BECAUSE YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE INGREDIENTS ON HAND
Pasta with garlic and oil looks guileless. It reads as “tangle of spaghetti flecked with parsley.” Its aroma and flavor, however, shout garlic in every register. Few dishes require so little work and deliver so much satisfaction. It’s the favorite late night meal of Italians and tired cooks everywhere who want maximum pleasure with minimal investment of time and effort.
At first, you might wonder why anyone would need a written recipe for this dish. But garlic is tricky business. Use too little and the pasta is starchy and bland and the olive oil dominates. This dish demands a lot of garlic—there’s not much else to it. But all that garlic (we use a whopping 12 cloves) can be overpowering if you don’t handle it carefully. Both the preparation and cooking of the garlic will determine the success (or failure) of this dish.
The rest of the dish is quite easy. Good extra-virgin olive oil is a must, as is some heat (we like red pepper flakes but black pepper is fine, too). The parsley is mostly for show. Yes, it adds a subtle herbaceous quality, but if you close your eyes you probably won’t miss the parsley if you don’t have any on hand. We like a squirt of lemon juice—the acidity balances the richness of the oil and heightens the other flavors.
If you’re not already in the habit of reserving some cooking water before draining the pasta, this recipe will teach you the value of this practice. Without cooking water, the spaghetti will be dry. (And there’s already a lot of olive oil in the dish so adding more will make things greasy.) Keep a liquid measuring cup in your colander as a handy reminder to save some starchy liquid before pouring the rest down the drain.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
A Fine Mince Is Essential
Finely mincing the garlic ensures that its flavor permeates the dish. Mincing really matters. Even medium-size pieces will become very harsh, and the larger the garlic the more likely it will brown—a big no-no when making this dish. If you’re the kind of cook who chops rather than minces garlic, you should use a garlic press rather than a chef’s knife to handle this task for this recipe. A good press is effortless to use and ensures a smooth, fine consistency.
Cook Very Slowly
The secret to creating complex garlic flavor is to sauté it very slowly over low heat for 10 minutes. Gentle heat tempers the aggressive notes and develops the sweet flavor compounds that make garlic so alluring. The garlic should turn straw-colored when you’re done. To reduce the risk of scorching the garlic, start it in cold oil and then watch the pan carefully. If the garlic starts to bubble vigorously, the heat is too high. If at any point you notice the garlic is cooking too quickly, slide the pan off the burner. Do not let the garlic brown, as that will make it taste acrid and harsh.
Finish with Fresh Garlic
While two-thirds of the garlic is cooked slowly until sweet and fragrant, we find that a little heat from raw garlic makes this dish even better. We stir a bit more minced garlic into the cooked garlic. The residual heat in the pan mellows this second batch of garlic just a bit to create a variety of complex flavors from the star ingredient.
Split the Oil, Too
We cook the garlic in half the olive oil and then use the other half to cool down the garlic mixture and stop the cooking process. Because this second addition of oil is just barely heated, the final dish retains the fruity, peppery flavor notes of the oil. Good olive oil is a must here.
Patience and low heat transform garlic into the easiest-ever pasta sauce.
Pasta with Garlic and Oil (Aglio e Olio)
- 10 minutes to prep ingredients (start by bringing pasta water to boil)
- 10 minutes to cook garlic and pasta (do this simultaneously)
- Garlic press (for ease and consistency)
- 10-inch nonstick skillet (the master recipe can be prepared in a conventional pan)
- Dutch oven or stockpot (at least 6 quarts)
- Liquid measuring cup to reserve some pasta cooking water
Substitutions & Variations
- If you don’t like red pepper flakes, use a little black pepper instead.
- The parsley can be omitted or replaced with another minced fresh herb-cilantro, basil, tarragon, chives, mint, thyme, or even oregano. Use far less of the stronger herbs—a few teaspoons of oregano or thyme is sufficient.
- The cheese can be omitted, or use Pecorino if you prefer a stronger punch. A shower of toasted bread crumbs (panko, please) can be used in place of the cheese.
- As for additions, it’s best to keep it simple. A handful of chopped green and/or black olives can be added to the cooked garlic mixture. A few slivered sun-dried tomatoes or a spoonful of capers are other good options.
- A few minced anchovies can be added to the pan with the garlic during the last minute or two of cooking time to ramp up the meaty notes. The dish won’t taste fishy, but it will seem more savory.
It pays to use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil in this dish. See this section for tips on mincing garlic.
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- ¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (½ cup)
- Heat 3 tablespoons oil, two-thirds of garlic, and ½ teaspoon salt in 10-inch nonstick skillet over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until garlic foams and is sticky and straw-colored, about 10 minutes. Off heat, add parsley, lemon juice, pepper flakes, remaining 3 tablespoons oil, and remaining garlic.
- Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve ½ cup cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot.
- Stir 2 tablespoons reserved cooking water into garlic mixture. Add garlic mixture to pot and toss to combine, adding remaining reserved cooking water as needed. Season with salt to taste, and serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.
SPAGHETTI WITH GARLIC, OLIVE OIL, AND ARTICHOKES
To thaw the artichokes quickly, microwave them in a covered bowl for about 3 minutes.
Transfer cooked garlic mixture to bowl before combining with other ingredients at end of step 1. Heat 2 teaspoons more extra-virgin olive oil in now-empty skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 9 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and patted dry, and ⅛ teaspoon salt and cook until artichokes are lightly browned and tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Add cooked artichokes to pasta with garlic mixture.
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