Pasta Alla Norma and Twitter Discoveries

by Sarah on February 28, 2010

Pasta alla Norma is a traditional Sicilian recipe, consisting mainly of tomatoes, fried eggplants and salata ricotta, a version of ricotta which can be grated over the pasta adding creamy flavor and brightening the color of the dish. It is supposedly named after a beautiful and famous opera, Norma, composed by Vincenzo Bellini in 1831.

I first learned of the provenance of this famous pasta from the social media site twitter after Carmelita (@cookitaly) asked about everyone’s favorite Italian dish. When I mentioned that I liked tomato and eggplant pasta she informed me that it is considered quintessential Sicilian (of course with the 140 character limit she did not use that term to describe it). However, only the soft ricotta cheese is available in Israel, not salata ricotta which is needed to make the classic variety.  Others on twittter (@thandelike and @lovesicily) suggested I use Turkish lor or Cypriot anari cheese as a substitute. With twitter, I went from knowing nothing about Pasta alla Norma to being a Connoisseur on the subject, at least theoretically. For me twitter has become an effective tool to gain insight on international cuisine although once I thought it was completely useless.

At the very beginning I thought I was talking to myself because I was, I had no followers and tweeted into thin air, but that slowly began to change. I found friends by using keyword searches, Mr. Tweet and finding like minded individuals through their blogs and by Follow Friday recommendations. There are countless food sites around the world; some I enjoy for the pictures, others for the connections and still others for the interesting articles. Twitter however is a bit different because the community needs to be built by you for it to be effective and this takes time and effort. A multitude of lists have already been written about why and how twitter is used, but at the end it all comes down to sharing information, connections and conversations.

Pasta Alla Norma, Middle Eastern Style

This is not a traditional Pasta Alla Norma, instead of friend eggplant slices, I roasted them whole and used the smoky pulp in the sauce. I also replaced the cheese with spiced ground meat which I was going to use for lachmajoon but did not have the time assemble. Although this is a Sicilian dish, the Arabs are credited on introducing this new crop to Europe where it once was considered poisonous.

7 ripe tomatoes, peeled

2 tablespoons tomato paste if tomatoes are not red enough (optional)

4 tablespoons of olive oil

5 cloves of garlic

2 eggplants (roasted)

One bunch of fresh za’atar

Ground meat mixture:

500 grams ground meat, lamb or beef

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon baharat (Arabic spice mix, cinnamon can be used instead)

2 tomatoes, chopped

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Olive oil

500 grams spaghetti such as barilla brand

Tomato sauce

Peel the tomatoes by making a shallow crisscross cut on each side of the tomato and plunging in boiling water until peel begins to curl (about 30 seconds), chop the tomatoes. In a medium sized pan (not aluminum) add the tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. Cook until the tomatoes disintegrate into a smooth sauce and the olive oil rises to the top, about 35 minutes. (this technique I learned from a recipe by Marcella Hazan)

Meat Filling

Preferably in a cast iron skillet fry onion until just beginning to brown, add the garlic and stir for a few moments. Add the meat and cook until it changes color, add the lemon juice, and chopped tomatoes and cook until most of the juices have evaporated and the meat begins to brown. Add the spices and mix well.

Roast eggplant

Poke eggplant in several places with a fork and roast in the oven or over an open flame. The eggplant’s skin will char a bit, this is normal. Rotate the eggplant to cook evenly until the flesh is soft. Split one side open and let liquid drain in a colander. When the eggplant is cooled, scoop the flesh out with a spoon.

Prepare spaghetti according to package directions.

Assembly

Combine spaghetti with tomato sauce, top with roasted eggplant and ground meat mixture. Sprinkle with fresh za’atar leaves. As my kids don’t like the taste of roasted eggplant, I assembled each dish separately.

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