Italian Sauces V: Aglio e Olio

 That'll work.

That'll work.

Hey everyone!  I'm back after far too long.  But I enjoy cooking and taking and writing about it so much that I had to come back to the blog.  Not gonna leave you hanging.  I hope in the time off, you all have had time to play around with the sauces I've already dealt with.  And actually, these days, the salsa cruda is very nice.

Anyway, to get started slowly, we recommence with a dish whose simplicity is its principle draw.  It's so basic, its name is just a list of ingredients.  Aglio = garlic.  Olio = oil.

For a dish so basic, I can't say there's any compelling history to tell about aglio e olio, or as many Italian-Americans like to call it, "olie-ol."  The Tony Soprano pronunciation comes from the fact that many Italian-Americans hail from the South of Italy, where local dialects, such as Neopolitan, like to shorten and swallow syllables that would be voiced in the national dialect, which comes from Florentine (gabbagol = capicola; muzzadel = mozzarella; etc).  So that's fun, huh?

As to origins of the dish, I can only say that 1) it comes from the South and 2) it is perhaps the best representation of cucina poveraCucina povera is a venerable culinary tradition in Italy, basically meaning "poverty cooking."  There's nothing flashy about cucina povera.  You just use whatever you have in crafty ways to make something filling and delicious.  That's what aglio e olio is all about.  No animal fats here.  Just green olive oil and fresh fragrant garlic.  Indeed, many purists would refuse the addition of grated parmesan cheese.  No need to gild the lily.

So how do we make the most of what we have at our disposal in this dish?  A little creativity and just cunningly using what's sitting in our cabinets already.

Aglio e Olio

  • 1/4 cup fresh, minced garlic + two clove
  • 1/4 cup good-quality extra virgin olive oil + 1 tablespoon
  • 1/4 teaspoon chili flake
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Fresh parsley, parmesan cheese (optional)

Put your pot of water on to boil, but use a little less water than you normally would.  Now, let's get going with the star of the dish:

 *Ad lib vampire joke*

*Ad lib vampire joke*

Go medieval on a whole head of garlic.  Slam it apart.  Use your body weigh.  Slam the knife on the cloves.  Use your nails to tear that skin off.  For all but two cloves, get into a fine mince by rocking the knife up and down through the pile of garlic until it looks like this:

For the remaining two, slice them very thinly and put them aside.

Now we turn up the heat.  Dump your 1/4 of oil into a skillet, and turn the fire up to medium.  Use nice quality olive oil--after all, it is the supporting actor in this whole scenario.  Drop your sliced garlic gloves in first and let them GENTLY cook until they just start to get brown at the edges, about 30 seconds.  DO NOT let them turn totally brown--brown garlic is bitter and I hate it.  Take them out and drain them.

Now, we're going to do a neat trick with our minced garlic.  Part of the beauty of garlic is in the transformation it undergoes as it caramelizes (cf. our roasted garlic alfredo of [too many] months ago).  But if you have roasted garlic, you miss the pungency and heat of fresh garlic, which is also a special thing.  But we can do both.

Drop the spaghetti into your boiling water.  Put 3 tablespoons of the minced garlic into the oil, with the chili flakes.  Turn the heat down a little, to medium-low, and just stir, baby, stir.  Slow and steady, probably 8 minutes.  If you see browning at the edges, turn down the heat some more.  NO BITTER GARLIC.  We want to get the mix sticky and uniformly straw-colored, like this:

 Striking gold.

Striking gold.

We've developed the sugars within the garlic, while mellowing some of the more volatile sulfurous notes.  Now, we're gonna put some volatility back.  Slap the remaining tablespoon back into the mix and turn the heat off.  By this time, your spaghetti is probably done.  Drain it, but save some of the extra-starchy water that we've created by using less water in the first place.  Drop your pasta into your garlicky oil and toss vigorously.  Add a few glugs of starchy water, to being to create an emulsion.  Add the one tablespoon of reserved olive oil, to bring that strong, unadulterated olive flavor back to the party.  Keep stirring until the pasta is shiny and the garlic is well-distributed.

Get a bowl for yourself and serve yourself up a portion.  Now is the time for choosing.  You can be a real purist and tuck in right away, after putting a few of those crunchy, fried slices of garlic on top of your carbo-pile.  Or you can fudge a little with some parm and parsley, which does change the character a little, but there's really no shame in that.

 Can you pull up the smell in your mind's nose?

Can you pull up the smell in your mind's nose?

And that's all folks.  You can eat this as a side with grilled chicken or fish, or all by its lonesome.  It's cucina povera at its best: I mean, the whole dish--for a pound of pasta--costs about $3 or $4.  That's pretty amazing--what else can you get for that price that tastes this good?  It's two ingredients lovingly cared for, and spotlighted in the most generous way.  And at the end of the day, that's what any of us want from life, isn't it?