Friday, December 24, 2010

Spaghettini with Olive Oil and Garlic

The famous Spaghettini all'Aglio e Olio. The dish that sends shivers down your spine. Simple does not mean easy, Marcella says. And surely this is the case for a pasta dish that only contains garlic, olive oil and parsley.

Truth be told I attempted this dish some time before I decided to try and cook my way through Essentials. I only cooked Asian food then - mainly thai. This dish confirmed every suspicion I had about 'western food' as I saw it. It turned out an oily, garlicky, inedible mess. I simply could not cook food from Europe I decided.

I confessed this to Marcella once, hoping for reassurance given the progress I had made on my blog. Perhaps with her encouragement, I would attempt it again. Her generous and personal response in July of this year did not fill me with confidence:

Oh, poor David, you started out with one of the most difficult pasta dishes there is, aglio e olio. I know few cooks in Italy who do it really well, and all of them are in Rome. Bear in mind that you need excellent olive oil, as it accounts for 75% of the flavor, and first rate artisan-made spaghetti or spaghettini, as they make up the other 25%, garlic excluded. The garlic can be quite brown, but not burnt, and certainly not pressed. One of the toughest parts is the salt because it does not dissolve in oil. Lots of salt in lots of water,and I sprinkle a teeny bit on the pasta after draining it. Don't go back to the stove with it just yet. Maybe take a trip to Rome first.

That did it. I had fantasies of finishing my quest, having cooked every recipe in the book except this one, and then having a glorious trip to Rome to observe this dish and cook it upon my return to the adulation of all, including Marcella.

Unfortunately there were two problems with this fantasy. First, I do not think I will ever cook all of Marcella's dishes. There are over 1000 of them published. Even if I cooked one new one a week, which I don't, then it would take me 20 years. 20 years! I had never thought of it in those numbers exactly until now. It is both depressing and awesome. Depressing for me and awesome when you think of how much work Marcella has produced in her lifetime. To that level of quality? How did she do it?

The second reason why I didn't wait 20 years and for a trip to Rome is that I was hungry and didn't want to cook the chicken I bought for dinner or even the salmon and tomatoes I bought to eat before the chicken. I wanted something light and for some reason this dish, this holy grail of simplicity but not ease, came to mind.

I used the recipe from Giuliano Hazan's Thirty Minute Pasta. It is my favourite pasta book. I don't think Marcella would mind. I did notice he directed quite a bit of salt to go into the pasta water, and for more salt to go into the sauce itself. He didn't ask for the final sprinkle into the dish however.

I didn't measure the oil tablespoon by tablespoon. That seems silly. I was worried about burning the garlic, and did not cook it much at all, as per directions. It is interesting that Giuliano says for the garlic not to brown, and Marcella says for the garlic not to burn (although it can be quite brown). It may be that Marcella has more faith in the cook, and Giuliano knows that if garlic sizzles for 20 seconds as directed it will in fact be brown, and hopefully not burnt.

Either way, it came together very quickly, and I plated it up and got into it. No doubt my efforts were not a patch on Rome, but I enjoyed every bit and it satisfied my hunger without stuffing me with a multi-course feast. The garlic was not burnt.

I consider it a success, at least for Brisbane, Australia. Perhaps one day I will be able to compare it to the efforts of the few in Rome, and the world, who do the proper version.

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