Tales from an Italian kitchen
At the risk of peddling cliches, it seems that making and eating spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino is
second nature to most Italians.
Everyone seems to nod in agreement about this classic, thrifty (and very good) combination of four ingredients: spaghetti, aglio (garlic), olio (oil) and peperoncino (chilli) – which can be five if you choose to include prezzemolo (parsley), and six if you count the salt.
Cheap, quick, generous and on the table in 15 minutes, ajo ojo – as they call it in Rome – is a constant in many lives: the answer to quick lunches and pit-stop dinners, and the full-stop to many boozy nights out – hence the name gli spaghetti
di mezzanotte (midnight pasta). It is a dish many love like an old friend who, regardless of time, fashion, fads and the weather, just is.
I’ve probably watched ajo ojo being made more than any other pasta dish over the years, and in so many kitchens, watched the familiar sequence of steaming pans, bundles of spaghetti, streams of olive oil, and flecks of white, red and green – which, rather patriotically, echo the colours of the Italian flag. I’ve not only grown accustomed to it, but become quite dependent on it.
It is a recipe that manages to be both very specific – just spaghetti, garlic, oil and chilli – and absolutely non-specific, a broad-sweeping brushstroke, an idea rather than a recipe.
You simply sizzle as much garlic as you like (for me, that’s a clove per person, sliced thinly), in as much olive oil as you fancy (bearing in mind it is the heart of the dish – so let’s say 30ml per person, but 50ml if you are making a single portion). Add chopped peperoncino to taste (only you know how hot you like your chillies), before adding as much al dente spaghetti as you feel like, then finish with a handful of chopped parsley. In the past I have also added anchovies, and added a topping of pecorino (both of which, you could argue, turn the dish into something else).
This last week, though, asking people about midnight spaghetti revealed endless personal preferences, but I was glad to be reminded of two things in particular.
One is about the garlic, which – whether whole but crushed for a gentle flavour, sliced for a stronger one, or chopped for the fiercest flavour – should sizzle gently. It should just shimmy in the oil: you don’t want it to colour or burn, or it becomes a bitter bully; you want it only to soften and release its scent.
The other tip was from a friend called Amos, a man all too familiar with midnight pasta. While the spaghetti is boiling in well-salted water, add a ladleful of cooking liquid and a proper pinch of salt to the garlic oil, swirling and sloshing it with a spoon before you tip in the spaghetti, then swish it around again. These two steps mean the oil is seasoned and the starch from the pasta and oil comes together into a cream-like consistency, which means the spaghetti, slippy and glistening, almost winds itself around the fork.