Sicilians love eggplant. My great grantparents were from Sicily, so we are an eggplant loving family. It was not until I was an adult that I met someone who did not like eggplant. What?! How could anyone not like eggplant? To me that was like someone not liking an apple. I thought that eggplants were something almost universally loved.

Well, a lot of people do love them, but I've come across several others that don't. My guess is that most of these folks have probably just had bad eggplant. A greasy version of eggplant parmesan in a mediocre Italian restaurant does not do eggplant justice. Also, eggplants really need to be eaten in the late summer (August to October). They will be bitter if eaten out of season. So, don't be tempted to buy one, or even order one in a restaurant for that matter, unless it's eggplant season.

Also, choose smaller eggplants over the huge ones as they will be less likely to be bitter. When purchasing an eggplant it should be smooth, shiny and a deep, vivid purple color (I'm talking about the typical eggplant you commonly see here in the US. There are other varieties too). Eggplant can be stored unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for a few days.

I will share a simple Sicilian pasta dish with eggplant. If you like eggplant you will like how this recipe pairs it with a simple tomato sauce, fresh basil leaves, and salty ricotta salata cheese. If you don't like eggplant, perhaps this dish will change your mind.  This is commonly referred to as Pasta Alla Norma as rumor has it that the dish was created in the 1800s after Bellini's opera Norma. (Yes, I had to look up this fact).

Pasta Alla Norma

2-3 small to medium eggplants (about 1 pound total)
1 white onion, sliced into half moons
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28 oz can plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
12 large basil leaves
2 cups shredded ricotta salata cheese
1 pound spaghetti
Extra virgin olive oil

Cut the eggplants into batons that are 1/2 inch wide and 1 inch long. Place in colander and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Let drain for 30 minutes. Briefly rinse the eggplant and pat dry with paper towels.

Heat large saute pan over medium heat. Pour enough olive oil into pan to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is hot, drop in half of the eggplant and fry until golden on all sides, about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to plate lined with paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining eggplant.

Add a little more olive oil to pan if it has become dry and saute onion until soft, about 12 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes  and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium and allow the sauce to bubble and thicken for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, about 9 minutes. When pasta is cooked, add to sauce along with 1 cup cheese and torn basil leaves. Spoon into serving dishes, passing remaining cheese on the side.

Serves 4-6.

Note: If you can't find ricotta salata substitute with pecorino romano cheese.

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