Exploding Garlic

Summer 2010 CSANews Issue 75  |  Posted date : Jul 20, 2010.Back to list

When writing recipes for my columns and cookbooks, I often focus on the use of fresh and quality ingredients. But a recipe's process is just as important. I love rustic peasant Italian dishes for this reason. They often use the simplest of ingredients that seem to be prepared in specific, time-honoured ways; preparations handed down from one generation to the next. It's these preparations that transform a dish from good to great.

Case in point. In 1993, I experienced the most delicious Pasta Fagioli in a small Italian restaurant called The Wet Paint Café in downtown Toronto, owned by Chef Joe DiMaggio Jr. Pasta Fagioli is served as either a soup or entrée, depending on its thickness. Chef Joe's version was a thicker entrée. He told me that the recipe had been handed down to him by his grandmother who was born in Isoladel Femmira, Sicily, Italy.

I was blown away by this dish and by Chef Joe's charismatic and down-to-earth style, his extensive culinary knowledge and his cooking abilities. I fell in love with Pasta Fagioli that day.

(For background, Chef Joe apprenticed under master chef & Michelin star recipient Jacque Maximan at the Hotel Negresco in Nice, France in 1979 and at the Hotel Les Palmiers in Saint-Raphael Beach for two years. He also studied with Tokyo's prominent Chef Kumagai Kihachi. Chef Joe went on to join the Culinary Design Association in Rome, Italy under the guidance of Bruno Taglia, Mario Penne and Aldo Del Bianco. From here, Chef Joe's career soared in Europe, the Middle East, China and Japan in the areas of restaurant concepts, designs and menus. Today, Chef Joe owns several restaurants, including Sa Za Pizza (www.sazapizza.com) and The Red Taco in Montgomery, Alabama, as well as a Red Taco in San Diego, California. Offering serious Italian food, Sa Za's is renowned for its fabulous peasant Italian dishes and on the menu, you'll find Chef Joe's famous Pasta Fagioli. Other restaurants currently in development include Fudo in California and Tokyo.)

For more than a decade, since that day I spent with Chef Joe, I've been attempting to make a wide variety of Pasta Fagioli versions. None have possessed the texture, colour or taste profile of Chef Joe's masterpiece. I just couldn't figure out why. I was almost resigned to the idea that this dish was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then, this past month, I found Chef Joe on Facebook. I was excited by the possibility of getting his recipe. Fingers crossed, I contacted him. Some chefs defend family secrets with butcher knife in hand. Not Chef Joe - he's unlike most chefs. He's a cool dude who appears as though he would have loved the 60s and Woodstock. His openness, generosity of spirit and his knowledge are no doubt the cornerstones of his success. Without hesitation, he willingly shared his grandmother's recipe.

As he dictated the recipe, I heard that magic process again - the process of exploding the garlic! I had forgotten that most important element! I also then remembered him telling me how important it was to add the ingredients to the pan in a specific order, to obtain that outstanding texture, taste and flavour. Chef Joe told me that it took him two years of experimenting and redevelopment of this recipe to master its taste profile and to get its preparation down to six minutes for restaurant timing.

I tried the recipe and absolutely loved exploding the garlic. The dish turned out to be a success... it was so simple to make. After a decade of dreaming and yearning, I had once again experienced that wonderful flavour of Chef Joe's Pasta Fagioli. I used a wrought iron pan to explode the garlic; my sauté pan just doesn't get hot enough. I then transferred the simmering ingredients, after exploding the garlic, into a larger sauté pan to finish the preparation. For a healthier version, use whole wheat pasta. But don't tell Chef Joe. "No substitutes," he declared when I asked about this on the phone. But under no circumstances use pre-grated cheese - you need Parmigiano-Reggiano.

If you're making this dish for guests, leave out the pasta until just before serving, to ensure that it remains al dente. Or make the dish in front of your guests, teaching them how to explode garlic. Be sure to experiment in advance... it can be messy if you don't get the lid on the pan at just the right time.

Here is Chef Joe DiMaggio Jr.'s Exploding Garlic Pasta Fagioli recipe:

Serves 4
  • ¼ cup olive oil blended with 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 15 cloves fresh garlic
  • ½ cup chopped prosciutto
  • ¼ cup ripped basil
  • Hefty teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1/8th cup dry sherry
  • 2 cups cooked white beans (keep liquid)
  • 1 ½ cups precooked pasta misto (or small pasta)
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup chopped escarole
  • ¼ cup marinara sauce of choice
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as garnish)
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (as garnish)
In a bowl, add prosciutto, basil, chili and dry sherry. Toss together. Set aside. In a wrought iron pan on medium heat, heat oil mixture until smoking. Add garlic and watch carefully. When garlic turns light golden (the colour of peanuts), remove pan from heat. Immediately, while oil is still very hot, add bowl ingredients. Quickly put the lid on the pan, as the oil will spit. Put the pan back on the burner and let the garlic explode like popcorn. Cook for one minute, shaking constantly.

Reduce heat to medium. Add beans and liquid. Add pasta. Add chicken stock. Add escarole (or endive). Cook for one minute. Add marinara sauce. Cook for three minutes. Divide into bowls. Drizzle each bowl with quality extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve hot.

Wine suggestion: The heaviness of this dish and salty flavour from the prosciutto and cheese demand a big red wine with lots of earthy character. An Italian Amarone would be ideal. Or go for a Spanish Tempranillo.