The idea of midnight spaghetti is not a new one. Known in Italy as Spaghettata di Mezzanote its preparation occurs after a night of drinking and partying or maybe you’ve forgotten to eat during the day and suddenly you are starving and all that’s available is mediocre take out. Time to go home and cook. It must be simple and fast of course and this recipe fits the bill. In my restaurant days I tasted food all day long but often forgot to eat anything substantial. I’d come home and around midnight, and after the adrenaline of the day calmed, I would be ravenous. This was my go-to dish before crashing.
At its simplest its just 5 basic pantry ingredients: Salt, good spaghetti, good olive oil, garlic and a little red pepper are all you need. Known in Italian as Aglio e Olio (Garlic and Olive Oil). Of course, you can always add anchovies, capers, chopped parsley or basil, olives, pine nuts, grated cheese and whatever else you like and have on hand, but the idea is to keep it simple.
AGLIO e OLIO
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
5 peeled garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
Red pepper flakes
1-pound dried spaghetti or any other shape that you like
Bring a large pot of generously salted water (it should taste like the sea) to a boil.
Meanwhile heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, without letting it brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes to your taste and optional ingredients like anchovies, capers, pine nuts, fresh chopped herbs, and the like. Remove pan from heat.
Once the water is boiling add the pasta until al dente (start testing after 6 minutes). It’s done when it has softened but still has a pleasantly chewy resistance when you bite down.
Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water then drain the pasta. Transfer pasta directly to the skillet set over medium high heat and add about 2/3 of the reserved water and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cook, stirring often until sauce coats the pasta, 1 to 2 minutes. You should have a little sauce pooing at the bottom of the skillet. If not, add more cooking water and stir well. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Top with optional freshly grated parmesan if you like and serve hot.
Now go to bed!
Let’s talk a bit about the exceptionally large world of pasta or noodles and specifically long dried ones like spaghetti. Though we think of them as primarily Italian they appear in many cuisines including Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and more. They’re made from every imaginable flour including wheat, rice, corn, mung bean, tapioca, yam, buckwheat, garbanzo, sweet potato, chestnut and many more. They can be freshly made* or dried and it’s important to point out here that one is not better than the other. All depends on how it is sauced and used. The focus of this article is on Italian dry spaghetti and its long, dried cousins like bucatini, fusilli, capellini, fettucine, vermicelli, tagliarini, and the like all of which could be substituted in the recipes following.
*Two books on making fresh pasta that I like are Pasta by Hand by Jenn Louis and American Sfoglino by Evan Funke.
Pasta’s history is ancient. Despite the oft repeated old canard about Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy after visiting China, ignores the fact that pasta was well known in Italy before MP set off on his twenty-four-year journey in 1271. There is evidence that the ancient Etruscans were aware of pasta centuries before this because of wall paintings showing it being made. Its humans’ original comfort food I think!
Now that you have the simplest sauce down, there are more to add to your repertoire. All the following are served with 1-pound cooked spaghetti or one of its cousins, serving 4 to 6:
The name implies that seafood is involved but typically it isn’t. There are several theories for this, from the need of sailors to make a quick sauce to toss with their pasta before going to sea, to the fact that they needed the money from the fish that they caught to survive.
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
Salt and Freshly ground pepper
Chopped fresh red chili pepper or hot red pepper flakes, optional
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1/3 cup loosely packed chopped fresh basil
Freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese (optional)
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and stir just long enough for the garlic to being to color, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chili pepper if using. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer sauce, stirring occasionally until it has thickened moderately, about 8 minutes. Add the oregano and basil during the last few minutes of cooking. Add cooked spaghetti and toss to coat. Serve topped with cheese if using.
There are almost as many explanations for the origins of pasta puttanesca as there are ways to make it. Ostensibly it is a sauce invented and made by prostitutes. It was designed to lure customers in with its powerful and delicious aroma. I think it would seduce anyone and like all its Midnight Spaghetti brethren, easy to make.
