Featuring the most wonderfully versatile vegetable: the aubergine. Best when fried.
A few years ago, I was sat with an Italian woman in a pub. On the suggestion of someone else who was with us, we were discussing our favourite vegetables.
I said mine was broccoli; she — Giulia, the Italian — said aubergines.
We each received snorts of scorn from the other. For me, aubergines were the grey, rubbery, foreign things served up as veggie options by shit pub kitchens. For her, broccoli was the epitome of sad British cuisine, served undercooked, unsalted, and uninspired.
Back then, as is the way with ignorant people, I didn’t know quite how ignorant I actually was; I didn’t know the joys that food — nor aubergines — could offer.
Food was something functional — and limited in range. Dad cooked, overcooked, steak — almost exclusively, with sausages sometimes on Saturdays. Mum, her speciality was pasta sat in water too long, so that it dripped its liquid when you cut it up (yes, cut it up) and spooned it into your mouth. When I cooked for myself, I ate beans (canned) and rice (microwaved) with cheese on top.
So, I grew up in a home whose heart was not the kitchen. But I met and ultimately moved in with Giulia and things changed a little. Then I met her mum and things changed a lot.
I learnt that if you fry an aubergine well it turns into one of the most beautiful things in the world. I learnt that soggy potatoes are not the best accompaniment to fish — and that fish does not only mean cod. I learnt that pasta is not only spaghetti, and that it is better — dare I say, objectively — when it has some texture, when it has a bit of bite.
It’s been a bit of an awakening.
Mum, in a strange moment before I’d met Giulia, told me that I’d ‘end up Italian’ — on the basis of quite what I wasn’t sure. But, whilst it hasn’t happened yet, I do now have a t-shirt with Antonio Gramsci on it. I do now sing Francesco Guccini in the shower.
And I too now prefer aubergines to broccoli. So, maybe Mum will be right in the end.
Let’s kick off with a pasta alla Norma. Apparently, its name comes from the fact that, once upon a time, some bloke compared the dish to Bellini’s opera, Norma. I reckon it’s more fun to imagine that, rather, one inspired Sicilian grandmother, Norma, happened once upon a time to make a shit-hot meal.
It’s a classic Sicilian dish: pasta topped with deep fried aubergines in a rich tomato sugo. Even my mum likes this one — as long as I liquidate the pasta. If you can get hold of ricotta salata — a hard, salty cylindrical cheese — grate it on the top. If you can get hold of ricotta salata affumicata, enjoy it whilst it lasts.
Take quantities with a pinch of salt: I’m cooking for two. The shape of pasta is also down to you. A certain Jamie Oliver — whoever he might be — goes spaghetti, but I’m not convinced. Try a short one: penne, mezze maniche.
- 2 garlic cloves
- A sprinkle of chilli flakes (or half a mild, fresh one)
- 1–1.5 aubergines (somewhere between 250 and 300 grams)
- A can of chopped tomatoes (or an equivalent weight of fresh cherry tomatoes)
- A handful of fresh basil
- A rough 250ml of vegetable or sunflower oil (this is for frying).
- Enough pasta for two (somewhere between 100 and 150 grams, depending on how cicci you are)
- Ricotta salata to serve
- Heat some olive oil in a pan.
- Smash and chop the garlic alongside the chilli — and heat it in the pan.
- When it smells good, add your tomatoes. If you’re using fresh cherry tomatoes, chop each in half or smaller.
- Put a lid on it and cook until the tomatoes melt.
- Add hot water periodically to keep it smooth — and add your basil when it’s looking ready.
- Dice your aubergines to about 1.5cm. The best way, I find, to do this is to slice them lengthways first.
- Take a clean tea towel and lay out the aubergine dices evenly. Sprinkle them with salt. (In the UK, aubergines are usually bloated with water — and it’s this that gives them their manky gummy texture. Salting them, and then drying them with a second tea towel, will get some of this excess water out — and it will give them a better fry.) Leave them there for a moment.
- Take another pan, big enough to pour in the veg/sunflower oil. Let it heat on the hob.
- You’ll need to know precisely when the oil is hot enough. This is the important part. Something well-fried comes out of the oil dry and crisp around the edges. If the oil is not hot enough, your aubergines will be wet and greasy. So, put a hand over the oil. If it is hot, get yourself a little crumb of bread and throw it in. A friend of mine, Giuseppe — a self-described ‘master fryer’ — swears by this: if the bread sizzles hard, then it’s hot enough and you’re go.
- Put in just a few of the aubergines at a time. They should sit at the surface of the oil in one layer. Too many and they’ll bring down the temperature of the oil. If this happens, you’ll get greasy aubergines.
- They’re cooked when they are browned. Scoop them out of the pan and place them on some kitchen towel in a bowl — to soak up the excess oil.
- Boil water. Add salt to the water when it’s boiling. Cook the pasta for as long as it needs and no longer. Don’t do what my mum does.
- Drain the pasta and, in your biggest pan, mix into it the sugo and the fried aubergines.
- Serve it up with the ricotta salata.
- Send a photo to your mum — or to your Italian mum, if you have one.