In every culture that has ever had peasants, which is to say, in every culture, you will find that the most inventive, and indeed, some of the most lusty, delicious dishes, originate from the ingenuity required to make something from nothing. I remember in cooking school when we learned about the cuisines up and down the boot of Italy, how yes, in the ritziest region of Emilia-Romagna, the food is indeed complex and loaded with things of high quality—meats, incredible cheeses, spices—but as you head down south, to places like Abruzzo-Molise and the Marches, the cuisine gets really interesting, just because of their history of being so poor. Beans you’ve never heard of, nettles and weeds for their daily vegetables, grains and polenta rounding it all out in super-comforting, why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that ways.
Maybe the most inventive something-from-nothing dish is spaghetti aglio e olio, garlic and oil. This is one of those dishes that’s outrageously delicious and comforting, but you would never see it on a menu in Italy. It’s more of a dish that everyone knows how to make, but no one ever serves, because it’s not special enough. So it’s enjoyed in private—the ultimate dish for one, or maybe for a couple of people, in famiglia. I was reminded of how powerful an ingredient garlic is when I visited Portugal years ago and sipped from a bowl of açorda, their garlic and bread soup. You practically need no other ingredient for a feast, and lots of places with poor histories have figured that out.
Marcella Hazan visits two versions of aglio e olio in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, one raw and one cooked, the latter garnished with chopped fresh parsley. I’ve seen derivative recipes in that vein practically everywhere. But my grandmother had a different secret ingredient: paprika. Now, I’m not talking about that stale, dark brown dust that hangs out in the back of your spice pantry to garnish the occasional devilled egg. She would often send me home from a visit with a generous pinch from a little brown paper bag that she kept in her fridge and replenished often, paprika as vibrantly burnt-orange as I had ever seen, kept around just for this dish. Hers is the only aglio e olio that I make, because it’s the only one I need, and trust me, we’ve been eating a lot of it lately as we recover from adding a new family member and can hardly stay on top of keeping staples in the house.
Spaghetti aglio e olio
For 1 lb spaghetti:
About 10 to 15 smashed cloves garlic
A generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil
Very fresh paprika
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Red chile flakes
While the pasta water is coming to a boil, very slowly cook garlic in oil (enough oil to cover the bottom of a small skillet by 1/4 inch) over very low heat. Do not brown, but a slight bubbling in the oil is okay. Turn garlic to cook evenly all over—you want it to go transluscent and become soft. When it gets there, OR if it appears in danger of browning, dump a nice amount of paprika (at least 2 teaspoons) over it and stir; this will arrest the browning. Add plenty of salt and pepper to taste, and chile flakes. Transfer to a large serving bowl. Drain pasta, reserving some pasta water. Toss spaghetti with oil, taste, and add additional salt to taste. Drizzle with additional pasta water if not oily enough (not usually a problem).