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 or more cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
4 or more anchovy fillets
1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup pitted and sliced black olives, preferably oil-cured
2 tablespoons capers
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
Chopped fresh parsley, oregano, marjoram or basil leaves for garnish, optional
Warm olive oil with garlic and anchovies in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly golden and anchovies have begun to melt.
Crush tomatoes with a fork or your hands. Add to skillet, with some salt and pepper. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture becomes saucy, about 10 minutes. Stir in olives, capers, and red pepper flakes, and continue to simmer.
Add cooked spaghetti, stirring occasionally and toss with sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary, garnish with herbs if you like, and serve.
SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA
4 fresh large eggs
8 ounces guanciale, pancetta or slab bacon, cubed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino
Freshly cracked black pepper
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the guanciale and sauté for about 4 minutes, or until the meat is crispy and golden and has rendered its fat. Turn off the heat.
In a small bowl whisk the eggs and the cheeses until well-combined.
When the pasta is done, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.
Return the guanciale pan to medium heat and add half of the reserved pasta water to the pan. Toss in the spaghetti and agitate the pan over the heat for a few seconds until the bubbling subsides. Much of the water will evaporate.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the egg mixture and stirring quickly until the eggs thicken. The residual heat will cook the eggs but work quickly to prevent the eggs from scrambling. If the sauce seems too thick, thin it out with a little bit more of the reserved pasta water.
Season liberally with freshly cracked black pepper. (Taste for seasoning: depending on the kind of pork used, it may not need any salt.) Divide the pasta into bowls and serve immediately.
MARCELLA HAZAN’S BOLOGNESE SAUCE
Marcella Hazan is credited (rightfully so) as the cookbook author who changed the way Americans cook Italian food. After her passing in 2013, The New York Times asked readers which of her recipes had become staples in their kitchens. Most answered with one word: “Bolognese.” So here you go. Definitely a sauce you need to make ahead. I make a double or triple batch and freeze in 8-ounce freezer bags. Pretty easy to defrost while pasta is cooking. Note no garlic or herbs. The magic here is the long slow cooking.
My own riff on this recipe after making it many times is to use heavy cream in place of the milk and half the amount of the tomatoes. It is delicious either way.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4-pound ground beef chuck (or you can use 1-part pork to 2 parts beef)
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1-½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table
Put the oil, butter and chopped onion in the pot and turn the heat on to medium. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, then add the chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat them well.
Add ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef has lost its raw, red color.
Add milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating — about 1/8 teaspoon — of nutmeg and stir.
Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.
Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the tablespoon of butter, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
WHITE CLAM SAUCE
This is adapted from a recipe by Lidia Bastianich. Typically served with linguini, any of the cousins will work nicely. She notes that pasta with red clam sauce is almost never found in Italy, but a big seller in Italian American restaurants here in the United States. So, when you go to Italy, eat it as they do with white clam sauce, and never, ever ask for cheese to put on your linguini clam sauce. Mussels are also great substituted for the clams.
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 to 6 anchovies
36 littleneck clams, scrubbed
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes or to your taste
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
3/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Bring a large pot of water to boil for pasta. In a large straight-sided skillet, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add sliced garlic and cook until sizzling, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add anchovies and stir until the anchovies break up and dissolve into the oil, about 2 minutes.
Add the clams to the skillet, along with chile flakes and oregano. Ladle in about 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until clams open, about 5 to 7 minutes. As the clams open, remove to a bowl. When all the clams are out, increase heat to high and add 1/2 cup of the parsley. Cook until liquid is reduced by half. Meanwhile, shuck the clams. Leave a few unshucked for garnish is you like.
Add the pasta directly to the sauce. Cook and toss until the pasta is coated with the sauce. Add shucked clams and remaining 1/4 cup chopped parsley, cook a minute more, to blend the flavors, and serve.
