The Sicilian Pasta alla Norma represents the height of summer. Tomato sauce, silky fried eggplant, and salted ricotta come together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Italian nonna Roberta Rizzo uses corn oil to fry the eggplant, preferring it for its mild flavor and high smoke point. It will take on some of the salt from the eggplant; decreasing the amount used in each successive batch keeps the dish from becoming too salty.
6 1/2 pounds (32 total) plum or Roma tomatoes, quartered
1 pounds small sweet onions (such as cipollini), cut into 2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish
2 1/2 cups corn oil
4 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 20 cups)
2 teaspoons fine non-iodized salt, divided
2 pounds uncooked penne rigate
1 1/2 ounces ricotta salata cheese, grated with a Microplane grater (about 1 cup)
How to Make It
Combine tomatoes and onions in a large stockpot over medium. Cook, stirring constantly, until tomatoes begin to release their juices, about 5 minutes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are fully broken down and very soft, about 30 minutes.
Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes and onions to a large heatproof bowl; reserve liquid in pot. Place a food mill over stockpot. Pass tomatoes and onions through food mill into stockpot, discarding tomato skins and other solids. Stir in fine sea salt, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to 7 cups, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Stir in basil leaves; cook 5 more minutes. Remove from heat, and cover to keep warm.
While tomato sauce cooks, heat corn oil in a high-sided skillet or large Dutch oven over medium-high, about 5 minutes. Add 3 to 4 cups eggplant to skillet in a single layer. (Eggplant should be almost fully submerged in oil.) Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon non-iodized salt. Fry, stirring occasionally, until eggplant cubes are golden brown and soft to the touch with a crispy exterior, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer eggplant to a large plate to drain; reserve drained oil. Repeat with a second batch of eggplant and 1/2 teaspoon non-iodized salt. Repeat with a third batch of eggplant and 1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt. Fry remaining eggplant, in batches if needed, adding 1/8 teaspoon non-iodized salt to each batch.
Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water according to package directions for al dente. Drain. Add pasta to tomato sauce, and stir to coat. Fold in fried eggplant and drained oil.
To serve, transfer pasta to a rimmed platter or large shallow bowl. Top with ricotta salata, and garnish with fresh basil leaves.
The tomato sauce can be cooked up to 3 days ahead. Let cool, then cover and chill. Reheat before proceeding.
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