Anyone who loves to cook has pinnacle moments in their food life when they learn something they had not known before, and the knowledge sheds this voluminous light on their past, present and future kitchen life.
“You gotta be kidding,” were my first words when I was served this dish, a bowl of blond noodles glistening with oil and covered by the driest Italian-style cheese, either Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. When I first tasted this, I had not yet visited (much less lived in) Italy–and had not yet received the good Italian news of simplicity. Obviously, I had not tasted a strand, because if I had tasted a strand I would have been hushed by that first beautiful bite. I would have been diving into the bowl, because this dish is so good.
This is one of those dishes that changed my life because its simplicity taught me that good food needn’t be complicated. Before this dish I served, almost uniformly, kitchen sink pastas filled with too many ingredients.
Not that there is anything wrong with those pasta dishes, and in fact, they have their place. What I loved, however, about this dish was that I realized that if you serve pristine ingredients in their brightest, not overly manipulated light, you didn’t need the chicken and the garbanzo beans and the two kinds of cheese.
What was paramount about this dish was that I suddenly saw the pasta itself. I learned then, and there how to add a proper amount of salt to the pasta water (think sea water, yes, that salty…)
The pasta in this dish was served so al dente, or too the tooth, that I stopped overcooking my pasta. (When I lived with an Italian, he had the job of testing the doneness of the noodle.) I know American appetites are for a softer noodle but you would not believe how al dente the Italians consume their pasta!
What is amazing about simple pastas is that this is so doable.
At the bottom of the recipe there is a list of optional ideas to embellish, if you will, a dish that actually needs little embellishment.
However—and I own this contradiction, I am including pictures of embellishments that add to the experience of the pasta and maintain their Italian origins. The other thing I learned in Italy is to how to make this style of oil-based pasta dish while including a ripe, seasonal ingredient, like zucchini, mushrooms, or baby broccoli. Yes, you make the pasta as the recipe says but then at the last minute before serving you add your extra, seasonally fresh and ripe, ingredient.
Okay, to return to my original intention here is the dish is as bare as is almost possible, and that is why the proper techniques are important. If you do not salt the water adequately, the spaghetti tastes bland. If you do not be careful, the garlic burns and turns acrid and spoils the balance in your dish.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio, or Spaghetti with Garlic and Olive Oil
Serves 4 large eaters, or 6 side portions….
1 lb spaghetti, durum wheat or your favorite gluten free variety…(I am currently enjoying Pasta Joy Brand Brown Rice Pasta)….
Salt for your cooking water, as I said before you want your water nearly sea water salty. This means that there will be it
4 oz, or 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more if you enjoy a tinge of lip burning…
Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, your preference, grated on the finest setting. There are many differences between the two cheeses, but the primary difference in taste is salt. Pecorino is much saltier, while Parmesan has a deeper, drier flavor with a little more complexity. However, they are both very good on pasta. Pecorino tends to be less expensive, because it is not as aged.
Sauté the garlic in a skillet with oil and peperoncino until golden brown. You may remove the browned garlic, if desired.
Boil your spaghetti in salted water in a generous amount of water. I use a 1.5 gallon pot per pound of pasta and though it seems it should be plenty amount of water, I still hang around to help the strands stay away from the sides of the pot. Cook al dente, or to desired doneness. Mix cooked spaghetti briskly in the same skillet, and add a generous tablespoon of finely chopped parsley, if you like. Toss and serve.
As important as anything is adding the proper amount of salt to the cooking water. As me about this and you will be surprised.
Note- Your gluten free pasta, of course, will not act like wheat. It does not cook to that same al dente finish where the noodle has that satisfying feel on the teeth. However, I cook this product almost done, and I still find when its sauced and dressed that the difference is slight. An Italian would know, and I know, but the compromises I make by including gluten free products whenever I can is that my daughter feels included in dinner. Someday, I do make two varieties of pasta, though.
Roasted Garlic Cloves…..you can do this yourself or purchase a product from your local deli case, as I expediently did. (A roasting garlic recipe to come…)
Cherry tomatoes (about 2 cups)
Cherry tomatoes, halved, and seasoned accordingly. (You may include basil…) Cut your tomatoes. I would serve them raw over the cooked pasta, but if it’s fall or winter outside and you want an entirely warm dish, you can briefly cook your tomatoes. Heat up a large, 10 inch, skillet with one tablespoons of olive oil. Let the skillet really heat so that when you add your tomatoes, they sizzle and shrink in a minute or so. Add salt and pepper to taste, or shredded basil. Throw these over the top of your plated pasta.
Pan-Braised Chanterelle Mushrooms
Two handfuls of your favorite mushrooms, in this case we are using chanterelles, with salt, olive oil, garlic and drop of lemon juice.
Clean your mushrooms of dirt and earth debris. You may use a brush or towel to do this. Some people do a quick water rinse but since mushrooms are sponge-like ingredients, I don’t really recommend this.
Anyway, once you have clean mushrooms heat a medium non-stick skillet over high heat with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil. Add your one smashed garlic clove, and heat for 20 seconds, and then add your two handfuls of mushrooms. Stay at the stove and toss them around in the pan so that all sides get a nice even heat, and add salt to taste (salt makes mushrooms taste more like mushrooms—seriously) and if you have this, a squeeze of lemon juice. Lemon juice, an acid, also supports the mushrooms in tasting more delicious somehow. But be careful, it’s just a few drops–you shouldn’t actually taste the lemon juice. The lemon juice operates on an understudy level (much like an actor) to intensify your mushroom flavor, to kick it up a degree into true mushroom deliciousness.