SPAGHETTI WITH LEMON SAUCE
This is a recipe adapted from Pierre Franey. Pierre was a legendary chef (Le Pavillion and La Cote Basque) in New York, wrote a column for many years for the New York Times called “The 60 Minute Gourmet” and had 3 different television cooking shows. The beauty of this recipe is its simplicity. All you need is pasta, a lemon, a knob of butter, a generous pour of heavy cream and a chunk of the best Parmesan you can get your hands on. He used linguine but use whatever long pasta you like.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest, plus more for serving
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra cheese to serve on the side
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a pot of salted water to boil (it should taste like the sea).
Heat the butter in a skillet and add the lemon zest.
Add the cream to the butter mixture. Add the pasta and lemon juice and stir until just heated through. Add the Parmesan and toss. Top with additional lemon zest, chives, plenty of black pepper and additional Parmesan and serve immediately.
And now a couple of fancier “Midnight Pastas”.
Salmon or trout roe is delicious and much more affordable than sturgeon caviar. Salmon caviar adds a delicate crunch to this luxurious pasta dish.
4 main or 6 first-course servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1/2 cup crème fraiche plus a little extra for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon (1 teaspoon dried)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon cut into 1/2-inch ribbons
4 ounces salmon caviar
1/4 cup chopped chives
Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. In a large, deep skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat. When the foam subsides, add the minced shallot, and cook over moderately low heat for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the crème fraîche, parsley and tarragon. Stir in about 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water and season to your taste with pepper.
Add the pasta and toss well. Add up to 2 more tablespoons of the reserved cooking water if the pasta seems too dry. Remove from the heat. Add the smoked salmon and three-fourths of the caviar and toss gently. Serve in shallow bowls, garnished with the remaining caviar, a little crème fraiche and chopped chives.
SPAGHETTI MARCO POLO
This is a mash-up of Julia Child’s original Spaghetti Marco Polo along with some additions via Arthur Schwartz’s “Garbage Pail Pasta”. Arthur was a long-time radio personality on WOR in New York City, author of several cookbooks and has a great blog called “The Food Maven”. In the latter Arthur took inspiration from a Neapolitan restaurant which was founded by brother midgets known as I Corti (“the little people” in Italian). The typical Neapolitan condiments of capers and raisins are added to the Julia version.
1-1/4 cups chopped walnuts
2/3 cup chopped black olives such as Cerignola
2/3 cup chopped roasted and peeled red pepper
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives
¼ cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons capers
2/3 cup small cherry tomatoes, whole or cut as you please
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
Mix the first 8 ingredients together with a little olive oil in a bowl and set aside. Season well with salt and pepper. Spoon walnut mixture over cooked spaghetti and toss. Top with cheese and serve.
In Italian, primavera refers to spring and the young tender vegetables and flowers available then. It is believed to have been invented by the chefs at Le Cirque restaurant in New York City in the late 1970s. Any young, tender vegetable is fodder for this recipe.
1 small bunch broccoli, about 2 heaping cups of florets
4 asparagus spears cut on the diagonal
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 thinly sliced garlic cloves
1 small zucchini, diced
4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground black pepper
Blanch the broccoli, asparagus, snow peas in a large pot of boiling salted water (should taste like the sea). Fill a large bowl with ice water. Boil the broccoli for 1 minute.
Add the asparagus and boil another minute. Add the snow peas and boil for 30 seconds more. Remove all the vegetables and plunge them into the ice water. Once they are cool, drain in a colander.
In a large sauté pan, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and zucchini and sauté 1 minute. Add the diced tomatoes and sauté another 2 minutes, stirring often.
Pour in the broth and cream and turn the heat to high to bring it to a boil. Toss in all the vegetables you blanched, plus the peas. Stir to combine. Reduce heat to a simmer.
Add the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. If the sauce seems too thick add some more chicken broth or cream.
Add the cooked pasta and stir to combine. Add basil and several grinds of black pepper and adjust seasoning to your taste. Serve immediately.
John Ash © 2021