Garlic, oil, and chilies — or aglio, olio e peperoncino as they’d say in Italy. Add spaghetti, and you’ve got an absolutely classic pasta dish. Naples might claim it as theirs, but folks in Rome have their own loving name for it — ajo ojo.
The real surprise here — the astonishment, if you like — is that something that’s so alive with richly satisfying flavors can be so fast and easy to make.
From stovetop to tabletop in 15 minutes, this has to be the ultimate quick cuisine. I call it that — quick cuisine — deliberately. There’s nothing here that has any of the sad disappointments that are often associated with so-called fast food.
Now, aglio, olio e peperoncino is routinely raved about for being fast and easy to make — as if that’s all that matters. And that’s odd when heaping praise on a creation that’s such a treat to eat.
Why odd? Well, fast doesn’t taste of anything, and neither does easy. Convenience and simplicity have no aroma, flavor, or texture.
To discover why ajo ojo is so mega popular right across food-worshipping Italy, it seems we’ll have to look way beyond the fact that gli spaghetti di mezzanotte — or midnight spaghetti as it’s also sometimes called — is indeed fast and easy.
It’s addictively moreish
That’s probably the main reason for its devoted fan-base among lovers of chili (here cayenne pepper) and garlic. Those two are definitely the A-listers here, and their big, bold, show-off savours get treated with serious respect.
For ajo ojo, that means giving them just enough gentle heat in first-class olive oil to tease out the very best of their flavors. And that requires some attentive, careful cooking to slowly melt the flavors of the chilies and garlic into the oil.
The result? You’ll have created one of the simplest pasta pairings, but, undoubtedly, one of the very finest.
The oil’s vitally important because it has two roles to play. First, it has to draw-out the essence of the chilies and the garlic. At the same time, it must add its own, distinctive flavors — pretty peppery, obviously fruity, and roundly rich. And for that crucial effect, you have to be using good olive oil — the sort that has a purity of flavors that you can appreciate all on their own.
And that use of really good oil brings us to the importance of using really good pasta.
Choosing your spaghetti, cooking your spaghetti
Durum wheat and water. Those are the only two ingredients you want to see listed on your pack of spaghetti. Just those two. Nothing else. They’re all that’s used to make ‘real’ spaghetti. It’ll have a slightly matt look to its golden-yellow color, and will keep its essential al dente body once it’s cooked.
This business of pasta being cooked so that it’s al dente — to the tooth — is all about texture. Not too chewy, not too soft. In his book, Pasta (Amazon), the respected Italian-food writer, Antonio Carluccio, says, “In the beginning, pasta was a food for the Roman nobles. Gradually, over the centuries, it became a food for the poor, who cooked it ‘to the tooth’ so that its texture could more closely emulate that of the meat they could not afford.”
To get it just right, make sure you’re clear about the time-focused instructions on the pack. And watch the clock, so you don’t undercook it — too chewy — or overcook it — too soft. Also, bear in mind that the spaghetti has two sessions on the stovetop — mostly in boiling water, and then much more quickly when it’s mixed with the oil, chilies, and garlic. That means you’ll reduce the boiling time by two minutes — just like it says in our cooking instructions.
Prepping your garlic. Yep, this matters. A lot.
Don’t be tempted to use anything other than whole, fresh cloves of garlic. Anything from a jar or a tub simply has no place in this dish.
And once you’ve peeled them, you need to slice the whole cloves as thinly as you can. Chopped, crushed, minced or grated just doesn’t work here. Thinly sliced slivers are what you want — so that they’ll turn translucently soft and lose most of their bitter bite as they cook gently in the olive oil with the chilies.
With aglio, olio e peperoncino, fast and easy are really just added bonuses. They’re not the key to its success. That pleasure comes entirely from the right ingredients and watchful, careful cooking.
Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
- 4 fresh red cayenne peppers medium-sized. The ones I used were about 3 inches long. I sliced them on the diagonal into strips about an inch long and ¼ inch wide — seeds and all. Prepping them like this means they’ll really shine out in the finished dish.
- 8 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced. Aim to keep the peeled garlic as intact as possible, so that the thin slices keep a nice oval-ish shape.
- ½ cup olive oil For its wonderfully rich flavor, I used an extra virgin oil from a reputable maker. In this dish, high quality olive oil is definitely worth the premium price it sells for.
- 16 ounces durum wheat spaghetti
- 8 pints water for cooking the spaghetti
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt for the spaghetti’s water
- You want to handle this so that you cook the garlic and chilies while the spaghetti is boiling. Once you’ve got the spaghetti underway, you can turn your attention to the business of melting the flavors out of the garlic and chilies in that fine olive oil.
- So, for the spaghetti, add the water and salt to a big saucepan. The one I used was about ¾ filled with that amount of water — just right. Set the pan over a high heat and let it come to a bubbling boil.
- Now add the spaghetti and let the water come back to a boil on that high heat. As soon as that happens, drop the heat to medium-high, so the spaghetti is cooking at that bubbling boil — for 2 minutes less than it says on the pack. So, if the pack says cook for 9 minutes (which it probably will), let it cook for 7 minutes.
- For the garlic and chilies, you’ll want to use a heavy-bottomed pan that will give you an even spread of heat across its base. Also, the pan should be easily big enough to hold all the spaghetti once it’s cooked.
- Set your big pan over a low-medium heat and add the olive oil. Let the oil heat for 30 seconds and then stir in the garlic and chilies, so they get a thorough coating in the oil. Use a spatula / fish slice to quickly spread the garlic and chilies into an evenly spaced single layer, and then drop the heat to low.
- You’re aiming here to soften the garlic slowly — and I mean slowly — so that it turns slightly translucent but doesn’t pick up any color. On that low heat — and with a few gentle stirs so as not to break the garlic apart — this will take about 5 watchful minutes. Good.
- Now, keeping the heat on low, add 6 tablespoons of the spaghetti’s boiling water to the pan. Give the whole lot a combining but gentle stir, and turn off the heat.
- As soon as the spaghetti finishes its 2-minutes-deducted cooking, pour it into a big colander to drain. Don’t worry about it draining completely — a little remaining moisture on the spaghetti is just dandy.
- Quick as you can, set the pan with the mix of garlic, chili, oil, and water onto a medium-high heat and stir in all the spaghetti. Almost done.
- Let the pan sit on that medium-high heat for two, frequently-stirred minutes. You want the spaghetti to get thoroughly coated with the flavorful oil, and to get the whole nicely hot and ready for immediate serving. Take some care with your stirring so that nothing gets a chance to start sticking to the bottom of the pan. Done.