November 8, 2017
How many Italian pasta sauces can you think of that do not include olive oil and garlic?
Precious few, I would guess!
This dish, classically Roman, elevates those two ingredients to center stage. You cannot hide bad olive oil or poorly cooked garlic in this dish. There are very few other flavors.
But simplicity has its virtues. It’s really hard to go wrong with this dish unless you use bad olive oil or not-so-stellar cheese or you burn the garlic.
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You can make a case for cooking the garlic for a whole range of times, from mere seconds up until it is dark brown. For many years I even cooked three different batches of garlic, one until brown, one until golden, and one until just fragrant. There is an interesting depth of flavor from doing so but it’s not the classic technique.
My point is, unless you burn the garlic and make it bitter, you won’t ruin the dish. You may prefer the flavor of the garlic when it is more or less brown but that’s just a preference not an absolute.
My recipe diverges from the classic Roman recipe in two places.
While making dinner, I’m usually chatting…with my in-laws (on most nights), with my husband (when he’s not away on business), or with guests. While I know I can time everything to be ready at exactly the right moment, I ask, why stress about it? So, yes, I can time the sautéing of the garlic to be just right when the pasta is ready but there’s an easier way.
I get the garlic to exactly the spot I want and then stop the cooking by taking the pan off the heat and adding a splash of wine (or water, if you must). That’s not classically Roman but it sure makes it much easier to have a conversation and a cocktail or three while making dinner. As soon as I plan on draining the pasta, I turn the heat on under the garlic oil and boil away the liquid I’ve added. Let’s face it, how often do we get to stop time with no consequences?
The second divergence from classic technique is that I add cheese to the pasta while mixing it with the garlic oil rather than just adding it at the table. In my mind there is no doubt that this pasta needs cheese. Adding it at the final stage of preparation allows me to create a glossy sauce where there would otherwise only be garlic oil. Not that that is bad, but I’ve made a bit of a reputation for myself by turning out glossy sauces where there would often only be oil.
It’s not hard. It just takes a bit of practice and some understanding (minimal) of the chemistry involved. And let’s face it, if the sauce isn’t glossy, you’re the only one who’s going to know. Again, there’s no penalty involved!
In Italy this pasta is often prepared and eaten after a night of over-indulging in alcohol. At least that’s the reputation it has. However, this was a common dish put on the dinner table when I was growing up. It’s easy, quick, filling, and darn good. Oh, and for an entirely different flavor, try butter in place of the olive oil!
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