Italian food is easy, so many recipes can be readily executed even by a beginner. It is simple – the list of ingredients rarely surpasses more than five or six and that’s not including salt. It is not supposed to be difficult – if it were, only chefs would be cooking Italian dishes as opposed to single people and home makers all over the country and of every generation. Preparations are rarely laborious and a proper meal can be concocted in one hour or even under. The taste and textures it offers are wide ranging and refreshed by the passing of seasons, like milestones in one’s life. The ingredients are rarely expensive. Presentation can be tweaked to appear brashly peasant-like or chic, come hither-ish or aloof, tradtional or modern. It is child friendly on the one hand but easily appeals to a sophisticated palate on the other.
Italian food is popular for all these reasons.
It is ‘meant to be’ because it can be handed down generation after generation and still remain current for most people’s palate. It’s not supposed to be exciting or faddish although of course it can be surprising and delightful. Variety is the spice of life, indeed … but if it’s variety we are after all the time, the canon tends to come asunder. And this, say I with a bit of preoccupation which I hope people won’t attribute to self importance, is what happens when foodies from abroad pounce on Italian cuisine in seach of what’s new?, what’s the latest ingredient?, what’s the novelty regional secret? It undermines the canon. Think about what happened to pesto, for instance. It became furiously popular in the UK and northern America about 30 years ago. And now? Now … it tends to be not so much taken for granted but ‘overlooked’ or culinary-backs-against it like a scorned wife. And all because it’s just so … so been-there, done-that, ‘bo-ring’, what’s-next. And when one takes into consideration that most of these people haven’t even tasted real pesto, they simply haven’t had the chance bless ’em, the petulance-and-jaded-palate-syndrome of food designers in chase of new food collections takes on an even deeper gastronomic melancholy for me. If you have the time, do read this article, it’s very good and I was even sympathetic to its author. Even so … he just couldn’t resist ‘tweaking’ the pesto recipe. Creativity is a wonderful thing – but can we just stop calling a recipe ‘pesto’ when it is not! Stop piggy-backing on something that is beautiful for what it is, and if you want to make changes – go ahead but call it something else. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/in-italy-i-learned-how-to-make-true-pesto-in-america-i-buck-tradition/2016/03/07/69617e96-dfc7-11e5-8d98-4b3d9215ade1_story.html
And it’s not just foreigners who are at it. It’s also many many Italians, especially young Italians, especially Italians who have trained professionally and who have worked abroad themselves. Haute cuisine, Italian haute cuisine included, has a place in swanky and posh restaurants, in serious and elegant establishments where the meal is elaborated to impress and seduce. That’s a given. That’s why we spend lots of money going there (myself included on occasion, lest you should wonder!) in order to give ourselves a treat. But when I spot a recipe on the menu or elsewhere that is bog standard and ‘homey’ even, ‘reinterpreted’ by chef so and so … well, what can I say? On the one hand I am curious and impressed. On the other I feel like rapping their knuckles with a wooden stick. ‘Leave well alone!’, I feel like shouting. ‘If you carry on like this, very soon, a couple of generations down the road, Italian food will have become so inflatedly ‘complex’ and fussy that it will lose its innate beauty – ‘simplicity.’ An Italian rose is an Italian rose is a rose is a rose …
End of mini-rant. Until the next one.
Despite my being unabashedly on the conservative side (!) when it comes to enjoying classic Italian food, not to mention somewhat averse to change for change’s sake, or downright dismissive of prettifications and updating of uber-traditional dishes, I do get won over occasionally when it comes to techniques that make life easier or that make sense gastronomically. I only shudder and shriek within, and on occasion without, when said techniques end up with a complete make-over that’s only a virtual echo of the original.
So picture my face earlier this morning, slitty eyed, expression all screwed, nose scrunched up, my pursed lips relenting eventually to let out a long sigh, the mother of all sighs, I’ll have you know, when I read of a chic Italian chef in an ultra posh Milanese hotel holding forth about the spaghetti recipe known as ‘aglio, olio e peperoncino’.
