Whether you have a strict food budget (like grad student me!) or just want to create a meal that’s delicious, homey, and doesn’t break the bank, simple garlic olive oil pasta is an excellent choice. This version has red pepper and a touch of lemon to liven things up a bit, so I guess you could say it’s a take on the traditional Italian spaghetti aglio, olio, e peperoncino. Added touches, like heating the garlic in olive oil, help draw out extra flavor, making this inexpensive and easy dish a budget meal that doesn’t feel like it’s on a budget.
This recipe comfortably feeds 2-4 – all you need to do is adjust the amount of pasta. Any more than four servings of noodles and you’ll probably need to start adding in more olive oil and other ‘sauce’ ingredients.
- 4-8 ounces of thin spaghetti noodles, or your favorite type of pasta
- 3 cloves of garlic, or more, to taste (or an equivalent amount of pre-minced garlic)
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- 1½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- The zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Shredded parmesan for topping
- The pasta is the star of the show here, so make sure you cook it al dente, or even just before al dente. Cook your pasta according to the package's directions, but make sure to keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn't overcook.
- While you're heating the pasta water, go ahead and mince your garlic. Then, combine the garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and lemon zest in a saucepan and heat over medium low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is yellow, but not browned, reducing heat if necessary. When the garlic is finished, remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
- When the pasta is just barely al dente, drain it and turn the burner down to medium-low. Add the drained noodles back to the pot and continue cooking for a minute or two, until they look mostly dry. I've discovered that it's really difficult to completely drain noodles, particularly if you're using something hollow. Cooking them a little extra allows additional water to evaporate and helps the olive oil coat them more evenly.
- Remove the pasta pot from the stove and toss it in the lemon juice.
- If the olive oil has cooled, place it on the now vacant medium-low heat burner, toss in the noodles, and cook for an additional minute or so. If the oil is still warm, add the noodles off the heat and toss thoroughly to completely coat them.
- Top with cheese and serve.
Heating the olive oil, garlic, pepper, and lemon zest takes a little bit of extra effort, but it mellows the garlic flavor and helps elevate the dish from ‘I’m a broke student’ to ‘I’m serving this to company.’ It really is a restaurant-worthy Italian classic you can make at home!
What’s your go-to meal when you’re on a tight budget but don’t want to feel like you’re eating a budget meal?