What's Good?: Pasta Alla Norma & Merlot

What’s Good? by Peter Hoffman inspired me to be more curious about favorite ingredients. I adapted a recipe from the book using oven-roasted Early Girl tomatoes and eggplant and paired it with 3 sustainable Merlots.

The wines and book in this post were provided as media samples. No other compensation was received and all opinions are my own.

A recent read, What’s Good?: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients by Peter Hoffman, has gotten me thinking about the ingredients I use and is encouraging me to be more curious about them. Of course, I regularly try to look into the wines I drink and how they’re made and share those explorations on this blog, so I see many tie-ins there. I also try to regularly buy organic produce and meats and shop at the farmer’s market to support local farmers, but adding an extra element of curiosity can add layers to the experience.

The book is a unique look at the world of food and of the world through food. Over the course of the book, Hoffman not only shares with us his personal story and a look inside his now bygone restaurants Savoy and Back Forty, but also takes us on explorations of our foodways by digging deep into some of his favorite ingredients. He takes us along to tap trees at a maple syrup operation, inside seafood and meat systems, and shows us a view of the world from the point of view of various fruits and vegetables. He also examines the challenges facing those in the food world wanting to support sustainable practices and choose varieties of plants bred for flavor. Along the way, he also shares what the items mean to him and introduces us to some of his favorite producers as well. I love that he shows how interdisciplinary food can be. In short, food geeks have many journeys waiting for them in this read. 

These explorations the book takes inspired me to be more inquisitive about the foods I buy, and I thought I’d start by taking a closer look at one item I’ve been regularly buying to get to know it better.

Early Girls

In one chapter of the book, Hoffman shares his love for Canestrino tomatoes, an heirloom variety he loves for their density and exceptional flavor. While they’re a hybrid and not an heirloom variety, I have been bringing home pounds and pounds of Early Girl tomatoes every week from the farmer’s market these past few weeks, as seems to be the case at certain times of the year the last few years. You might notice that it’s nearly November right now, which might lead you to say “Really, tomatoes? Right now?” Well, I am in California, and here in the Bay Area it does tend to stay warm until late in the fall, and with global warming, that seems to get further extended every year. So yeah, there are tons of tomatoes at the market right now.

Early Girls tend to be round and range from golf ball to tennis ball sizes (although I generally find more of the former. They’re like little bright red globes. They’re juicy, sweet, and have a good concentration of flavor. They’re a dependable variety that ripens early and they continue to ripen and set fruit throughout the season, probably one of the reasons I’m seeing so many of them late into the fall. I learned that this characteristic of growing new fruit throughout the season makes them an “indeterminate” variety of tomato, which yields a slow and steady supply, rather than one big harvest. It can withstand large temperature shifts, and they do particularly well when dry-farmed (the ones I buy are dry-farmed) which forces these vines to develop deeper roots and produces more concentrated flavors –– much like with wine grapes! This attribute makes them particularly attractive for areas like California that are experiencing more and more drought conditions. We’re definitely water-conscious around here.

This variety was brought to the US in the 1970s by horticulturalist Joe Howland. He discovered this tasty, early-season variety developed in France. He served as chairman of Pan American Seed Company and on the board of directors for PetoSeed Company, and he secured the rights to sell the seed in the US, nicknaming it the “Early Girl.” Some modifications have been made by US seed breeders, and the tomato has been gaining in popularity ever since. So while not an heirloom, this tomato has a lot to recommend it from sustainability, economic, and flavor standpoints, with many people finding the flavor to be on par or even surpassing that of some beloved heirloom varieties. These gals are winners on many levels.

They’re also super versatile. These tomatoes are considered slicing tomatoes, so they’re great on salads and in sandwiches. However, because they’re juicy and sweet, I really like to roast them, which further concentrates the flavor and makes them jammy or slightly candied and oven-dried depending how long you let them go. They’re great like that to use as a topping, or I then use them for sauces and soup. I’ve been buying up tons of these, roasting them, and will be storing them in the freezer to use during the winter.

