A Delicious And Deliciously Simple Dish
(Author's Note: After I finished writing this post I came across one of those articles on Buzzfeed wherein millennials vent their spleen about things that bother them. Turns out one of those things is “food bloggers writing their life story before finally getting to the damn recipe.” If you are one of those so offended, I apologize. I'm old and I can't help it if I have a lot of “life story” to tell, so please skip the next three paragraphs.)
My wife and I recently took some new friends to one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Typical of most “Italian” restaurants in America, it serves unrealistically huge portions of the expected Italian-American fare. The difference is the family that owns this place is right out of Napoli. Everybody has dual citizenship and they all make frequent trips back and forth. They are what you might call “real deal” Italian cooks, not just second or third generation Italian-Americans passing down their nonna's recipes. Sadly, they cook what they cook the way they cook it because they have to in order to stay in business. “If I cook like I cook at home,” the owner says, “people would just go to Olive Garden.”
They cook differently for me because, as they often say, I “appreciate the food” and I “get” what they are doing. They know that I know the difference, for example, between perfectly al dente pasta and the overcooked mush they have to serve to satisfy American palates raised on Chef Boyardee. And I don't get portions piled high enough to feed a football team. They don't serve me the same pizza they put out for other customers: I get crust and toppings like they use at home. And they take special care with other dishes, too, adding little extras and authentic touches. Such was the case with the spaghetti aglio e olio I ordered when we took our Olive Garden-loving friends for their first visit to a real Italian restaurant.
When I ordered the aglio e olio, my friend asked me what it was. Thought to have originally developed in Abruzzo, spaghetti aglio e olio is a delicious and deliciously simple dish popular all over Italy. Consisting at its most basic of pasta dressed in a light “sauce” of garlic and olive oil, aglio e olio is often found on Italian restaurant menus in America, my favorite place included. My friend decided to give it a try and I told him he was in for a treat because I knew the kitchen would do it up right for me and my guests. We were not disappointed.
Spaghetti aglio e olio is something you can easily make at home. It's one of those dishes that's perfect when unexpected company drops by or when you just don't feel like fussing with a more elaborate dish. As long as you've got the four basic ingredients – pasta, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino – on hand, you've got a quick, easy meal. In a pinch, you can even do it without the peperoncino – aka dried red pepper flakes.
Here's what you need:
1 lb spaghetti
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 to 1 ½ tsp peperoncino (red pepper flakes), to taste
2 or 3 tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Reserved pasta water, as needed
And here's what you do:
Bring a large pot of aggressively salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook to al dente, usually a minute or two less than the package directions recommend.
As the pasta cooks, in a large frying pan over medium-low heat, heat the oil and gently sauté the garlic until it is barely golden. Do not let it brown or it will taste bitter. Season with salt and pepper. Add red pepper flakes. Remove from the heat and set aside until the pasta is ready.
Drain the pasta when it is barely al dente, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Tip the drained spaghetti into the pan with the oil and garlic mixture, and cook together for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring well to coat with the sauce and to allow the flavors to marry. Add reserved pasta water as needed to further develop the sauce. Garnish with basil and serve at once in warmed serving bowls.
Serves 4 to 6
That's the recipe, now here are the notes.
Don't cheap up on ingredients. The heart and soul of Italian cooking is quality. If you buy cheap ingredients you're going to wind up with a cheap tasting dish. Spring for the De Cecco or Barilla pasta instead of the store brand or the dollar store stuff. There is a difference and you'll taste it. Same goes for the olive oil. Don't use “light” oil and don't use the stuff that comes in clear bottles and sells for five dollars a gallon. Invest in a decent extra-virgin oil and you'll get decent results.
“Aggressively salted” are words to live by when it comes to pasta. Don't drop a pinch of salt into a gallon of water and think you're cooking “healthier.” Pasta needs to absorb salt during cooking. It's the only way pasta has to get any flavor. And whatever salt it doesn't absorb will just pour off down the sink when you drain it. It's not going to go directly to your arteries and turn them to stone.Use at least two or three tablespoons of salt for a gallon of water.
Cook the pasta al dente. This means the outside should be tender but there should still be a little “bite” in the center. Sometimes when you're cooking pasta for a dish with a heavier sauce, you can get by with overcooking it a bit. Not here. This pasta is going to be nearly naked and you won't be able to hide the fact that it's badly cooked.
Chop the garlic as finely as you like it. If you don't mind little chunks, a coarser chop is fine. Otherwise, mince it down.
Peperoncino is an acquired taste for some people. My wife has never acquired it and I have to be careful when sneaking it into the dishes I serve her. It's a fairly important component in this dish, but adjust according to your tolerance for heat. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but doing so will alter the flavor profile.
I like basil in this preparation. Sometimes I add it to the oil to infuse the flavor and sometimes I just garnish with it. Sometimes I do both. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but.......you know the rest.
Finally, as with any pasta dish, it is imperative to finish the pasta in the sauce. Don't try to dump the sauce over the top and stir it in. It won't work and you'll wind up with greasy pasta.
Spaghetti aglio e olio is a bel piatto perfect for any occasion. Try it tonight.