This is our California Central Coast version of an Italian classic, Pasta a la Norma. The traditional recipe calls for the addition of Ricotta Salata to the sauce which I prefer to omit. We are tomato-holics! When fresh tomatoes are in season, I want nothing in my sauce to mask the taste of fresh tomato and fresh basil –a match made in heaven!
I also like to grill the eggplant rather than deep fry it. I prefer to use Japanese eggplant which when sliced vertically and left attached at the stem yields a better “bird-in flight” appearance. You could also use small regular eggplant if you can’t find the Japanese version.
This sauce is best made with fresh tomatoes. If it’s off-season and you can only find hothouse tomatoes and they aren’t quite sweet enough, bring them up in taste by using a bit of tomato paste or white wine.
Cooking time: 20 minutes / Makes 4 servings,
4 Small firm Japanese eggplants*, do not peel
3 to 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs. fresh tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup basil leaves coarsely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil for the sauce plus extra for brushing the eggplant
Salt to taste
Several grinds fresh cracked black pepper
1 lb. of spaghetti
Parmesan cheese for the table
*Note on preparing eggplant. Though recommended by some, I have never found the need to salt the sliced eggplant and leave them for an hour to drain off the bitter juices. Perhaps the fresh Japanese eggplant, which is what I use, is less bitter or my guests and I are not bothered by a little bitterness.
To give the affect of a “bird-in-flight,” using a sharp thin cutting knife, slice the eggplant into four to six thin even thickness horizontal slices, from the rounded bottom –length-wise almost to the other end, but not through, leaving the top of the eggplant intact.
Lightly brush in between the slices with olive oil, then grill on a barbecue or fry on a stove top, brushing on a bit extra olive oil if necessary. While grilling, when the eggplant has softened a bit, gently fan out the slices like a Japanese fan and salt and pepper each “bird.” Grill on both sides until lightly browned. It is OK to flip the eggplant a couple times to get a nice grilled finish.
To make the sauce, pour the olive oil into a large (non-reactive) sauce pan. Heat the olive oil just a bit, then add the garlic. Sauté over medium-low heat until the garlic is lightly golden and fragrant. Do not burn! Add the chopped tomatoes and bring up to simmering. Add the chopped basil and stir then simmer for several minutes. Taste the sauce, and if the sauce is not sweet enough, add a bit of tomato paste or white wine, then simmer a bit more. When done, add salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, in a large pasta pan or stockpot, boil water. Just before adding the spaghetti, add a tablespoon of salt to the boiling water. Add spaghetti, and cook according to instructions until just done. Remove the pasta, drain well, then mix the paste with the tomato sauce.
Divide the sauced pasta between four dinner plates. Carefully top each pasta mound with a grilled eggplant “birdin-flight”. Add a small sprig of extra basil to each plate for garnish and serve.
Offer grated Parmesan cheese at the table. (You don’t want to put the grated cheese on before because it will hide the eggplant “bird-in-flight affect.)
Wine and Food Pairing and Serving Suggestions.
Wine suggestion: This is not a fussy sauce. On a warm summer evening a chilled fresh dry white like a Roussane or Vigonier would work wonderfully. Or be traditional and serve a young Sangiovese or Chianti with this Italian “mama-style” dish.