Pasta all’aglio e olio – an Italian’s idea of hot buttered toast!
“….by making a quick, simple, unassuming dish, spaghetti aglio e oglio, which will be either delicious or disappointing, depending on the quality of the ingredients and the care taken to respectfully follow the cooking steps.”Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning, Philosphy And Practice
Continuing my fascination with scratch cooking, and in a bid to encourage new starters to stick with it, I’ve been looking into quick options. Pasta all’aglio e olio is the Italian concept of an instant meal… just as instant (pretty much) as pot noodles, but a whole heap nicer. This is a dish which is more than the sum of its parts. If you use the right ingredients you can get away with very little time and effort.
It’s not just the noble aim of persuading the non-cook to take up the chef’s knives, and stick with them, as it were. The aglio e olio is the seducer’s friend. Mimi Sheraton, in her Seducer’s Cookbook, explains that a man who is au fait with this quick, emergency dish, can leap to the rescue of a maiden who has produced a meal that’s a disaster.
“Funny thing was, this man was so swept away by his own masculine ability that he proposed that very night out of sheer self-satisfaction.”
No need to serve this pasta with anything – it’s an end unto itself.
The pasta can be spaghetti (in the Ufita Valley, see Garlic, below, they use spaghetti alla chitarra), or vermicelli, or even linguine according to purists.
Avoid the tight, white, mass produced garlic from China.
Rocambole garlic is a big-flavoured, beautiful looking, purple streaked variety. It contains lots of allicin, a thioester of sulfenic acid and the substance which gives garlic a hot, chilli-like burning taste. To retain this heat, don’t crush the garlic. If there are any green shoots, slice the clove in half from the top, and remove them – they will come out easily.
Another wonderful garlic comes from the Ufita Valley, in the province of Avellino. It has a violet red skin and an intense and spicy flavour and aroma, also due to lots of allicin.
One fat clove per two people should be enough. If the garlic has a green ‘soul’ remove that.
The most important thing is to watch and smell it like a hawk, and make sure it doesn’t start to burn, because then you will have ruined everything! It will be acrid and tough, and there is no remedy for it. You want it just lightly tanned – not turning brown. And the moment you suddenly begin to smell the garlic you know you need to take it off the heat immediately.
And the olive oil?
The olive oil needs to be strong (peppery?), and extra virgin, naturally. Add all of it cold, or warm only half of it – above 90°C the oil begins to lose its taste. Cima di Mola, if you can get it, with its slight tang of bitterness, would be superb.
It should be Italian, flat-leaved, and fresh! And there should be lots of it.
The chilli element
Traditionalists would use fresh chilli, but personally I think this overpowers everything – even the strong taste of the olive oil, the garlic, and, of course, any robust red wine you happen to be enjoying. Instead I use some Urfa chilli flakes.
Massimo Bottura’s way of doing these could not be simpler. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil with a couple of tbsps. of breadcrumbs, and fry gently for four or five minutes. Drain on paper towel. If you like, you can add crushed garlic (not for this dish, but for many other pasta dishes), rosemary or thyme, chilli flakes, Parmesan.
Pasta all’aglio e olio
Serves – 4
- 400g/14 oz spaghetti
- 6-8 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil – https://oliointini.it/en/product/cima-di-mola/
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 bunch of fresh parsley
- Some Urfa pepper flakes or 2 fresh green chillies
- salt – to put in the pasta water
- fried breadcrumbs (optional) – see Massimo Bottura’s method, above
- Heat a big saucepan of water with plenty of salt, and bring it to the boil. Add the pasta.
- Peel the garlic, cut it vertically, cut out its green ‘soul’, then chop finely horizontally across.
- If you really must use fresh chillies, cut them vertically, remove the seeds, then cut across in thin slices. Add to the oil before you add the garlic.
- Pour half the olive oil into a deep frying pan and add the garlic… heat gently. Just as the garlic is turning golden, add the chopped chilli in a different side of the pan – keep them separate. Continue to cook gently for about a minute.
- Take the garlic out of the pan and discard – or, if you like garlic, and you don’t like waste, leave it in. Take the pan off the heat.
- When the pasta is just al dente, drain it, retaining a ladle of the cooking water. Put the frying pan back on the gentle heat, and add the drained pasta and the rest of the olive oil. Stir. Add the ladle of pasta water. Stir again. Snip over most of the parsley including the tenderer stems. Stir again.
- Serve, with the rest of the parsley snipped over and any toasted breadcrumbs you have decided to use.