I always believed that there was something deeply unpleasant about aubergine. There is nothing that compares to the unpleasant experience of sinking your teeth into a firm chunk of aubergine in an under-seasoned ratatouille. Roasted, fried or smoked; learning how to cook an aubergine properly has placed it firmly on the podium of my favourite veg.
A pasta alla norma can be wonderful thing. A simple tomato sauce with some well cooked aubergine. What’s not to like? Traditional recipes can be a faff, calling for rinsing, salting and/or frying the aubergine. Felicity Cloake’s recipe actually calls for baking half and frying half the aubergine. No, just no.
Enter the Pasta alla Norma from Ottolenghi Simple. The only cheffy flourish that Ottolenghi adds is peeling stripes of skin off the aubergines like a zebra before slicing.. I assume so they cook quicker? I haven’t tried not doing this. Sliced into discs, the aubergine is oiled and seasoned before roasting in a hot oven for half an hour. Meanwhile, the sauce is a matter of frying some garlic and dried chilli in oil, adding the tomatoes and fresh oregano, leaving to simmer till the aubergine is ready. While that’s all cooking away, cook whatever pasta you want to use in a big pan. I normally opt for spaghetti because I’m always guaranteed to have a massive jar full. Once everything the aubergine is done, add to the tomato sauce, by which time the pasta should be done so add the pasta to the aubergine sauce. Divide into bowls and top with a few fresh basil leaves.
I hope I’ve demonstrated that it is a very straightforward dish. Up to this point it’s also vegan. Ottolenghi adds some pecorino at the end. I can actually confirm that the recipe is still delicious without the cheese. Out of necessity, I had to use extra virgin olive oil to roast the aubergine and fry the garlic. Not top shelf, expensive extra virgin, just your average Lidl bottle. Well, what a happy accident. It was sooo much tastier than the last time I made it with your bog standard olive oil. The stronger olive flavour made the sauce so tasty that lacking bread, I actually opted to take a big slick of the remaining sauce and lick it off my finger. Picture a hairier, less glamorous, Welsh male Sophia Loren.
Switch the fresh oregano for 2 tsp of dried and you have a mostly store-cupboard dinner. I always insist on making Pasta all Norma when aubergines are on offer in Lidl. At 39p per aubergine (in June 2019), the whole dish serves four very frugally indeed. Not that you’d know you were eating thriftily.