Monday, July 27, 2009

Rescuing Eggplant alla Norma - Vegan Style

The title staring back at me from the Cooks Illustrated magazine captured me from the get-go. "Rescuing Pasta alla Norma." Well, seriously. If eggplant needs rescuing, then who am I to resist?

I fell in love with Pasta alla Norma 3 years ago at Enoteca - a Mario Batali restaurant in Las Vegas. One bite of the thick rigatoni, bathed in a spicy tomato eggplant sauce, chocked full of garlic and fresh basil , sold me that this would be one of my all time favorite dishes. I travel to Las Vegas for work once a year, and so have engaged in Eggplant Alla Norma gluttony yearly for the past 3 years. Still....a girl's gotta have a DIY attitude, so when I saw the "Rescuing Pasta alla Norma" article on the recent issue of Cooks Illustrated , I knew I had to give it a try.

As an aside, Cooks Illustrated, though a most decidedly un-vegan magazine, is a secret love of mine. I haven't found anyone who takes the nuances of cooking as seriously as they do. I remember a recipe for Potato Wedges one year. They were waxing about the role of salt in the baking of the wedges. The salt, they proclaimed, act as little ball bearings, gently supporting the potato wedge from the slick coolness of the cookie sheet. Wow. Little ball bearings. I've been a loyal reader ever since.

But I digress. Pasta alla Norma, we are informed by Cooks Illustrated (CI), was named for a 19th century opera that featured a druid priestess named Norma. A smashing success, a Silician chef decided to immortalize Norma by creating a dish in her honor. Thank God for the Druids!

Not one to be outdone by CI, I started with the freshest ingredients. If Pasta Alla Norma's rescue was to be unsuccessful, it wouldn't be under my watch. Starting with fresh eggplant picked from my garden, I dove into the recipe.

One of the reasons why the dish needs rescuing in the first place is that eggplant, notororious for soaking up irreverant amounts of oil when cooked, is tricky to work with. Often, the dish ends up a royal mess of mushy eggplant. The CI technique was to chop it into 1/2 inch chunks, salt it and layer it in a plate layered with coffee filters (I'm a little unclear about the coffee filters, but I don't argue with the CI Gods). Then you nuke the hell out of it for 10 minutes, until the eggplant is dry and shrively. After 10 minutes, my eggplant was neither dry nor shrively, so I nuked it for another 5 minutes. Eh. Still not dry, but I decided I couldn't in good conscience nuke it any more. It was starting to liquefy.

Post-nuke, I pranfried the eggplant with olive oil, and then set aside to finish the sauce. Sauteed garlic, a spoonful of miso paste to replace anchovies, hot pepper flakes, salt to taste and a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes finished it out, and I folded the eggplant back in the sauce.

The recipe called for ricotta salata; that salty firm ricotta that is uber-shreddable. There's an awesome looking recipe for vegan ricotta salata in Nonna's Italian Kitchen that I've always wanted to try, but it calls for agar, and I was fresh out of agar, go figure. No mind; the cashew ricotta from Veganomicon never fails me. It's so easy, and only calls for a handful of ingredients - cashews, tofu, lemons, garlic, salt, basil and olive oil.

With the sauce simmering gently and the cashew cream deafening the members of my family as it whirled in the food processor, I turned to the sides - asparagus and baby potatoes. No time for tom-foolery, I dressed them in olive oil and smoked sea salt and popped them in the oven for baking at 375. I figured baking them would be the most reasonable method of cooking, since it's only about 96 degrees on average here in Jacksonville. I hollered for the air to be cranked down under the auspices of "It's my birthday tomorrow; damn the electric bill!" and plunged the whole wheat rigatoni into the boiling salt water.

The verdict?

I'm not sure that I successfully rescued Eggplant alla Norma in it's entirety. It was tasty, to be sure. The scattering of basil, fresh from the garden gave it a bright crispness. The whole wheat pasta, something I typically shy away from, had a heft that stood up against the eggplant. With a dollop of cashew cream, it was a step shy of dreamy. I kept adding more cashew cream each time I took a bite.

The eggplant still turned out mushy, which was one of the main things the microwaving with coffee filters technique was supposed to solve. My guess is that I had too much eggplant with too little surface space on the plate; next time I won't be lazy and will cook it in two batches. Also, my dice was more like 1/4 inch than 1/2 inch. The 1/2 inch would definitely help the eggplant nuggets hold up their shape better.

The sauce was delicious, though! The original recipe called for anchovy fillets to give it a salty heft. A quick google told me that miso was a good substitute for anchovies. The modified recipe for the sauce from CI appears below:

Pasta alla Norma

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1tsp Kosher salt
2-3 TBS olive oil
3-4 cloves minced garlic
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper (more if you're fiery)
28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1TBS miso paste
salt to taste

Eggplant prep: In large bowl, toss egpplant with salt. Transfer to (LARGE) plate lined with coffee filters and spread out evenly. Cook in the microwave on high for 5 minutes. Stir, cook another 5 minutes, until eggplant is dry and shriveled. Transfer back to bowl, coat with 1 TBS olive oil. Heat one tablespoon olive oil in non-stick pan, add eggplant and cook til brown, stirring minimally for about 10 minutes. Transfer back to bowl.

Sauce: Saute your garlic in the olive oil with the red pepper flakes and miso paste for a few minutes, being careful not to burn. Stir gently to break up the miso. Add the can of crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, add eggplant, and simmer while you cook your pasta of choice. When pasta is ready, season sauce with salt to taste (it probably won't need too much, since the miso is salty) and gently stir in chopped basil.

While sauce is cooking, cook 1 lb penne, rigatoni, etc. When done, drain, and serve with the sauce and cashew cream.


  1. Perhaps if you used vegan cream cheese, well-salted and cut into small bits, in lieu of the cashew cream for the ricotta, the texture would be different.

  2. That sounds good! I'll have to try that. I really want to try the vegan ricotta salata, though :)