For a time in the 1990s I lived in San Diego — in the Windansea neighborhood in La Jolla, to be precise. I had known nothing about San Diego, but took a chance and moved there to teach fiction writing at the University of California campus. I landed in a remarkably open multicultural community, and found a bevy of smart, fun, and generous friends. They were a mix of hardcore intellectuals, writers, and surfers. I went to many parties and gave a few myself. At one, as the music cooled and the crowd of 20 or so got their second wind, my friend Pasquale Verdicchio, a poet from Naples, told us it was time for midnight pasta.
Off we trooped into the kitchen, where I got a big pot of spaghetti going. Pasquale sliced up garlic, which he threw onto a warming pan of oil, searing the slices to a golden crispy almost-brown. He skillfully, theatrically mixed the garlicky oil into the al dente spaghetti. Lots of red pepper, a little salt, and some parsley, and there we had it: midnight pasta.
I have returned to the dish many times, sometimes using angel hair pasta, sometimes linguine, if that is all I find in the house. These days, I rarely share my midnight pasta dinners with revelers. I mostly eat alone, accompanied by two sleepy cats and Netflix. The dish is easy to adjust to single portions. Just cook the amount of pasta you’ll eat and reduce the ingredients accordingly. Cut yourself a slice of bread to run around the dish to sop up any lingering sauce.
Although I think few things go together so well as garlic, olive oil, and red pepper, you can be endlessly creative with this dish. Grated Parmesan or pecorino is an easy addition. But go ahead, zest some lemon into the bowl, toss in baby spinach or arugula, with maybe a touch of nutmeg. Or, add chunks of goat cheese and chopped toasted walnuts, swap out the garlic for torn wedges of mandarin orange, dribble a touch of balsamic vinegar, and give it some bite with a grind of black pepper. Another option is to sauté some halved cherry tomatoes or sundried tomatoes or red bell pepper, and broccoli rabe with the garlic and red pepper flakes, topping the dish off with a scattering of toasted pine nuts.
But at midnight, you just might want to keep it simple.
Midnight Pasta Recipe
Serves 8 as first course or a midnight snack
1 lb. spaghetti
Several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced or minced
About ½ cup olive oil
¼ cup pasta water
A big pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ cup grated Parmesan (optional)
Salt to taste
Fresh parsley (or basil, when it’s in season)
Boil the water for the pasta. Salt it like Ina Garten says to do, with a good amount, to mimic the sea.
Add the spaghetti. A pasta maker once told me that no pasta needs more than eight minutes in the pot. I still test the noodles by biting them, looking for the white raw interior to vanish. Remember to save a quarter cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.
While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan, and sauté the garlic, being careful not to burn it. It will take just a few seconds to turn a beautiful golden bronze. Add some of the saved pasta water.
Add the red pepper to the oil and water mixture — anywhere from a pinch to ½ teaspoon, depending on how hot you and your guests like things.
Drain the spaghetti and add it to the skillet, tossing gently to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add the Parmesan, if you’re using it. Taste it for salt and add a little if needed. Sprinkle on the parsley (or basil, if you have it).
Indira Ganesan is a novelist who lives and works in Provincetown. She is the host of “Namaste” on WOMR.