Pasta Alla Norma – Sicily on a Plate:
One of the most famous people from Sicily, Vincenzo Bellini was a great composer, particularly of Bel Canto Opera. A signature dish of Sicily, Pasta Norma was named after one of the Composer’s most famous works, the opera Norma. There are two versions of the story about how the dish was named – the first accredits the title to a Sicilian writer, Nino Martoglio, contemporary to Bellini who is claimed to have said that the dish was ‘a Norma’ meaning that it was as perfect as the opera. The second claims that Bellini himself used to enjoy the dish regularly and that the owner of the restaurant where he dined named the dish in his honour. Of course, the real truth is immaterial – at least for me – it’s the recipe itself which matters.
As with many of the dishes we learnt to cook in Sicily, this is a simple dish and depends on good quality tomatoes and olive oil for its success. The tomatoes we grow in the UK are unlikely to ever have the depth of flavour this dish needs and so it is probably better to use a shop bought passata, perhaps enhanced with a little sun dried tomato paste, than to try making your own fresh puree. But, when we were in Sicily, the lovely Carla showed us how to make passata by just softening tomato halves in a pan on the hob and then passing the entire mixture through a special sieve a bit like a mouli.
We used round, violet coloured aubergines too, which I am sure I’ve seen in some of the asian supermarkets here, but which are not the sort you normally find in Waitrose or Tesco. I don’t think they tasted any different though, or at least, my own version using the ones I could buy from Waitrose seemed to work just as well.
I left Sicily with a small tub of sun dried tomato paste which I am adding to shop bought passata. This is traditionally made in Sicily by taking homemade passata salting it and spreading it out in a thin layer over shallow bowls. The bowls are set in the sun for anything from a few hours to a few days, depending on the weather, stirred every half hour or so, then the thick dark red paste is packaged up to be used through the winter. So, my Pasta Norma had a real taste of Sicily thanks to a teaspoon of this mixture stirred in a little water and added to the shop bought passata. I also have some salted ricotta, a firm white cheese that can be grated and which is traditionally used on Pasta Norma. It’s a strongish, salty tasting cheese, rather more crumbly and softer than parmesan. If you can’t get it, I’d suggest using crumbled feta or a hard goats cheese.
I hope you enjoy this simple but very special recipe as much as me. It really does bring back the taste of Sicily for me.