Monday, March 14, 2011

Pasta Alla Norma

If you're looking to cut back on the meat in your diet, but don't want to sacrifice hearty, savory flavor, this dish is for you. While it may seem like anchovies are a somewhat strange ingredient, those two tiny fillets add a tremendous amount of umami to the dish and greatly enhance the overall flavor. The eggplant provides a really satisfying texture in lieu of ground beef, deeply flavored  by the traditional Italian flavors of garlic, tomatoes, and fresh basil and topped with savory, salty cheese. This rich palate of flavors is well-suited for the last throes of winter, so give it a try before it's time to turn to the crisper lighter seasonal flavors of spring.

Pasta Alla Norma
from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2011
serves 4

Note: This recipe calls for both regular and extra-virgin olive oil. The higher smoke point of regular olive oil makes it best for browning the eggplant; extra-virgin olive oil stirred into the sauce before serving lends fruity flavor. If you don't have regular olive oil, use vegetable oil. We prefer kosher salt in step 1 because it clings best to the eggplant. If using table salt, reduce the amount to 1/2 teaspoon. Do not stir the eggplant more often than called for in step 2, as doing so may cause the eggplant cubes to break apart. Ricotta salata is traditional, but French feta, Pecorino Romano, and cotija (a firm, crumbly Mexican cheese) are acceptable substitutes. Our preferred brands of crushed tomatoes are Tuttorosso and Muir Glen.

1 large eggplant (1.25 to 1.5 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets, minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 pound ziti, rigatoni, or penne
6 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces ricotta salata, shredded (about 1 cup)

1. Toss the eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Line the surface of a large microwave-safe plate with a double layer of coffee filters and lightly coat with vegetable oil spray. Spread the eggplant in an even layer over the coffee filters. Microwave the eggplant, uncovered, until dry to the touch and slightly shriveled, about 10 minutes, tossing once halfway through. Cool slightly.

2. Transfer the eggplant to a medium bowl, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and toss gently to coat. Discard the coffee filters. Heat 1 tablespoon more olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the eggplant 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, transfer the eggplant to a plate, and set aside.

3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes to the empty but still-hot skillet and cook using the residual heat so the garlic doesn't burn, stirring constantly, until fragrant and the garlic becomes pale golden, about 1 minutes (if the skillet is too cool to cook the mixture, set it over medium heat). Add the tomatoes, return the skillet to medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, 8 to 10 minutes.

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

5. 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 occasionally, until the eggplant is heated through and the flavors are blended, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the basil and extra-virgin olive oil into the sauce and season with salt to taste. Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, adjusting the consistency with the reserved pasta cooking water so that the sauce coats the pasta. Sprinkle with the ricotta salata and serve immediately.

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