In the book, Hoffman combines the Canestrinos with eggplant for Pasta all a Norma, and I thought these would be perfect in that dish. I switched up the techniques slightly from the recipe he shared by roasting both the eggplant and tomatoes. This creates a few more dishes, but means you don’t have to stand by the stove for as long, and seems appropriate during this time period here that is half summer and half fall. It worked out beautifully and we got a delicious and hearty vegetarian dish where we didn’t miss the meat for a second.

The Wines: A Trio of Merlot

As it’s #MerlotMe month, I have quite a few bottles of Merlot about and the plummy red fruit flavors and moderate tannins of many make this variety a good candidate to pair with a dish like this. However, this pasta has a couple of wild card elements. First, tomatoes can be tricky to pair at times because they’re high in acid which can flatten the flavors of wine that’s less acidic. However, eggplant is pretty low in acid and can mitigate the effect. The bigger variable is the spiciness of the chile peppers in the sauce, which can also cause pairing problems. The fruitiness of New World Merlots stand a good chance of mitigating the heat, but of course, individual cuvées will vary. We had 3 bottles that I received as samples to play against to see what worked. All three are made sustainably, which only seems appropriate to pair with a recipe inspired by a book that deals so closely with issues of sustainability.  

Matanzas Creek Merlot Alexander Valley 2018

Blend: Merlot | ABV: 13.8% |  Price: $40

Matanzas Creek was founded in 1977 on the site of a retired dairy farm in the Bennett Valley region of Sonoma County. All of the winery’s fruit is sustainably grown, certified under the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. They focus primarily on Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, although they do also make some limited quantities of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux-style reds. In addition, to their grapes, they also have fields of lavender gardens. Matanzas Creek is a part of the Jackson Family portfolio of wines. 

Winemaking: The grapes for this wine were picked sourced from 14 blocks in mountains and benchland areas. (86% from Alexander Valley, 14% Bennett Valley) The wine was cold-soaked for five days and then fermented on skins for an average of 15 days. Élevage occurred over 533 Days in 32% new French oak. Additional information can be found here.

Tasting Notes: Aromas of black cherry, red plum, and black tea hit on the nose and then continue on the palate, along with flavors of sour cherry, a touch of chocolate, a little bit of pencil led, and cinnamon. The wine had medium+ body with moderate, smooth tannins, and plenty of brightness. 

How it Worked: This was our favorite of the three wines with the Pasta alla Norma. It was the most red fruited of the three, which matched nicely with the flavors in the food, and it had the most moderate tannins and the medium body worked well with the weight of the dish. It also worked the best with the spiciness in the sauce, and it become more savory and more peppery in the pairing. 


Seavey Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley 2018

Blend:  Merlot |  ABV: 14.5%  | Price: $65 

Seavey Vineyard’s history goes back to the 1870s when it was commonly known as the Franco-Swiss Farming Company. After about thirty years of producing great wines, the dual punches of a phylloxera infestation and Prohibition led the company to fold. The land was used to raise cattle and for growing grains for the next half-century until Bill and Mary Seavey acquired the land in 1979 and began to revive the original vineyards. Vines are planted on steep, rocky, south-facing hillsides in Conn Valley near Lake Hennessey. They only produce estate wines from their 40 planted acres. The grapes are farmed sustainably, certified under Napa Green as well as by Fish Friendly Farming. You can find more information on their sustainability practices here.

Winemaking: Grapes from each vineyard block were harvested and vinified separately. Grapes were harvested in the morning and promptly de-stemmed and the uncrushed berries were gently transferred into fermentation tanks to carefully manage the tannins and resulting wine texture. Following whole-berry fermentation, the wine was aged in 100% French oak barrels (35% new) for 20 months before bottling in June 2020. Additional information can be found here

Tasting Notes: This wine showed darker fruit notes, with black plums, blackberry, and cherry on the nose. Chocolate, a touch of iron, and licorice joined in on the palate and led into a savory finish. The wine was a touch more structured than the last, and had a fuller body and showed a little more grip on the finish, and still had plenty of acidity. 

