It’s a classic dish, Spaghetti alla Norma. Yet too often I’ve had versions which are bland, with aubergine undercooked, and rubbery. Vile.
I encountered Italian food as a child. One of Kenya’s hidden secrets is its long-standing Italian population, resident there since the 1920’s – some fleeing Mussolini’s fascism, others a legacy of Italian misadventures in Somalia, and Ethiopia. As a result, Italian food of a high standard is routinely available there. Coupled with Kenya’s extraordinary fertility and glorious sunshine, the ingredients for Spaghetti alla Norma as I knew it are anything but bland.
What a shock it was visiting Britain in the late 1970’s to find a bastardised version of Italian food. Everything was smothered in bland, gloopy, floury sauces. Yuk. I couldn’t bear the insult that passed for food in Britain at that time. I’m still shocked when I encounter the same today. That’s why I learned to cook. I refused to perpetuate the insult, as much to a noble tradition of cooking, as to my palate.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Spaghetti alla Norma is my equivalent of nursery food – something which evokes memories of happy times in childhood, when the sun always shone.
Here’s how I make Spaghetti alla Norma for two …
Cut one aubergine into even sized pieces, salt and set aside in a colander for 30 minutes or so. Once the 30 minutes are up, squeeze the aubergine and get rid of any excess water.
Dice a carrot and a stick of celery finely.
Into a large flat plan, add lots of olive oil and spread the aubergine evenly. Cook it till golden, then flip it over and do the same on the other side – basically, you cook each side for around 4 minutes. Now, add the carrot and celery too and if you need it, some more olive oil. Cover with a lid, turn the heat down. Let it cook gently till soft.
Then, take the stalks of basil, and chop finely – you’ll add the leaves later. Ditto with four cloves of garlic. Add to the veg that’s cooking down, along with a teaspoon of dried oregano, and one of chilli flakes. Add about 15 twists of black pepper. Stir, cover and let those flavours blend for 5 minutes or so. Revisit the pan and turn the veg, you don’t want anything to burn.
Finely chop around 5 or 6 medium to large tomatoes (or just open a tin of tomatoes). Add to the veg, stir and deglaze the pan. I usually also add a good squeeze of tomato paste (around a tablespoon), stir it in well. Then, add a tablespoon of capers and a teaspoon of red wine vinegar. At this point I add my secret weapon … Pecorino. Finely grate around a quarter of one of those ‘triangles’ you usually buy it in and add half to the Spaghetti alla Norma – you’ll use the other half to dress the dish as you serve it.
Stir, cover loosely to allow steam to escape and simmer on low for 5 minutes. Your aim now is to let this naturally cook off any excess moisture. You should start to see the oil separating well from the aubergine by now, and the whole sauce assuming a lovely, unctuous consistency with a fab glossy finish.
Now – get your Spaghetti on. I prefer using wholewheat spaghetti as it has a nice bite to it. This usually cooks in around 7 minutes. If you need to, add a couple of table spoons of the Spaghetti water to the ‘Norma’ sauce to slacken it, and make sure you now dress the sauce with the remaining fresh basil, chopped roughly.
Drain the spaghetti thoroughly and chuck it into the sauce, turn a few times to make sure the Spaghetti is coated well, and serve dressed with the remainder of the Pecorino.
This Spaghetti alla Norma is packed with unapologetic flavour. It’s nursery food for grown-ups with soul.