When Mom’s KISS means: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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Cutting loose from the confines of classical French cooking was right up my alley. I was raised on noodle casseroles, so it wasn’t a big leap to adopt Italian pasta as my new big love. Fresh, dried—it didn’t matter; I adored it all. The dish that fascinated me the most at that time was also the simplest: spaghetti aglio e olio—spaghetti with garlic and oil. It’s considered so simple that Italian restaurants don’t tend to list it on the menu, though most will be happy to make it if you request it—because goodness knows they’ve always got the ingredients right at hand.

It took until September 2004—the Food and Movies Issue—for spaghetti with garlic to appear in the pages of Gourmet. That’s not so surprising when you consider that garlic was barely ever used in the early days of the magazine, and when it was, it was a single small clove. Although Jane Montant wasn’t opposed to garlic (she loved Italy, remember), she had a nose for it and whenever she caught a whiff, would come barreling into the kitchen, calling out in her deep, throaty voice: “Who's cooking garlic?”

The recipe we finally printed accompanied an article on Les Blank, the filmmaker, who used what he called “Smellaround” to deepen a viewer’s experience of his films. For showings of his movie Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers he would roast six heads of garlic in a toaster oven, filling the entire theater with the aroma.

I volunteered to come up with the recipe because I’d been working away at spaghetti with garlic and oil at home for years. In the process, I hijacked what’s meant to be a 20–minute dish—counting from when the pot of water goes on the stove to when the pasta lands on the plate—and made it something more complex than necessary. My quest was to distribute the golden garlic as evenly as possible, so I’d set some of it aside and toss it in with the cooked spaghetti in stages. I was also afraid the hot pepper flakes would burn, so I cooked them separately from the garlic. Of course, I’ve since learned these two extra steps are unnecessary, but even so, it was my version that ended up on the cover of Ruth Reichl’s third memoir, Garlic and Sapphires.

In the world of the food–obsessed, there are chileheads who can’t get enough Scoville heat units in their habañeros and then there are garlic nuts like me, for whom there never seems to be enough garlic. For years I constantly upped the number of cloves, because those crispy shards of fried garlic disappeared into the tangle of noodles and I found I always wanted more. Scandalous as it may sound, I’m happy now at about a full head of garlic per half pound of spaghetti. Les Blank would love it.

It wasn’t until I was in a big rush one evening that I finally got the dish right—and found true simplicity. Who knows whether the method I now use would even be deemed Italian by a native? But at this point, frankly, I don’t care.

While the spaghetti is bubbling away in a big pot of salty boiling water, I cook my pile of sliced garlic together with some hot pepper flakes in a good amount of olive oil (the garlic slices need to be able to swim) until it is pale golden, then I push the skillet to the back of the stove to cool off. Next, I quickly chop some parsley. When the spaghetti is al dente, I scoop a tongsful of it into my big serving bowl, and then in one fell swoop, dump the entire contents of the skillet over the spaghetti. A generous drizzle of fresh extra–virgin and a scattering of the parsley tops it all off. I thrust the tongs into the noodles and bring the bowl to the table. As I dish it up, the garlic chips and parsley naturally distribute themselves, while the oil and pasta water clinging to the spaghetti lubricate everything. Duh. It really is this simple.

Kemp Minifie was wrapped up in all aspects of food at Gourmet magazine for 32 years, and is now a part of the Gourmet Live team. For more tried and tested tips and tricks, check out her weekly Kemp’s Kitchen column on the Gourmet Live blog.

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