How it Worked: This was our next favorite with the food. The tannins and fuller body competed a little bit with the weight and spice of the dish, but in general, it made a very good match. 


L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley 2018

Blend:  84% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon | ABV: 14.5%|  Price: $36

L’Ecole No. 41 has made several appearances on the blog before. They’re a third-generation family-owned winery and the third oldest winery in Walla Walla Valley. The winery gets its name from the historic Frenchtown School building in which the winery is located. Marty Clubb is L’Ecole N° 41’s Managing Winemaker and co-owns the winery with his wife Megan. Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, founded the winery in 1983. L’Ecole has been at the forefront of leading the way on sustainability in Washington. They are certified by VINEA as well as Salmon-Safe. You can find more info on their sustainability and farming practices here.

Winemaking: The grapes for this wine come from the winery’s estate vineyards in Walla Wallas, split evenly between their Ferguson Vineyard with fractured basalt soils, and their Seven Hills Vineyard with wind-blown loess soils. Each lot was hand-harvested and gently crushed into 1.5 ton stainless steel fermenters. Then the wine was cleanly racked to small French oak barrels, 35% new, with four rackings over 18 months. Additional information can be found here

Tasting Note: This wine showed notes of dark cherry, black plum black tea, and savory herbs. Notes of black pepper, cedar, and charcoal join in on the palate. This was the most structured of the three wines, with the darkest flavor profile, due in part to the blend in the wine, and likely from volcanic soils, the grapes were grown in adding to the smoky impressions. 

How it Worked: While it didn’t make for a bad pairing, this is a wine that wants a meatier, richer pairing. The tannins and flavors competed a bit with the spice in the dish and just felt a little heavy alongside it. Have this with a peppery steak or a braised meat dish. We also enjoyed the rest of the bottle with a big juicy burger, and that was a hit!



pasta, vegetarian, tomatoes, eggplant
Servings: 4-6
Adapted by: Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Pasta alla Norma (Oven-roasted Variation)

Pasta alla Norma (Oven-Roasted Variation)

Prep Time: 20 MinCooking Time: 60 MinTotal Time: 1 H & 19 M
This recipe was adapted from the recipe in What's Good? by Peter Hoffman.


  • 2 Japanese eggplants (each about 9 inches/20 to 25 cm long) sliced into ½-inch/12 mm rings (If rings are large, slice in half or in quarters)
  • 1 to 1.5 lbs (454 to 567 g) of tomatoes, sliced in half or quartered (Early Girls were used here, Canestrinos recommended in the original recipe)
  • 3 dried chile peppers, such as guajillo, Thai, or arbol chiles, chopped up (If you desire a less spicy sauce, remove the seeds before breaking up the chiles.)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • ½ cup loosely packed basil, roughly chopped
  • 1-16 oz (455g) package of dried pasta of your choosing
  • 4 ounces, ricotta salata
  • Olive oil
  • Salt, as needed
  • Pepper, as needed


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Generously coat the bottom of two large roasting pans (or sheet pans with a rim) with olive oil. Place the eggplant slices and the tomatoes on the pans in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. (In this version roasted the eggplant and tomatoes separately, but it should be fine to combine them, but the eggplant will likely not brown as much.) Place the pans in the oven and roast for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the vegetables have begun to brown, flipping them halfway through. Remove the pans from the oven and set them aside.
  3. Lightly toast the chiles and garlic in more oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the tomatoes, eggplant, and most of the basil (reserving some to use a garnish) and stew for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the vegetables have softened further, the flavors have melded, and excess liquid has cooked off, and a sauce consistency is achieved.
  4. Meanwhile, set up a pot of salted boiling water for the pasta. Cook the pasta to al dente, drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
  5. Add the pasta into the pan with the sauce and toss well to combine. Add some of the reserved cooking liquid as needed, a little at a time, to achieve your desired sauce consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Garnish with the remaining basil leaves and grate or crumble to ricotta salata on top.
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