Aglio e Olio with Fresh Tomatoes (Pasta with Garlic and Oil)

RECIPE UPDATED 7/16/2024

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Aglio e Olio

This recipe jumped onto the scene one lazy Sunday when I found myself craving something comforting and summery. There was a healthy supply of tomatoes, basil, and garlic sitting on the counter so I poked around my cookbook library looking for a way to use the ingredients. I ultimately mashed together the Aglio e Olio (Pasta with Garlic and Oil) recipes from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Cook's Illustrated's Italian Classics. Tomatoes aren't included in most of the "traditional" recipes but I highly recommend adding them. The juices meld into the nooks and crannies of the garlic-infused oil making for an especially satisfying yet light sauce.

To Press or Not to Press

I've always been a fan of my Rosle garlic press and, until recently, relied on it whenever a recipe called for minced garlic. During one of my Google benders, I came across an article on Serious Eats entitled The Best Way to Mince Garlic. The gist is that mincing garlic with a knife breaks down the cells of the clove less than pushing it through a press or running the clove along a microplane grater. The more you break down garlic, the more spicy and aggressive the flavor. Without even tasting them side by side I can understand the logic. Pressed garlic is a blend of mush and liquid whereas minced garlic is just little pieces with most of the liquid still safely inside. The Aglio e Olio I've made with pressed garlic does have a strong flavor but it's not so strong that I don't want to eat it. I've turned down very few bowls of pasta in my day. That said, the pictured pasta uses garlic minced with a knife since it is indeed more balanced.

For recipes such as Homemade Mayonnaise, I use grated or pressed garlic because I want a tiny bit to permeate the mixture. For Pasta with Garlic and Oil, the sweeter and milder flavor of the minced method is preferred. The garlic bits gently infuse the oil and add just the right amount of punch without making you feel like you're breathing fire.

UPDATE Let's overcomplicate this tip with more options. I changed things up again and made the dish with garlic sliced on a mandoline. Minced still works beautifully, but if you're like me and take pleasure in risking fingers in the name of transparent slices of garlic I recommend it. The additional note is to increase the sliced garlic to roughly 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons (14 grams).

Pasta Cooking Tips and Useless Facts

  • Start with cold water in the pot. Apparently, hot water can contain more dissolved impurities from the pipes and potentially from the water heater. Up until writing this post, I thought I was "saving energy" by using hot water when bringing a pot or kettle to a boil. Not true. A New York Times article on the subject of water temperature discusses how the E.P.A. says to use only cold water for cooking, drinking, and preparing baby formula. I feel like everyone knows this and I'm late to the party per usual. While reading about water temperature, I came across the Mpemba Effect which suggests that boiled water freezes faster than cold water (under certain conditions). Turns out boiling water is more complicated than previously thought.
  • Studies suggest that al dente pasta has a lower glycemic index than fully cooked pasta. Al dente is always the preferred texture and now there's a health benefit, too.
  • Cooking pasta in salted water is the only way to add proper flavor to the noodles. Many chefs suggest salting the water "like the sea" but I usually use a little less sodium than that.
  • Don't rinse the cooked pasta. Just don't do it. Nike was wrong. The starches are critical for sauce development and the sauce's ability to cling to the noodles. Speaking of Nike, did you know that their famous tagline was "inspired" by the last words of a murderer? That seems like a nice note to end this section on.

Original vs. Adapted

Garlic

Cook's Illustrated's Italian Classics suggests 2 tablespoons (6 teaspoons) of minced garlic for 8 ounces of pasta. Marcella Hazan's recipe calls for 1 teaspoon. That's a bit of a discrepancy. I started with 1 teaspoon and ended up with 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) minced. UPDATE: I used about 1 1/2 heaping tablespoons (14 grams) when slicing the garlic on a mandoline.

Lemon Juice

A touch of lemon is a simple but powerful way to brighten a dish when used in the right amount. This ingredient was lifted from the CI recipe. Try adding some lemon zest to simple buttered noodles -- totally transforms it.

Herbs

Both Cook's Illustrated and Marcella Hazan suggest parsley but I went with basil.

Farmers | Artisans

I make an effort to source my food from local California artisans with a special focus on the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Below is a list of the talented folks who contributed to this dish.

Tomatoes from JF Organic Farms - Santa Monica Farmers Market

Tools

My Favorite Cooking Tools spotlights the kitchen equipment I have owned and used for years.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 8 ounces spaghettini (thin spaghetti)
  • 1/4 cup quality olive oil
  • 8 ounces Early Girl tomatoes Note: If you can't find Early Girls, just go with whatever tastes great. You should end up with about 4 ounces after prep.
  • 1 tablespoon minced or 1 1/2 generous tablespoons (14 grams) thinly sliced garlic Note: See "To Press or Not to Press" above.
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice plus 1 teaspoon for adjustments
  • 1 tablespoon chopped basil leaves (cut into a chiffonade)
  • Flake-style salt
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste (optional) Note: A number of message boards suggest that cheese is forbidden in this dish because it's not traditional and/or ruins the olive oil flavor. Meh, I like it both ways. Try a couple bites of the pasta with and without the cheese and decide for yourself.

Instructions

This dish comes together quickly so I recommend having all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go before cooking the pasta.

  • Peel the tomatoes, quarter, scoop out the seeds, then chop fine. You should end up with about 4 ounces.
  • In a bowl large enough to toss the pasta, add the tomatoes and a 2-finger pinch of flake-style salt. Gently toss to distribute then set aside for 10 minutes before starting the oil.
  • Add olive oil, two thirds of the garlic, red pepper flakes, and tomatoes with their juices to a medium pan and heat over medium-low to low, stirring frequently. Once the garlic is straw color and tomatoes have broken down, move off the heat. Add the lemon juice and remaining garlic. Note: You want to simmer the oil low and slow - it should look slightly effervescent. The garlic can become bitter if it cooks to the point that it's brown.
  • While the garlic is working, bring a large pot of water to a boil, generously season the water with flake-style salt, and cook the spaghettini per the instructions for al dente.
  • If the garlic oil finishes before the pasta, put it back over a medium to medium-low flame and reheat before the pasta is done.
  • When the pasta is al dente, transfer it directly to the pan with the garlic oil, add 1 tablespoon of pasta water, and briskly toss the pasta and oil over medium heat until the sauce coats the noodles (about 1 - 2 minutes). Note: During the transfer, it's ok if a little liquid comes over with the pasta as it helps bring the sauce together.
  • Add the basil then adjust the salt, pepper, and lemon juice to your liking. The dish has been seasoned along the way and usually doesn't need too much tweaking.
  • Add freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional). Serve immediately.

Variations

Cherry Tomatoes

I tried 6 ounces of cherry tomatoes in place of the Early Girls and it was excellent. Here are a couple of notes about that:

  • Try to find tomatoes with a good balance of acidity and sweetness so they compliment rather than compete with the garlic.
  • Cut the cherry tomatoes in half then salt and set aside per the instructions above.
  • Once the cherry tomatoes have broken down (try pressing them once or twice with a spatula or large spoon to help that along), I like to be fussy and fish the tomato skins out since it makes for a better presentation and texture. No harm done if you don't feel like taking that extra step.

Pickled Fresno Chiles

  • I sauteed 3/4 ounce Quick Pickled Fresno Chile slices alongside the garlic and tomatoes. The heat, fruity notes, and additional acidity from the Fresnos was fantastic if you like that sort of thing.

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