We recently celebrated Spaghetti Day here at Fabulous Foodie. Deborah’s fabulous post about the various forms of- and sauces for- spaghetti got me to thinking about what a large part spaghetti has played in my culinary life.
I remember being a child watching my dad make his spaghetti Bolognese sauce, and how – though it’s certainly my own sauce now – mine is based on his. Yes, I know that sauce is actually called a ragu, and that in Italy it’s never served with spaghetti (except perhaps resignedly to tourists) because spaghetti is the wrong shape and texture to properly hold the sauce, but like everyone who didn’t grow up in Italy, that’s the way I first ate it. And it’s still how I prefer to eat it to this day.
As a teen, I learned how to eat spaghetti properly, instead of cutting it into childishly spoon-able lengths; how you gather a few strands on the tines of your fork, and twirl the fork against the side of the bowl or a spoon until they’re neatly twined around your fork. And how it’s actually okay to slurp a bit , just to get those few recalcitrant straggly ends into your mouth. (At least it is in my house.)
Then I remember how I learned to cook spaghetti (and all pasta) properly:
- in lots of well-salted water at a roiling boil;
- giving it frequent stirs;
- learning not to test if it was done by throwing a strand against a wall;
- always checking the pasta a minute before the time on the packet, if not two;
I also learned that adding oil to the water does absolutely nothing for the pasta – except preventing the water from boiling over in the pot. Something which can also be prevented by simply placing a wooden spoon across the pot, if that is a particular concern of yours.
I certainly made mistakes along the way, such as:
- the time I turned fresh spaghetti into instant mush comes to mind.
- the time I was cooking spag bol for friends from college and – having evidently misunderstood some recently gleaned tip – I rinsed the the pasta in cold water after cooking. I then presented my diners with a nice warm sauce on ice cold pasta. It was not a pleasant dining experience for any of us.
- the times when both my cupboard and my wallet have been empty enough that dinner has been just a bowl of spaghetti slicked with a pat of butter or (shudders) margarine, with some garlic salt and maybe a dash of Lea & Perrins if I happened to have any in the cupboard. Those dinners were naked spaghetti dinners, and not in a good way.
And then I discovered Spaghetti Aglio Olio E Pepperoncino. This is one of those classic examples of culinary alchemy that could only have come from Italy. I discovered it one night at an Italian restaurant when I was fearful of splashing any sauce onto my clothes before an evening of dance, drinks, and hopefully seduction. It was delicious, surprisingly light, and all I needed was a stick of gum to re-fragrance my breath before I went on my disco way.
The dish is simplicity itself. While your spaghetti is boiling, you simply pour a few generous glugs of olive oil into a frying pan with a couple of minced cloves of garlic and as many chili flakes as you can brave, and let it all come to a sizzle over a medium-low heat. By the time your spaghetti is al dente, the pan of olive oil should be lovely and fragrant, and all you need do is toss the drained spaghetti through the oil, chucking in some parsley or Parmesan (or both) if you like, though it’s perfectly delicious without either. The only real catch is getting the garlic to that mellow fragrant state without burning it. The method I follow is to add the garlic to the oil and giving it a healthy pinch of salt before turning on the heat.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio E Pepperoncino isn’t just a fast and delicious solitary meal. With some diced, de-seeded tomato tossed in with the parsley and Parmesan, it’s a surprisingly sexy lunch or dinner for two; a meal that comes together without you having appeared to really do anything. You haven’t been opening cans, or reducing stocks, or clattering trough your spice cupboard. There’s just been a moment or two of chopping followed by a stir of the pasta now and then as you keep a calm yet wary eye on your olive oil and garlic. All that flavor seems to have sprung from thin air.
Simple as it is, Spaghetti Aglio Olio E Pepperoncino packs a massive flavor punch, and is also one of those dishes that makes you seem like a terribly accomplished cook, even if you aren’t. So it’s no surprise that once I discovered and mastered it, I’ve never looked back. I’ve never seen a spaghetti dinner as a sadly naked dinner again. This dish is now one of my most used standbys. It makes for an incredibly quick solitary supper when pasta is what I want, but I can’t be bothered to make a sauce. Because what you’re making with this dish is most certainly not a sauce, but a dressing. You’re dressing your pasta almost as if it were a warm pasta salad.
It’s that notion of the oil and garlic and chili being a dressing, not a sauce, that I love so much. That’s because it not makes this a lovely spaghetti dish in itself, but it also leaves you an almost endless variety of places to go with it. If you don’t fancy that chili hit, just leave it out, at which point- strictly speaking- it becomes Spaghetti Aglio Olio. Personally, I find that even just a touch of chili makes it brighter and somehow lighter, but from time to time I’ve found myself in a more mellow, purely garlicky mood.
And, more importantly, it’s not just about what you can leave out, but also what you can add in. I’m constantly adding and tweaking from this base of just spaghetti, olive oil, garlic and chili, depending on my mood, the weather, and what I’ve got to hand.
Here are just a few examples of the ways I’ve dressed spaghetti for a fast and delicious dinner:
- Think that classic Caprese salad, and add halved cherry tomatoes, torn basil leaves and little chunks of mozzarella with the spaghetti!
- Add some grated lemon zest to the garlic and chili, then throw in some cooked prawns, or crab meat, or even canned tuna!
- Deconstruct a pesto, and add pine nuts, basil, and Parmesan shavings!
- Veg it up with crunchy snow peas, diced red or green peppers and chunks of cooked asparagus! (this is a brilliant way to use up leftover veggies)
- Up the protein factor with shredded cooked chicken, ham, or even chorizo, or a mix of meat and veg!
- If you’re into wholewheat spaghetti, and walnuts, cooked broccoli and little chunks of dolcelatte – or whatever blue cheese you like!
Throw in any combination of the above, or whatever takes your fancy! This dinner is for you! You don’t have to play by strict rules and dress it in Italian National costume. I just urge you to try making Spaghetti Aglio Olio E Pepperoncino. You’ll never think of spaghetti as naked again.