Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pasta alla Norma

This dish sparked my obsession with ricotta salata.

Ricotta salata is ricotta cheese that has been pressed, salted (hence the salata) and dried. It's also incredibly cheap for the flavor it brings to a dish. It's got to be the cheapest cheese at Brooklyn Larder.

It's nothing like the ricotta we think of in cheesecakes and lasagna. Instead, it's a firm block of cheese that's easily grated. The Kitchn calls it cheese that can't stand alone, and I tend to agree with that description. It's a bit too salty to make it onto your cheese plate.

Get a bigger piece of ricotta salata than you need for this pasta dish and experiment with it. Grate it over your salad. Use it in place of feta in an omelet. Grate it over a delicious veggie burger. Try it with this raw kale salad and smile.

Ricotta salata is perfect in this pasta alla norma recipe. It contrasts with the heat of the red pepper flakes in the sauce, and the saltiness is a great contrast to the sweeter tomatoes.

The eggplant is microwaved before it is sauteed, which helps cook the eggplant through but requires a lot less oil to be used, making the dish considerably healthier. It's great reheated for lunch--just add the ricotta salata before serving.

Pasta alla Norma
recipe adapted slightly from Cook's Illustrated, July/August 2009 issue

I omitted the basil from the recipe this time around, and I didn't miss it. Feel free to add it back in (6 tablespoons chopped was what Cook's Illustrated recommended).

1 large eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, pressed or minced
2 anchovy fillets, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 lb. penne pasta
4 ounces ricotta salata, shredded, about 1 cup

Toss chopped eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Line the surface of a plate with paper towel, and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray. Spread the eggplant in an even layer over the paper towel. Microwave the eggplant on high power, uncovered, until the eggplant is dry to the touch and slightly shriveled, about 10 minutes, tossing once halfway through. Let cool slightly. I had to microwave my eggplant in two batches due to the size of my microwave and plate.

Wipe the eggplant bowl clean, and transfer the now cooked eggplant back to the bowl. Throw away the paper towel and set the plate aside.

Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and toss gently to coat. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the eggplant to the pan and distribute in an even layer. Cook, stirring every 1 1/2 to 2 minutes until well browned and fully tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the eggplant to the now-empty plate. Set aside.

Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and pepper flakes to the now-empty but still-hot skillet and cook using residual heat so the garlic doesn't burn. Stir constantly until the garlic becomes fragrant and pale golden, about 1 minute.

Add tomatoes and return the skillet to the burner over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring ocassionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and 2 tablespoons salt, and cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water. Drain the pasta and transfer it back to the cooking pot.

While the pasta is cooking, return the eggplant to the skillet with the tomatoes, and gently stir to incorporate. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring gently, until eggplant is heated through and flavors and blended, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil into the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, adjusting consistency with reserved pasta cooking water so that the sauce coats the pasta. Serve immediately, sprinkling individual servings with ricotta salata.


  1. This sounds delicious - and I'm a big fan of ricotta salata. I attempted to make it once. The taste was spot on, but I didn't have a proper cheese press to get that firm, dry texture. But anything that tastes good is never a true failure!

  2. You tried to make your OWN ricotta salata? I'm pretty darn impressed. I will have to look that up. I think it would take days of pressing to get that right texture. Wow.

  3. This is why I love blogging: I always get to learn something new! I've never heard of ricotta salata, but I'll definitely keep an eye out for it next time I go to the store. The pasta looks delish, by the way.

    1. Thanks Kyleen! I feel that same way. Everyday when I visit blogs, I discover something new. Thank goodness for the internet.

  4. In all my years of being Italian (almost 25 to be exact) I have never actually TASTED ricotta salata, though I've heard of it! Since I LOVE feta, it sounds like something I would adore. I obviously need to try this pasta!

    1. We are lucky to still have so much time to explore. I'm a huge feta fan but have rarely cooked with it. I've got a lot of exploring to do too!