Don’t Burn the Garlic

My last post was about making chili and while I don’t intend to make this a food site, this one is about cooking too. It’s just that I’ve become something of a foodie in recent years, because I’m fortunately surrounded by people who either love good food or who are great cooks. Or both, they tend to go hand in hand. I also really enjoy cooking when I have time and seem to do more of this in the winter, when things are slower and there’s less to do outside and you don’t worry about heating up the kitchen too much as during summer.

Italian cuisine is surely one of the world’s greatest and having a partner like Anna and getting to know her family has given me something of an insider’s view of Italian cooking. Or at least an aspect of it, namely the cuisines of Sicily and southern Italy. That’s the thing about Italian food, it’s so diverse and regional, there’s an almost endless variety of dishes and ingredients and flavours, rivalled perhaps only by Chinese food. You can go high-end and it’s fabulous, or you can go low-end and it’s great too. Anna’s people are from Sicily (on her father’s side) and Brindisi – the heel of Italy’s boot – on her mother’s. Because these are among the poorer areas of Italy, the food from these regions tends to be very simple and basic, more rustico, less fancy. Vegetables like zucchini, eggplant and peppers, onion and garlic, grains in the form of pasta or bread, lemon, olives, cheese, fish. Not a lot of red meat, because it generally wasn’t available. And above all olive oil, which is like their butter.

I love the simplicity of this kind of food, the philosophy of making something delicious from next to nothing. Maybe the most spartan dish of all is what I want to write about here, namely spaghetti aglio e olio – spaghetti with garlic and oil. It consists of just those three main things, plus some romano or parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, maybe some chili flakes. It couldn’t be more basic, and the beauty of it is that you can whip it up in about 20 or 30 minutes with little effort, using only staples that are always on hand. However, its very minimalism also makes it tricky – bassist Red Mitchell wrote a song called “Simple Isn’t Easy” and brother, he was right. With only three main ingredients, mishandling any one is ruinous. If you use too much oil, the result is too heavy and greasy, without enough concentration of garlic flavour. Overcook or burn the garlic and it gets hard and bitter, not good. And, if you cook the spaghetti too long it gets limp and, so to speak, who wants limp spaghetti? This is one of those dishes where everything has to be just right and in balance and the texture of the pasta itself is front and centre. Anyway, I recently learned a couple of new wrinkles that make it both easier and better-tasting, a win-win situation. These came to me indirectly from Anna’s aunt Theresa, who, like Anna’s mother Maria has been cooking most of her life and knows a thing or two; I wanted to share this new method with you.

I first learned to cook aglio e olio from Anna’s nephew Kyle, who lived with us for a time before moving to British Columbia. He comes back for regular visits, staying with us or with friends. Kyle’s 31 now and in the last few years, especially since the death of his grandfather Sebastiano, he’s shown an increased interest and skill in cooking. Mostly dishes that his grandmother made for years and has passed on down to her daughters Anna and Fran, Kyle’s mom. Maria came from a poor farming family and when she was about seven, was given a choice : to go work in the fields, or stay home and cook for the family while looking after her younger siblings. She chose the latter because it seemed easier, and only stopped cooking the last few years when age and various ailments rendered her unable. In his own inimitable style, Lester Young once asked if a friend’s wife could cook by saying, “Can Madame burn?” Take it from me Pres, Maria could really burn.

None of her cooking was done from recipes, there was nothing on paper until a few years ago when Fran and Anna encouraged her to jot some things down, or did so themselves, taking dictation. Much of Maria’s cooking was done from memory, with a lot of instinct and feel. There’s an old family joke that she “cooked by ear”, as when she said “that sounds ready” after testing some dough for texture by tapping it. I think Kyle sees himself as keeping this oral family tradition alive, learning to cook things from his elders and doing them over and over till he really knows the nuances. It’s been a real pleasure to watch this and become a part of it, to become an “honorary Italian”. I come from a mangiacake, Anglo background of culinary deprivation, where food was just something to solve hunger. It had no cultural or familial dimension, it was something you ate, not something you did. Not so with these folks, food is a constant process at the centre of things, tied up with family and good times. With love, really. Yes, food is love.

Anyway, it’s great fun to cook with Kyle and it’s a two-way street – I’ve shown him a few things and vice versa. I watched him make aglio e olio a few times, then tried it myself. He peeled about 8 or 10 cloves of garlic and chopped them into fairly small pieces, roughly the size of half a baby fingernail. Pouring about a quarter-cup of olive oil into a small cast-iron skillet, he warmed the garlic over low heat – about 2 – till it started to soften and turn slightly golden. Meanwhile, he put the water for the spaghetti on with a little salt added and when it boiled he added the spaghetti and cooked it till it was al dente, about 11 minutes. He drained the pasta and dumped it back in the pot and poured the oil and garlic over it. A couple of handfuls of grated romano cheese, some black pepper and maybe a little salt, a thorough stir et voila, it was done.

