Pasta alla Norma

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I’ve made a lot of pasta in my day. I’m always looking to try new recipes, but like many of us, I have a few staples that I return to often. Pasta with eggplant, often known as pasta alla norma, is one of my favorites. I learned how to make it about 12 years ago, when I spent a summer living with my aunt and cousins in Puglia, Italy. So, when I first noticed another recipe for this dish in Jamie’s Italy, I quickly turned the page. What could Jamie possibly teach me–or my aunt, for that matter–about this Southern Italian classic?

But as I continued to use Oliver’s book, I kept returning to the beautiful photograph accompanying his recipe. His heaping serving of pasta looked so much prettier than anytime I had prepared this dish. Finally I convinced myself that simply experimenting with another version didn’t constitute betrayal to my aunt. Let’s just hope she sees it that way.

When I make my aunt’s recipe, the process is quite simple: I chop an eggplant into chunks and saute the pieces in some chopped garlic and olive oil, until they start to brown. I then add a can of crushed tomatoes, a pinch of salt, and a lot of fresh basil, as well as a small bit of water. I simmer the sauce for about half an hour, mix it up with some penne, and top it with some Parmesan and another splash of olive oil. That’s it, done: a simple, satisfying meal that I have come to regard as Italian comfort food. It’s filling without being too heavy, and the combination of silky, fleshy eggplant and fresh basil always reminds me of summertime.

Jamie Oliver’s version is slightly more refined than mine. As opposed to my random hunks of eggplant, he recommends slicing the vegetable into thin strips and cutting away the seeds before browning the slices in olive oil and oregano. Among other small differences from my recipe, he also adds a bit of chili pepper, as well as basil stems, to his sauce and cooks it for a shorter period of time. Fresh ricotta is suggested as a topping.

My friend Gina, a fellow eggplant lover who came over for dinner on Monday night, and I thoroughly enjoyed our pasta. Oliver’s version was very light and fresh, with the chopped basil stems infusing the sauce with springtime flavor. Adding fresh ricotta at the end surprisingly contributed to the sweet airiness of the dish.

Although I achieved positive results from Oliver’s recipe, I don’t think I can ever abandon my aunt’s version. It’s one of the first recipes I ever learned in Italy. I even taught it to my mother when I returned. Sorry, but family comes first.

Just so you know, Artichoke Heart will be on hiatus for the next week or so, while I head off to Paris. Get ready for some French-inspired stories!

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