Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Easy, tasty food

I’ve already got a few emails about my aglio e olio recipe mentioned in the previous blogpost, so here it is. I learnt this in a little restaurant called La Locanda, in a dusty little town called Ceglie Messapica (pictured), in a little part of Italy called Puglia.

Earlier that day we’d asked for an eating recommendation in a crowded café but everyone was unusually reticent – something cultural no doubt; maybe they didn’t want to give away their secrets, or they didn’t want to single out one restaurant over the others, or they couldn’t think of anywhere suitable for a turista. Anyway, eventually break time or whatever it was finished, and all the locals left the café, but one of them lagged behind then leant over to us and whispered urgently “La Locanda!” before darting away.

The restaurant was not at all flash but everything was simple and perfect, including the spaghetti aglio e olio. When I’d finished eating, I bullied the owner into teaching me how to make it.

This is the recipe Italians make to fill the gap after a big night out. When you get good and fast at it, I hope you’ll use it the same way:

1. Take a packet of spaghetti – dried is perfect, DeCecco is best, although we’ve been using a wholemeal organic one we get from posh supermarkets which adds an interesting taste. Half a packet is about right for two of us.
2. Get water boiling in a big pot – a litre of water for every 100g of pasta, and pour salt in until it tastes like seawater.
3. When it’s boiling well, put the pasta in and stir it around with a fork until it’s submerged. It should start boiling again pretty quickly.
4. Put a heavy, big frypan over a low heat – really quite low as you’re only trying to warm the oil, not get a sizzle on. When it’s been heating for a few minutes and the pan is warm, pour in a couple of tablespoons of your best extra virgin olive oil (but I used to make it with Pams or whatever and it was still awesome).
5. Add a clove or two of crushed garlic. Now, at kitchen shops for about $40 you can get a Zyliss garlic crusher which is my favourite kitchen implement – you put the clove in WITH THE SKIN ON and squeeze it and the garlic comes out the other side. I use it probably twice a day, you won’t regret buying it.
6. So now, if the oil temperature is right, the garlic won’t sizzle, it’ll just sort of bubble softly – the idea is you’re getting all the flavour out without ruining the oil on too high a heat. You only need a minute or two of this. Give it a sprinkle of salt at this point. Add a teaspoon or so of dried chilli flakes (you’ll change all these quantities a little to try to find a match with your exact tastes each time you make it). Give it another minute (you’re stirring it all around pretty much the whole time)
7. Around now, take a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water and stir it in with the oil. This creates what I think is called an emulsion, and really helps with coating the pasta properly. It also stops you worrying about over cooking the garlic.
8. Timing: about the time this oil and garlic and chilli has done its magic, you want the pasta to be finished cooking. I’m not going to insult you by explaining what al dente is, but it is really important (to me at least) that you don’t overcook the spaghetti. Take a sample after the time it recommends on the packet – or a couple of minutes earlier if it’s not an Italian brand. You want to have to bite the pasta, not just suck it until it collapses.
9. While I’ve been waiting for the pasta to finish, I’ve usually chopped up some Italian parsley. I’ve never written a recipe before. If things happen concurrently, what order do you put these stupid numbers in?
10. Drain the pasta and put it in with the oil mixture. Never the other way around. Honestly, how that old Italian coot laughed when I suggested that the sauce might get poured into the spaghetti. Throw the parsley in and mix to combine.
11. When the distribution of chilli flakes and parsley specks are uniform, you know it’s stirred in properly. Tong some spaghetti into each plate, then grate plenty of parmesan over it with a microplane (another good purchase for cheese and lemon rind). Or you can sprinkle over the parmesan when it’s still in the pan and mix it in, I quite like a bit of that lark too.
12. And I don’t know, some cracked pepper probably. For the life of me, I don’t know what pepper is for.