We often cook some sausage to serve alongside the spaghetti and maybe thaw out some of the red peppers we barbecue every September, then freeze in bags. Sliced in strips and tossed in a bowl with a bit of olive oil and salt, they make a nice side dish that tastes like summer. As to the sausage, I use one of three kinds, depending on what I can find. Usually mild Italian sausage, which is almost always available. President’s Choice make a good one that’s all-pork and has a pleasant hint of anise in the seasoning, it’s delicious. I also like Barese, a lean Sicilian sausage made from veal. It’s odd-looking, not very thick and it comes in a coil, like a rolled-up fire hose. I see it occasionally in a regular white bread grocery store, but generally it’s only available from Italian markets. It’s fairly cheap and has a nice, slightly peppery taste. The other one I like is Merguez, a Moroccan lamb sausage that I see every once in a while in my supermarket. It’s also lean and not very thick like the Barese, but doesn’t come in a coil. It’s slightly dry and spicy with a strong lamb flavour, maybe not for all tastes. Regardless of which type I use, the method is the same : brown the sausage on each side, making sure that it doesn’t stick to the skillet, then add some red wine, cover with a lid and turn down the heat to low.

Using a good olive oil is advisable. I’ve found an Italian one I like called Il Grezzo, but unfortunately it only seems to be available at Costco, which is a bit of a hike. Like all good olive oils it’s cold-pressed and extra virgin, but what makes Il Grezzo unique is that it’s unfiltered, giving it a cloudy appearance with some sediment, but a lovely taste. We ran out of this recently and I found another one at the local supermarket called Jesse Tree, from Spain. The name and bottle intrigued me, plus it was on sale for seven dollars. It’s very good, with a subtle hint of lemongrass and a peppery finish.

I had mixed results using Kyle’s method, though it always turned out well when he made it. I found that in juggling the various tasks I sometimes overcooked the garlic, an easy thing to do when it’s in such small pieces, resulting in a bitter taste. And at times, despite using a lot of garlic, I felt there wasn’t enough of its flavour in the oil, so I’d have to zing things up with pepper and more cheese.

The way I learned about Theresa’s method is kind of a funny story. Shortly before Christmas, Kyle and Anna went to visit Theresa and her husband Sam one afternoon for lunch. I developed a hankering for making aglio e olio for dinner that night, forgetting that of course they’d have eaten something Italian for lunch. I bought some Italian sausage on the way home and when I arrived, announced my intentions for dinner. Anna burst out laughing, saying, “You’ll never guess what we had for lunch!” I offered to make something else instead, but she said no, she didn’t mind eating the same thing again, but that I should try making it the way she saw Theresa do it that day.

Instead of cutting each garlic clove into small pieces, Theresa simply leaves them whole unless they’re large, in which case she just cuts them in half, a big reduction in labour. She puts the oil in a narrower pot, so that it will cover the bigger pieces of garlic, otherwise the method is the same. It’s much easier to avoid overcooking the bigger pieces, plus this way the oil becomes much more infused with the garlic flavour, which is the whole idea. When the garlic gets soft and brownish, simply remove it with a slotted spoon and set it aside to be added later. Finding a chunk or two of the soft garlic in your spaghetti is wonderful, it tastes like candy.

I balked at Theresa’s other wrinkle, but did it anyway. When the spaghetti is nearly cooked, she puts a ladleful of the boiling pasta-water in a cup and pours this over the drained spaghetti after adding the oil, garlic and cheese. I thought, “Huh? Oil and water don’t mix.” It worked like a charm though. When you smoosh the starchy water around in the spaghetti, it melts the cheese a bit and somehow bonds with the oil to make the whole “sauce” creamier. The result was just delicious, the best I’ve had and it’s practically idiot-proof, no small consideration when I’m cooking. It’s not often you find a way to cook something that’s both so much easier and better-tasting, we need more ideas like this.

On the Sunday after Christmas, Anna and I hosted a family dinner at our place. My older son Lee, his partner Sarah and their son Charlie, fast approaching two. My younger son Graeme and his boy Noah, who’s seven, and Kyle of course. I wanted to do the cooking and had a gig with Lee that ended at 3:30, so I decided on a menu that could be prepared quickly and easily : spaghetti aglio e olio, Barese sausage, some roasted red peppers and a Caesar salad made from scratch. It would be heavy on the garlic because the salad dressing has a lot too, but at least everyone’s breath would be equally foul. It all went pretty well, with Kyle acting as my sous chef between sips of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo.

It was with a great sense of satisfaction and pride that I sat down with loved ones to a simple but delicious meal I’d prepared. Everyone enjoyed it, even the little ones. Especially Charlie, who I swear would eat cardboard if you put it down in front of him. Afterward, there wasn’t a speck of food left. There’s no better feeling for a cook.

Ciao, e Buon Appetito.

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Burn the Garlic

  1. In my Sicilian family, aglio e olio (sounding to me like ah-ya-oyo) was made at the home of the bride AFTER the wedding reception was over. Family would gather, the women would be chopping huge cloves of garlic and the large pots of boiling water would steam up the place. When they were done everyone would have a feast – and this was after everyone had already feasted at the reception. No one has done this in years … scattered families, those women now elderly or gone … but it’s a great, aromatic memory.

  2. Hey Steve…It was great to catch up with you at the Jazz Bistro. Love how you describe Anna as “cooking by ear”. I too am a proud Sicilian with a penchant for cooking simply and with what is available. In fact most creative Italian cooks shun cooking from a recipe as something done by “The English”. This is a joke from my father (who as a Meds student in the 30’s at Queen’s U had to fight a lot of prejudice from his landed gentry colleagues) and is not meant to be politically incorrect although it probably is! My favorite Sicilian recipe is the Xmas eve pasta dish Pasta Con Sarde made with fennel, currants and sardines. It is light and delicate tasting and something my dad loved to serve. I love your writing. The offer still stands Steve- If you ever need an editor for a longer compilation of works or anything at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Ciao. Michelina Giardina

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