A simple but stunning pasta dish to make the most of the new season's garlic and olive oil
We all know that spaghetti with garlic, chilli and olive oil is one of the laziest, most convenient and yet ultimately satisfying dishes in existence in the face of a carb craving, if not a hard day at the mill. If the ingredients - pasta, garlic, chilli flakes, olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmesan - aren't always ready and waiting in your kitchen, then you can't be very interested in food and you may as well stop reading now.
For those still with me, this store-cupboard special takes on added panache if you choose to make it in spring. By the end of April, the new season's garlic is showing its fresh, green face in farmers' markets, while its wild cousin allium ursinum - ramsons or buckrams, as its also known - is busy colonising those bosky spots it likes the feel of - deciduous woodlands, generally, though it ventures quite happily out of the woods to the roadside. Its tiny white flowers are unsuitable for cooking and too smelly for floral art, but the pointed, deep-green leaves smell perceptibly garlicky if rubbed. (Be sure to do this test as they bear a striking similarity to those of at least three poisonous plants, including lily-of-the-valley). The flavour is somewhere between chives and crushed garlic, and it is used to enhance, rather than replace the latter in this recipe.
I find this is also a good time to crack a bottle of newly vintaged olive oil which will have come out of its fiery 'nouveau' stage and settled nicely into a fragrant, subtly peppery, fruitiness. It's used here more as warm dressing than cooking medium, so only the best will do, as with all minimalist recipes. It stands up to the chilli better too, so no false economies per favore.
If, on paper, this is the easiest of pasta recipes, it is, in practice, very easy to ruin. Burning the garlic is the first elephant trap, the jaws of which a moment's inattention opens wide. The second is overdoing the chilli - how much you add is entirely a matter of taste, but no wine lover wants to lose the use of his or her tastebuds. The third is to overcook the pasta. Packet instructions err on the side of the toothless, which is not at all what al dente means so get into the habit of jumping the gun and tasting for bite.
Finally, ready-grated Parmesan may save labour and washing-up, but it's also devoid of taste, excitement and, most vitally, provenance. There is no substitute for splurging on the most gnarled and craggy lump of the real McCoy that you can find. Store your treasure not in a clammy plastic mac, but in a nice, fridge-friendly earthenware or china pot with a lid, where it will reward you with long life and peerless flavour.
The best wine option is a brisk white or pink, made from hardy Mediterranean grapes that take no nonsense from loud food. Italy comes to mind, notably Sicily, Sardinia and its neighbour Corsica, as do the flavoursome and herby whites of the Languedoc and Roussillon. Gérard Gauby's Calcinaires Blanc is a sublime match.
PASTA AGLIO E' OLIO
- 400g spaghetti or tagliatelle
- Generous pinch salt
- 4-6 tablespoons premium-quality olive oil (don't stint on this, please)
- 4-6 cloves new season's garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- Pinch of chilli flakes, to taste, or use half chilli-flavoured oil and half olive oil to fry the garlic
- A bunch of wild garlic leaves, well washed and chopped
- Whole salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- A goodly chunk of Parmesan or aged Pecorino cheese - this will take a fair bit. Allow about 100g and grate at the last minute.
Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Throw in the pasta and subtract a couple of minutes from the recommended cooking time. Twirl out a strand and check the bite.
Meanwhile, heat the oil gently in a frying-pan large enough to accommodate the cooked pasta in due course. Add the chilli flakes and let them scent the oil. Put in the garlic slices and wild garlic and when the former have begun to change colour, remove the pan from the flame. Let the oil infuse in its residual heat.
As soon as the pasta is done, ladle out 150ml of the cooking water and add it to the aromatised oil in the frying-pan. This is vital, for a smooth, glossy result. Turn on the heat and let it come to the simmer and bubble away while you drain the pasta and grate the Parmesan.
Now add the drained pasta to the pan, turning it in the oily-garlicky-starchy-watery juices. Throw in a generous handful of Parmesan.
Divide between four warmed bowls and season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle over another helping of Parmesan. A final bright-green slick of your best olive oil does no harm either.
Serve. Sigh profoundly, feel that you have, as my late mother-in-law used to say, by way of a post prandial compliment, 'been done good to'.
MATCH OF THE DAY
Friendly: Vermentino de Sardegna Iocalia, Melis 2012
Premier League: Patrimonio Clos Alivu Rosé 2013
Director's Box: Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Les Calcinaires Blanc 2010, Domaine Gauby