I once wrote about how I became obsessed with aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil pasta) after watching an episode of Korean tele-drama Pasta. Since then, I’ve forgotten most of the plot of that show (something involving fish livers and an inevitable romance?), but my fixation on getting that dish just right remains strong.
Well, I shouldn’t say getting it right, but rather doing my best with it in any given situation. Because the one rule I follow when making aglio e olio is that I never go ingredient shopping for it. Everything has to already be sitting in my pantry when I start to put it together. Otherwise, I’ll do whatever I’m in the mood to do to it, fudging around with its parts until it ends up kind of fucked.
It starts with a pot of water brought to a boil. I always salt the water after it comes to a boil since that’s what I was told to do in my cooking classes without any real explantation why. Maybe someday I’ll investigate the pros and cons of salting your water before versus after it boils. Thrilling stuff, I know.
In any case, I like to make the water extra salty, enough that you can taste the salt in the pasta. I’ve always had a thing for salty foods—way more so than sweets. I’ll usually use flaky Korean sea salt, which has a texture like those fancy finishing salts that chefs love to use, but it’s significantly cheaper than Maldon or whatever. It comes in large sacks, since presumably it’s for making big batches of kimchi. But salt is salt—the table stuff is fine, too.
Once the water is good, salty, and boiling, in goes the pasta. Spaghetti, linguine, and bucatini all work fine. I feel like wider shapes like tagliatelle are too heavy, while very fine ones like angel hair get overwhelmed by all the garlic and whatnot. I cook it pretty al dente, about a minute less than whatever the package recommends.
While the pasta cooks, it’s time to start the sauce. First, I’ll warm up a sauté pan over medium low heat, then add just enough olive oil to coat the surface. Then in goes the garlic, sliced into paper-thin discs. Depending on my mood, I’ll use anywhere between two and six cloves.
The garlic is fried, tossing occasionally, until it just starts to brown. Then I add in a big pinch of herbs and a small pinch of hot pepper. Any hardy herbs, like rosemary or thyme, or some dried oregano will do. I like those bunches of dried oregano that come still on the branch. They taste way better than the jarred kind. For the pepper, I crumble in whatever dried red chili I have on hand, usually one of those Chinese peppers that kind of look like an arbol, or sometimes a bird’s eye. I like some heat, but not too much, in this dish. There are times for dialing up the spice, but this is not one of them.
After stirring around the garlic, herbs, and pepper for about a minute—they should be aromatic but not burning—it’s time to add in a big glug of white wine. Well, it could be white wine, but more often I’ll end up pulling out whatever bottle of dry vermouth I have sitting around. Or it could also be sherry. I even once used Shaoxing, but it ended up tasting like kung pao and caramel no. 5. After adding the wine, the heat is turned down just enough to maintain a bare simmer. The wine shouldn’t evaporate off too quickly, but rather reduce and cook gently, softening up the garlic a bit.
When there’s just a bare film of liquid left in the pan, I’ll stir in a spoonful of white miso until it’s completely dissolved. A bunch of years back the sweet old man who owns that small Japanese grocery store on U Street recommended the brand of miso in the above picture and I’ve kept a packet of it in my fridge ever since.
Next, I take my cooked pasta, a splash of its boiling water, and a small handful of parmesan or pecorino grated finely on a microplane and toss them in the pan with the miso-garlic sauce. Then on the plate it goes, topped with more microplane-grated cheese. I like how the microplane makes the cheese shreds light and fluffy, like umami dandruff.
You could eat it the way I usually eat it, which is while parked in front of my laptop watching cheesy Korean TV shows on Hulu. Preferably with a glass of that vermouth, on the rocks.