A Sicilian pasta recipe and a plant-powered cheese
Pasta alla Norma is a Sicilian classic from the port of Catania, fresh, rich and satisfying. The dish is named apparently after Bellini’s famous opera although it normally comes up on menus throughout the island simply as pasta con le melanzane or pasta with aubergines.
There are countless recipes but I find that the shorter the list of ingredients and the more uncomplicated the method, the better. Absolute musts are aubergines, tomatoes, garlic, basil and ricotta salata, a traditional salty Sicilian ewe’s milk cheese, but my current research into plant-powered cheese has unearthed a very acceptable alternative to ricotta salata as well as to Greek feta: Violife’s “Greek White Block” which is available in health shops and most supermarkets. While it may lack the salty punch and the crumbly texture of its dairy-based cousins, the flavour is very good and it also melts well. It needs to be diced rather than crumbled in order to add it to a dish but all in all, it is very nice and I am enjoying experimenting with it.
PASTA ALLA NORMA
2 fat aubergines
45 ml/3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
600 g ripe, juicy tomatoes, diced
10 ml/2 tsp red wine vinegar
250 g wholewheat penne
125 g Violife Greek plant-based cheese, diced
10 g fresh basil, leaves only, roughly torn
Fine sea or Himalayan salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180oC. With a vegetable peeler, remove some long strips of skin from the aubergines – this prevents the skin from becoming too tough when cooked. Slice off the stem end and cut the aubergines into smallish chunks. Place them on a roasting tray lined with baking parchment, drizzle over 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, season well with salt and pepper and roast in the oven until golden, about 30 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a wide, deep frying pan and add the garlic. Cook it briefly, until it just starts to colour, and then add the tomatoes. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the tomatoes start to break down, about 10 minutes. Don’t overcook them as this is a fresh-tasting sauce rather than a deeply savoury one! Stir in some seasoning and the red wine vinegar, turn up the heat and let it all bubble away for two or three minutes.
While the tomatoes are cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the penne according to the instructions on the packet. Drain well.
When the aubergines are ready, stir them into the tomato sauce and check the seasoning. Add the penne and gently mix it all together, ensuring that the pasta is well coated with the sauce.
Spoon it all into a large, warm serving dish and sprinkle first with the basil and then the cheese.
And what about this dish's nutrient content? Aubergines are rich in fibre, Vitamins B1 and B6, potassium, copper, magnesium and manganese, as well as well as an antioxidant called nasunin which gives the skin its beautiful deep purple colour; they may also lower cholesterol, improve heart functions and balance blood sugar. Not bad for such a pale, spongy and drab vegetable. Tomatoes? Vitamins C and K, potassium, folate, strongly antioxidant lycopene and beta carotene. Basil?Full of essential oils and phytochemicals, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, lowers blood glucose, triglycerides and cholesterol.