Monday, September 18, 2006

Newsaper - PASTA NORMA

This article appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on 18 Sept. 2006.

Summer’s bounty lingers in the luscious eggplant
The other night at dinner my husband put down his fork and declared the words every home cook would treasure: "This is as good as candy." And we weren’t even eating dessert! It was Pasta Norma, a dish from Sicily which (so the story goes) was named for the opera Norma when it debuted in 1831. The opera tells the story of a tragic love affair between a Roman official and a Druid high priestess. This does not seem to have any direct relation to the main ingredient in Pasta Norma – eggplant – except perhaps to say that it’s wickedly good.

Eggplant is not that common in Saskatchewan gardens, but it’s one of those exotic Mediterranean vegetables that will grow here with proper pampering. A couple of years ago, I found some eggplant seedlings in a local greenhouse and put them in my garden. I got lots of cute little purple eggplants, which spurred me to find new ways to cook them.

Fresh off that success, I planted some more seedlings last year but they didn’t do so well. I got just two eggplants which, if divided by the price of the seedlings, cost me $5 each. It is much less expensive and more reliable to buy them at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. Freshly picked eggplants are available there in late summer and early fall, making this the perfect time to try some classic eggplant recipes from around the world.

The dish that immediately comes mind is the French vegetable stew called ‘ratatouille’, a mix of eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers and fresh basil that’s easy to make and delicious either hot or cold. The next classic recipe I tried was Eggplant Parmigiana, an Italian dish of fried eggplant baked with a tomato-basil sauce and lots of Parmesan and mozzarella cheese. It is absolutely yummy. Middle Eastern cooks make a dip for flatbread and vegetables with eggplant and tahini called ‘baba ghanoush’ and it’s the main ingredient in the Greek baked dish ‘moussaka’.

Not only do I have eggplant in my kitchen, I also have it on my walls. One year for my birthday my husband gave me a still-life painting of an eggplant and a squash. Not long after, I invited my friend Tomasia for dinner. I suppose she hadn’t examined my walls until she was sitting at the table, when she looked up and demanded, "Why on earth do you have a picture of an eggplant on your wall?" In the 17th Century, still-life paintings of food were wildly popular in northern Europe, in part because they reminded people of their growing prosperity and the distances their ships would travel in search of exotic goods.

My eggplant painting reminds me of summer and my search for new and wonderful foods produced in Saskatchewan. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of local food, so it’s always exciting to discover a new gem to include in an all-Saskatchewan diet. Eggplant is often paired with tomatoes, as it is in Pasta Norma.

olive oil
3 small eggplants
2 cloves garlic
8-10 plum tomatoes
a handful of fresh basil
salt and pepper
ricotta cheese
cooked pasta for four

Heat olive oil in a skillet until hot. Use enough oil to thickly coat the bottom of the pan. Slice the eggplant in rounds and then cut the rounds into quarters. Fry the eggplant in hot oil until soft and brown. It will soak up much of the oil so you may need to add more.

Meanwhile, sauté garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir in chopped tomatoes, chopped basil, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes or more, pressing the tomatoes to create a sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place pasta in individual bowls, scoop on some tomato sauce, top with eggplant and sprinkle with ricotta cheese. This dish is at its absolute best when the eggplant and tomatoes are young and fresh, so hike on down to the farmers’ market and do it right!

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