Well. For a start … this recipe isn’t even Milanese. So … why would a Milanese come to a Roman and tell them how to make an aglio e olio? Stick to your risotto. And there is the culinary fact that … it’s hardly even a recipe. Not a high end one, at any rate. (By the way, it must be acknowledged that the recipe originated in Naples but that was a long time ago and we think of it as Roman here. Nothing new about appropriation, eh?)
It is the equivalent of making toast when you are hungry. It’s the classic dish to make when you are in a hurry … or when you come home from a late night out and discover suddenly that you are hungry and need to eat something before hitting the mattress. All it requires is a bit of olive oil, garlic and some chilli (cayenne pepper) and parsely of course, even though a lot of people will eschew the parsely (and it’s not just the older folk who are long in the tooth and short in the gums where said parsely just looooves to stick and stand out embarrassingly).
Now why would a top chef even want to offer such a ‘plain’ dish on their menu? Would you offer beans on toast at Claridges? or croque Monsieur at whatever Parisian restaurant is the bees’ knees? Burgers are different. They are made with meat. Good meat is expensive. So if a high end American restaurant serves a burger, that’s not culinarily seditious.
But … aglio, olio e peperoncino? Why? why, why, why, why, why? Give me caviar. Or lobster. Or truffles. I’ll make me own ajo, ojo e peperoncino at home thank you very much! (By the way, that’s the Roman spelling for aglio, olio e peperoncino. The Roman use the letter ‘j’ to replace the letter ‘i’ – so think of it as an ‘i’ and pronounce it like this: ayo, oyo ey pe-pe-ron-cheenoh).
I do like to experiment, however hidebound my love for tradition might be, and I do like to ‘make sure’, to seek out the proof in the eating of the pudding. So … guess what I did today? I made an ajo e ojo e peporoncino that requires very little cooking of the garlic which is then complemented by room temperature olive oil and raw parsely. Raw. Good for you. Olive oil. Good for you. Parsely. Good for you. Cayenne pepper – very good for you. Pasta – the good quality kind? Very good for you too. We should call this the ‘Good for you’ pasta! Doctor’s orders!
Away we go.
I used three large cloves of garlic for just over 200g of spaghetti. Start by peeling the cloves and placing them in a small saucepan with plenty of cold water in it, or at least enough to cover them completely. Bring the water to the boil.
When the water comes to a boil, drain the garlic. Repeat this thrice. In other words, do this cold-water-come-to-a-boil for four times altogether. In the meantime, put the pot with the pasta water on to boil too.
Measure out 30ml of olive oil (extra virgin olive oil, naturally) per clove of garlic. In this case – about 90ml of evoo. Pour the evoo inside a processing beaker or whatever these contraptions are called.
Once the garlic has been blanched for the fourth time … cut the cloves in half and remove the green inside bit – the ‘germ’, what the Italians call the ‘soul’ of a clove of garlic. This germ is actually probably the healthiest part of this allium but there you are. It isn’t too healthy when you are sharing the room with another person (they’ll hate you for your overpowering breath) and most lovers would shy away from even a kiss on the cheek … continental you say? Hm. But stinky too. Better not.
Here is the soulless garlic, deprived of its stinky germ.
When the spaghetti have been cooking for about 5 minutes …
Remove a ladle or so of the cooking water and set aside. Allow it to cool.
Pour the cooking water into the beaker.
And now … process. Blitz away. Until you get a lovely emulsion.
I’d forgotten to add salt. So I added a good pinch of salt and processed a little bit more.
I then chopped up some parsely.
I poured the garlic and evoo emulsion into a frying pan close to the pasta pot.
I drained the pasta directly into the frying pan – NO heat. No need for any heat. Mix well so that the pasta slurps up all the sauce.
Plate out the paste and sprinkle with cayenne pepper.
My lunch guest does not like eating parsely so I added a little sprig just for a bit of adornment.
I instead added the chopped parsely.
And lots of it.
And was it any good, you might very well ask?
Yes, yes it was actually. And I shall make it again – so there.
Interesting that the taste of the garlic was very apparent, but it did not overwhelm. Nor did it make occasional appearances via a burp during the later phase of digestion.
See ? Never say never. You live and you learn.