Pasta dishes are great for vegetarians. They’re filling, they’re usually pretty simple and cheap to make, and most importantly, many authentic Italian pasta dishes are intentionally meat-free – this is an example of one of these dishes.
I first came across ‘Rigatoni alla Norma’ in Taormina, Sicily, where it quickly became my favourite pasta dish. ‘Rigatoni alla Norma’ is specifically a Sicilian dish, named after a famous opera by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini. All over Sicily you’ll find a variety of pasta and pizza dishes ‘alla Norma’, all containing baked aubergine and some kind of ricotta cheese. Sicily is famous for its ricotta and it’s a favourite component in many of the island’s signature desserts, for example in cannoli and cassata. Ricotta is a sheep’s milk cheese, and in this country we’re more familiar with the fresh, soft ricotta cheese that you might put in desserts or use to fill ravioli and cannelloni. Rigatoni alla Norma requires a different form of this cheese, ricotta salata. Ricotta salata is a form of Ricotta that has been pressed, salted and dried, yielding a much firmer cheese with a texture somewhere in between that of feta and Parmesan. It’s perfect for grating, and whilst salty its flavour is still reminiscent of fresh ricotta – nutty, creamy and light – not too cheesy, like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, which makes it the perfect match for sweet, caramelised baked aubergine.
In my eyes, ricotta salata is irreplaceable in this dish, but unfortunately its not as easy to find it in the U.K. as it is in Sicily. Some Italian delis will stock ricotta salata, but it may be worth calling ahead to see if they have any, this is very much a Sicilian cheese. If you live in London I can recommend Terroni of Clerkenwell, which is where I managed to find some. If you do you’re grocery shopping online, Ocado also stock ricotta salata. If you’re really stuck you can substitute for Parmesan-style cheese (there are lots of vegetarian varieties out there these days), a few dollops of fresh ricotta or in dire straits, a little crumbled feta.
Whilst simple, this dish is a show-stopper. It’s perfect for dinner parties because the aubergines can be salted and baked in advance, and added to the sauce at the end of cooking. It’s also ludicrously cheap, if you do manage to find ricotta salata, it usually costs about £1 per 100g, which is all you need for 3-4 people and the other ingredients are all cheap staples. This is why I love Italian cuisine, it’s no fuss, big flavour dishes that are a joy to cook (especially with a glass of vino in hand) without breaking the bank.
Serves 3-4 people
- 1 large aubergine
- A few tablespoons of good quality olive oil
- 1 small white onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 tins of chopped tomatoes
- A large handful of fresh basil, chopped
- A teaspoon of white sugar
- Dried Rigatoni (here I used giant rigatoni)
- Approximately 100g of coarsely grated Ricotta Salata
PREHEAT OVEN TO 230˚C
- About an hour before you want to eat, chop the aubergine into 2-3cm cubes. Cover with salt and place in a colander over a bowl or pan. Leave for approximately half an hour, you should notice that the aubergine has lost its moisture.
- Rinse the aubergine thoroughly and pat dry before transferring to a well oiled baking tray, making sure all the aubergine has a good coating of olive oil. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes. The goal here is sweet, juicy, caramelised aubergine, so it’s useful to turn the pieces of aubergine occasionally whilst they bake to ensure they don’t dry out.
- To make the tomato sauce base, lightly sauté the finely chopped onion in a large frying pan for a few minutes. Add the crushed garlic and cook for a further 2 or three minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and the chopped basil, and a little sugar and season with salt and pepper. Stir and allow to cook for 30 minutes or so, the longer the better.
- Towards the end of the cooking time cook the rigatoni as indicated on the packet. Add the aubergine to the tomato sauce and stir through, allowing to cook for a few more minutes. When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the sauce, stirring to cover the pasta evenly. Serve the pasta topped with a liberal helping of grated ricotta salata. Buon appetito!