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This one is a little photo tutorial of our dinner tonight which was my basic Aglio e Olio (Garlic & Olive Oil) pasta dish, made with capellini – my favourite of the strand pastas! Capellini is a very thin, delicate noodle that holds up well to a clingy sauce like this one (or any creamy sauce); as long as you know how to cook it properly! The danger with these thinner types of strand noodles (capellini, spaghettini, vermicelli, capelli d’angelo, fedelini) is they cook very fast compared to other pastas and if you walk away from that pot as they simmer away you risk ending up with mushy pasta. So, I’m going to give you a little talk about how to handle this type of pasta in order to maximize it’s texture. The sauce also cooks very fast – in fact, you barely want to cook it at all lest you burn the garlic and end up with a bitter mess of blackened olive oil. This is why this meal is great for those nights when you’re feeling too tired or pressed for time to do anything “fancy”.
First, you want to peel and chop a LOT of fresh garlic. For our family of four, I use two heads of garlic. I like to save time by place the peeled cloves in my Magic Bullet, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil.
Then I pulse the bullet a few times to get the garlic and olive oil to turn into a sort of chunky paste. Try not to overdo it if you’re using a machine like this – you still want a little texture in there. If you’re mincing all that garlic by hand, just get it as fine as you can without feeling frustrated. As soon as you feel frustrated, have a glass of wine and mince it a little more. Then stop and add it to your skillet with the olive oil and a healthy pinch or two of dried, flaked chili peppers.
To make this into a sauce, all you’ve gotta do is gently warm this mixture on medium-low heat, stirring it now and then, until it starts to sizzle and become aromatic and turn slightly brown. The second it starts to look like it’s turning brown, remove it from the heat! Garlic burns very quickly, and extra virgin olive oil isn’t very heat-stable. You just want all three flavours to meld together in one perfect sauce.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Noodles coated in olive oil, garlic and chili sound delicious but aren’t particularly nutritious. C’mon, fatty – where are your vegetables?” Watch it, now, grasshoppers. I don’t resent being called a fatty (I am, and a proud one at that) but I do resent the implication that I would serve this as a meal and call it done. Oh ho ho ho ho, no. One of the best things about this meal is that you can use the pasta to build a beautiful single plate feast of textures and flavours that are held together by the common thread of delicious and healthful garlic and olive oil – and it can be different every time, depending on what you’ve got lurking around in your fridge or freezer! Tonight, for instance, I found a big old cauliflower that wasn’t going to last more than another day or two, and a lonely package of Tofurky sausages, Italian-style (perfect!). I chopped ‘em all up into bite-sized bits and put them in their own pan with a touch of olive oil and fried them together for a few minutes, just enough to get a crisp, browned edge on everything.
I love the Tofurky sausages. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a single person who doesn’t love the Tofurky sausages, vegans, vegetarians and meat-heads alike. What’s not to love? They’re packed with flavour, their texture is pretty much right on the money, and Tofurky avoided making the same fatal mistake most other vegan meat analogue companies have, which is trying to keep their products fat-free. Sorry, Yves et al – in my mind, the inclusion of some fat in these products is what makes or breaks their tastiness, and so far, Tofurky is winning the game in that respect.
I occurred to me, as I was stirring the Tofurky & cauliflower, that the dish was going to end up looking a little pale and that it could use a splash of colour. Normally I’d chop up a couple of tomatoes or red peppers but I had none in the house. I dug around in my freezer to find some peas, and oh, look! Some argula (aka rocket/roquet to my European readers) is waiting to be eaten too! Green would go well with this meal, for sure. At this point, I started the water boiling.
The first most important thing for you to remember about cooking pasta is, don’t be adding anything to the cooking water, except maybe some salt – and even that isn’t necessary (or even desirable, if you’re watching your sodium intake). Don’t add oil – it messes with the pastas cooking time and finished texture. Some people like to cook their pasta in stock, which isn’t such a bad idea if it’s veg stock (and oil-free); but please remember that pasta isn’t supposed to be flavourful – it’s supposed to be bland so that it can absorb the flavour from whatever sauces you use. And puddins? This aglio e olio sauce packs a big punch! You really want the garlic and earthy olive tones to shine on these noodles. The second most important thing to remember about cooking pasta is, use lots and lots and lots of water. You want those noodles to be really floating in there, not all crammed together. The number one reason people think they need to add oil to their pasta water is to prevent the noodles from sticking together; but noodles won’t stick together if you use enough water in your pot, and stir, stir, stir the heck out of them in the first couple of minutes after adding them to the pot. Bring that water to a high boil. Add salt, or not. Add the noodles (and tonight, I added the frozen peas, because the capellini cooks as fast as they do), and stir constantly until the water returns to a boil. If you want, you can walk away at this point for a couple of minutes, but always come back and give them another healthy stir or two before they are finished.
With a fast-cooking noodle like capellini, I like to keep a big cup of ice water beside the stove. When the timer goes (these are al dente in 4 minutes and über-tender in 6!) I turn the heat off, and dump the ice water right into the pot. This stops the cooking immediately!
Then they are drained immediately. DO NOT RINSE YOUR COOKED PASTA, YOU FOOL. I remember a room mate I had way back in my early cooking days counselling me to run my pasta under cold water for a minute or too after it was finished cooking. He insisted that his mother had taught him it was good to get rid of the “extra starch”. Now I can laugh about it – “extra starch”? What did he think pasta was? That “extra starch” is going to help whatever sauce you use adhere better to the noodles, to deliver maximum flavour impact. Toss your unrinsed noodles & peas back into the pot (not on the same burner you were cooking them in – it’ll still be hot enough to burn them!). Add the aglio e olio, then toss it all together so the noodles get nice and coated. I find tongs work really well for this job, but a couple of forks or some wooden spoons will do well too. Be gentle – you don’t wanna mush or cut the noodles up.
At this point you wanna add whatever extras you’ve got on hand, like our pan-fried cauliflower and Tofurky sausages! Again, mix it very gently until everything is just tossed together, and serve hot. I plated mine on some fresh, organic arugula, and topped it with a generous helping of my Almosen Sprinkle (a mixture of ground almonds, nutritional yeast, and sea salt).
The addition of the chili flakes to the sauce really takes the flavour of this dish to a whole ‘nother level, but you can leave them out if you’re not a fan of their heat. I have also added a splash of white wine to the sauce right as it hit the sizzle point, just enough to add a hint of that dry, fruity flavour. Other delicious additions are a handful or two of minced, fresh parsley, chiffonade of basil, chopped sundried tomatoes, or ribbons of roasted red peppers. Mangia!