Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Ajo-Ojo

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 Ajo-Ojo This Roman classic pours sizzling from the pan, but it requires only quick stove-top cooking, so you don't have to fire up the oven or light all the burners on a searing summer day.
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Just when we thought summer couldn't get any worse, daily temperatures hereabouts started topping 100F, a weather phenomenon that doesn't encourage much activity beyond reaching out to grab a tall glass of iced tea or to crank the air-conditioning down another notch.

We've been harvesting the garden in recent weeks, looking for simple veggie dishes and light dinner salads that seem well suited for the heat. But a person - at least this one - can't live on vegetables alone. A boy's got to have pasta!

Today, let's take a look at a Roman classic that, although it pours sizzling from the pan, requires only quick stove-top cooking, so you don't have to fire up the oven or light all the burners when even small sources of additional heat aren't particularly welcome. Served with a cool salad alongside, it makes a splendid midsummer meal.

The dish: Spaghetti "aglio e olio" ("garlic and oil"), a classic Roman pasta dish that's noteworthy for its simplicity; in dialect it's sometimes rendered "Ajo-Ojo," a name that may look Spanish but is deeply rooted in Southern Italy. Menus will often list it by the longer name "Ajo-Ojo e Peperoncino," giving equal title weight to the dash (or more) of hot peppers that makes this one of the relatively few Italian dishes with a seriously piquant edge.

In its simplest form, Ajo-Ojo hardly requires a recipe (although I'll give you one anyway). It's as simple a matter as boiling spaghetti and, while it cooks, gently cooking a lot of garlic with red-pepper flakes and maybe a little parsley in a good ration of your best olive oil, then tossing in the cooked spaghetti and a little of its pasta water, cook briefly so the flavors blend, and pour it into your waiting bowls.

If you want something with just a little more heft for dinner, it's as easy as tossing a handful of shrimp, scallops, pieces of fish or even minced clams into the simmering Ajo-Ojo for just long enough to cook them through before adding the pasta.

Ajo-Ojo is very much about personal taste. Even if you follow this recipe scrupulously on your first try, the next time you make it, try varying ingredients to fit your preferences. More garlic? Less red pepper? Let your taste buds be your guide ... but please don't hold back on the olive oil for the sake of a few calories: As a meatless main course, or even with the optional seafood, a half-cup of olive oil won't push this into calorie-overload territory.


(Serves two)

4-6 ounces (120-180g) spaghetti
3 or 4 cloves garlic
Sprig or two of Italian flatleaf parsley (optional)
Dried red-pepper flakes or one small whole red chile pepper
1/4 cup (60ml) or more quality olive oil
Sea salt


1. Bring a large saucepan full of water to a rolling boil and add about 1 tablespoon (15g) salt, enough to make it "taste like the sea." Put in the spaghetti - don't break it into shorter lengths - pushing it down as it softens until it's all submerged. Cook according to package directions, typically 7 to 11 minutes depending on thickness, but taste-test it to make sure it stays al dente and doesn't turn mushy.

2. While the pasta is cooking, peel the garlic cloves and mince them fine. Mince the parsley, if using, and measure out dried-red pepper flakes (or tear the red chile pepper into small pieces).

3. Put the olive oil in a saute pan or skillet over medium heat with the garlic and red-pepper flakes, and cook gently until the garlic turns translucent, then golden. Reduce heat, and before the garlic turns dark brown, stir in the parsley, if using; then carefully splash in one or two wooden spoons full of pasta water. This will stop the garlic cooking, and the starch-laden, salty water will add an attractive texture and flavor component to the sauce. Hold over low heat until the pasta is done.

4. Drain the pasta well. Turn heat under the oil and garlic back to high and toss in the drained pasta, stirring well until the flavors mix and the pasta sizzles. Pour into waiting bowls and serve.


SHRIMP: Cook about 8 to 12 ounces of medium or large shrimp in the oil with the garlic and red-pepper flakes in Step 3. Use peeled shrimp for convenience, or sautee them in the shells for additional flavor if you're not obsessive about messy dishes at the table.

SCALLOPS: Sear them in the garlic and oil in Step 3.

CLAMS: Stir in minced fresh or canned clams and their juices toward the end of cooking the garlic in Step 3.

FISH: Cut firm-fleshed fish into bite-size cubes. Dredge them lightly in seasoned flour and sautee them in a little oil and butter in a separate pan until just cooked through. Stir them into the dish just after you add the spaghetti, and finish with a squirt or two of lemon or lime juice.

MATCHING WINE: The accompanying wine has to be white and ought to be dry; extra credit if it's Italian. I recently served a shrimp-and-scallops rendition with a lovely Dorigo 2005 Colli Orientali del Friuli Ribolla Gialla, and a mixed-fish version with the full-bodied, good-value Pine Ridge 2006 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc-Viognier.

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