Perhaps it’s my Italian blood, or perhaps it’s just the carbs, but there’s something wonderfully calming about the ritual of preparing and eating a plate of spaghetti aglio olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil). It’s so easy to prepare that it’s my standard mid-week I-can’t-deal-with-cooking dinner of choice, but I still never get sick of the silky, smoky tangle of noodles, although I do add variety by throwing in halved cherry tomatoes one night, a handful of chopped basil another night, a sprinkle of incendiary red pepper flakes yet another night, or a generous scattering of crackly golden pan-fried bread crumbs still another.
The only two tricks I’ve discovered to preparing it properly are 1) you must not, under any circumstances, burn the garlic, and 2) you must slightly undercook the noodles and finish them off in the pan you warmed the oil and garlic in. I learned the secret of both from Lidia Bastianich, one of the least irritating of the celebrity chefs, and so like my grandmother that I feel completely comfortable whenever I watch her. Lidia’s method is to warm several thinly sliced cloves of garlic and several tablespoons of good (but not necessarily extra virgin) olive oil in a large, shallow pan on low heat while the pasta is boiling on another burner. When the garlic starts to barely turn golden, drop several large ladlefuls of the pasta water into the pan, which will stop the garlic from getting any darker and also provide just enough liquid to finish cooking the pasta and serve as a vector to carry the garlic flavor into the pasta, instead of just leaving an oily film on the outer surface. When the pasta is almost al dente, scoop it out of its pot (I use tongs) and deposit it into the pan, turning up the heat a bit and stirring it gently until all the liquid is absorbed.
This entire procedure takes less than twenty minutes, and can be done on autopilot after the worst possible day, but I try to concentrate on the flow of it all the same, turning it into a meditation that nourishes the soul as well as the body.