grated parmesan on hand.
- Fresh basil: I’m posting this recipe in the wintertime, where fresh basil can be hard to find. Be sure to find fresh basil leaves that are bright and green with no brown spots. If you can’t find fresh basil, then a light sprinkle of dried basil will be fine to garnish.
I hope you try this authentic Italian recipe! I’ve got plenty more coming down the pipeline in the next couple of weeks!
Pasta alla Norma
A traditional Italian favorite, originating from Sicily. Pasta combined with tomatoes, eggplant, cheese and basil.
- 1 lb dried spaghetti pasta
- 1 Tbsp salt
For the eggplant:
- 2-3 Tbsp olive oil for frying
- 1 large, firm eggplant, diced 1″
- 1 tsp dried oregano
For the sauce:
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 2 cans diced tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- freshly grated Parmesan or Romano for serving
- fresh basil strips, julienned
Cook spaghetti in a large pot of salted water (use 1 Tbsp salt per pound of pasta). Drain (do not rinse) and set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom. Toss the eggplant with the dried oregano. Add the eggplant to the skillet and fry until both edges are beginning to brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the olive oil, garlic, and onion powder. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the cans of diced tomatoes, salt, dried basil, dried oregano and white wine vinegar. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until the tomato juices have begun to thicken.
Add the fried eggplant and the cooked spaghetti pasta to the sauce. Toss to combine. Serve with a hefty sprinkle of freshly grated cheese and a handful of fresh basil.