Recipe Review: Pasta alla Norma from Cook's Illustrated

We knew immediately upon opening the July/August issue of Cook's Illustrated that we would have to make this dish. We're recent converts to the clan of eggplant-lovers, and the description of caramelized eggplant and silky tomato sauce sounded too good to resist!
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The article says that some of the problems with this eggplant pasta dish is that it can be labor-intensive to prepare and the resulting sauce can be oily and overwhelming. Part of their solution is to microwave the eggplant cubes to dry them out before sautéing, thereby eliminating the need for salting (which they said was time-consuming) and frying (which made the sauce greasy). They also kept the other ingredients simple so the eggplant could really shine through.

We encountered our first problem with the microwaving step. The instructions assume that all your eggplant will fit on a single large plate, but looking at our bowl of salted cubes, we knew we'd have to do it in multiple batches. This meant that a simple 10-minute step turned into a 30-minute production. Not the best beginning.

Admittedly, we didn't weigh our eggplant before buying it (and our home scale is currently packed away), so it's possible that our eggplant was larger than the 1 1/2 pounds called for in the recipe. But globe eggplants are fairly uniform in size and we picked the most average one we could find, so we can't imagine we were that far off. We'll check next time we're at the store.

In any case, an abundance of eggplant was really the least of our worries. The recipes says to cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes (which we did our best to follow) and then microwave them on high until the cubes are "dry to the touch and slightly shriveled." Our problem was that when they were slightly shriveled, they still felt very wet to us - but by the time they were dry to the touch, they had collapsed down to the size of dried peas. We hedged our bets with the subsequent batches and aimed for "still damp, but slightly shriveled."

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Eggplant cubes before microwaving and after.
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All the eggplant after microwaving and sautéing - equal to about a cup

Even so, by the time we were done microwaving and then sautéing in olive oil, our four full plates of eggplant had shrunk down to about a cup. We kept re-reading the recipe at this point and couldn't find anything obvious that we'd done wrong, so we assumed this was intended. Still, we were starting to have doubts about our dinner.

The rest of the cooking went fairly smoothly. You use a can of crushed tomatoes to make the base of the sauce, stir the eggplant back in, and simmer for a few minutes so the flavors can mingle. The cooked pasta is tossed in the sauce and you serve the dish with a sprinkle of ricotta salata over the top.

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Our final verdict was that the sauce was decent, even good, but it was definitely more of a tomato sauce than an eggplant sauce. We thought the flavor of the eggplant got completely masked by the tomatoes and the texture was lost in the chewy pasta. It wasn't quite the silky eggplant pasta sauce that we'd imagined.

In retrospect, we think the biggest problem was cutting the eggplant into such small pieces. If we make this again, we'll aim for 1-inch cubes, which will hopefully hold their own a little better during the microwaving step and also when mixed into the sauce.

Has anyone else made - or is planning on making - this recipe? We'd be curious to hear other results!

• This recipe for Pasta alla Norma was published in the July/August 2009 issue of Cook's Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, head on over to their website!

Related: Good Question: Why Is My Roasted Eggplant Bitter?

(Images: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)

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