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

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.

The garlic

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.

Rocambole garlic
Rocambole garlic

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.

The parsley

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.

Fried breadcrumbs

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.

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