One of my favourite things in the world to do is make pasta. When I am happy and relaxed (or sad and stressed), I make pasta. I stand at my kitchen bench, pour a mound of flour on to my pasta board, tip in egg, water or a combination, and work my fork into the mound, until a mass of dough starts to form. So this happens a lot at my home; most of my friends and family have seen me in this stance, at the kitchen bench wearing an apron (sometimes with a glass of wine in one hand) working pasta dough. More often than not I make pasta without eggs. There are a few reasons for that: eggs are messy; egg pasta is more of a special occasion pasta; I love the texture of pasta made with flour and water more than pasta made with eggs. I may be a Northern Italian genetically but in pasta at least, my taste buds are embedded firmly in the South.
What I love about egg-free pasta is the texture; it is dense, chewy, filling and frankly delicious. It is made with semolina, the protein-rich heart of durum wheat, that has been finely milled, so it is a semolina flour. You have probably eaten this type of pasta before, think orecchiette or cavatelli. One of the best things about making this type of pasta is how little equipment you need: a wooden board or wooden bench top, a fork and a rolling pin. There is not a pasta machine in sight. Other tools depend on the shape you would like to make; for orecchiette you need a butter knife, for cavatelli a gnocchi board (or just your thumb if you don’t want the cavatelli to have lines on them) or in the case of fusilli, a narrow wooden skewer will do. Today I made fusilli, quite short ones, about 3 fingers in length. It was quite a therapeutic exercise, rolling the short thin sausages of dough in the diagonal to form ringlet-like pasta.
This type of dense pasta suits robust sauces with strong flavours and lashings of olive oil, rather than creamy sauces or a rich slow-cooked meaty ragù. Eggplant, sausage, peas or leafy greens work really well, as do tomatoes. My favourite sauce to have with fusilli al ferro (called so because they are traditionally made with a “ferro” or a metal knitting needle) is an eggplant, tomato and basil sauce that is called “Norma”.
Yes the sauce has the name of the woman, but it is not just any woman, it is Bellini’s Norma (that is, an opera). The sauce is originally Sicilian and traditionally the eggplant is fried and then tossed in the sauce. I prefer not to fry the eggplant cubes. I toss them in olive oil and then pop them in the oven, for about 30 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft and cooked through; a less messy and equally tasty alternative to frying. I salt the eggplant cubes and place them on a drainage rack for the bitter liquid to come out of them before cooking, but many people don’t (so I leave the choice to you). After about an hour I rinse the eggplant and then pat it dry. You could make the dish vegan by not serving it with cheese. You can also use store-bought fusilli, though if you do, try to find those that are labelled “al ferretto” or “al ferro”. Buon appetito!
fusilli alla norma
to make the pasta:
400g superfine semolina, plus extra for dusting
210-240g water (approximately)
for the sauce:
2 large eggplants, cut into 2cm dice
1 and 1/2 tins good quality tomatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp chilli flakes (or to taste)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
6 stalks fresh basil
grated parmigiano reggiano, grana padano or aged pecorino to serve
Place a mound of semolina on your work-surface. Make a well in the centre and add a couple of tablespoons of water to the well, using your fingertips to incorporate it into the semolina. Once incorporated, add a few more tablespoons of water, and incorporate that. Repeat until you have used up all the water. Adjust with a bit of water or semolina as needed, kneading for a couple of minutes until you have a fairly smooth but firm elastic dough. Wrap and allow to rest for at least an hour on the bench-top.
While the pasta is resting, make the sauce. Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the eggplant pieces on an oven tray and toss in half the olive oil and scatter on salt to taste. Bake for 20-30 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
While the eggplant is cooking, you can make the pasta. Divide into 4 and keep the part you are not working with covered. Break off a small piece of dough and roll into a thin snake like shape, then cut into portions as wide as three or four finger tips. Make sure your narrow wooden skewer has some semolina flour on it; now roll each section along the skewer on the diagonal so it forms a twist. See this video to help you out. As you make the fusilli, scatter on extra semolina to prevent them from sticking together and cover with a thin cloth, ideally one that lets them dry out a bit but not too much, while you make the others.
Getting back to the sauce….add the remaining olive oil to a large frypan on medium and add the garlic and chilli flakes (if using). Cook until fragrant (do not allow it to colour) then add the tomatoes, 4 basil stalks and leaves. Once it comes to a simmer, reduce the heat and cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until nice and thick. While the pasta is cooking (see below), add the cooked eggplant pieces and stir until warmed through. remove the basil stalks before serving.
Boil salted water in a large pot and cook the pasta until just before it is cooked to your liking. Drain, reserving a bit of cooking water to one side. Toss the cooked pasta into the sauce, and cook for another minute, spooning in some of the reserved water to thicken the sauce.
Scatter on grated cheese and remaining picked basil leaves to serve. You can also drizzle on extra olive oil.