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We are entering the high season for cookbooks. Fall is prime cooking time and not coincidentally, it’s when the food world’s heavy hitters come out swinging. From the iconic Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food to TV star chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s Cook with Me to Magnus Nilsson’s magnificent Faviken, this is the time when it’s impossible to choose one new book. Instead, find more room on the shelf.
One of the most important new volumes to arrive this fall is the upcoming Ottolenghi Flavor: A Cookbook (Penguin Random House; $35) from the transcendent London-based chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi. Co-written with Ixta Belfrage, who works in his test kitchen, it contains over 100 plant-based dishes, from eggplant dumplings alla parmigiana to corn “ribs” and tofu meatball korma.
Ottolenghi divides Flavor’s recipes into three chapters: Process (what happens to vegetables and fruits when they cook); Pairing (ideal ingredient counterparts); and Produce (maximizing those ingredients). The result is a new understanding on maximizing the flavors of vegetables.
“These are recipes that Ixta and I love,” says Ottolenghi in a phone interview. “When we looked at the book, we realized there was something going on. The chapters were of very different natures; some were about processes that happened during cooking, about flavor combinations—a different way to look at it all.”
It’s not unusual for popular cooks to move the needle on ingredients, but Ottoloenghi has almost single-handedly introduced America to less-familiar Middle Eastern ingredients and products. Few people (including me, a veteran food editor) had picked up a jar of pomegranate molasses until Ottolenghi let us know about it in his gorgeous Plenty in 2010.
Za’atar, the fragrant mix of herbs, spices, and seeds, is another product that worked its way into the country’s vocabulary, courtesy of Ottolenghi. There’s no definitive recipe, but it might include dried thyme, oregano, and sumac, as well as cumin and sesame seeds. The result is addictively nutty, tangy, and woody.
“It’s a particular flavor that I love adding to salads. It’s good with roast vegetables. I use it whenever I want a deep herby flavor,” he says.
In Flavor, Ottolenghi makes za’atar a guest star in a completely unexpected dish: cacio e pepe, the popular butter-and-cheese-packed pasta. “I said, ‘We’ve reached the end of the book and we haven’t done anything with za’atar. It’s an Ottolenghi cookbook. It has to happen,’” says the author with a laugh.
“It was a scary point, because it’s a recipe that already works. How do you change a perfect dish?” says Ottolenghi, who credits Belfrage for coming up with the idea. “It takes confidence to mess with a faultless Italian classic,” she adds.
The result is exceptional: a pasta dish with the unstoppable spirit of cacio e pepe but with a haunting flavor of za’atar that’s both sizzled in the butter that coats the pasta and used as a garnish to finish. The fragrant, gently spiced layers play off the pepper that traditionally flavors it.
“We really haven’t taken away from the authenticity of the dish by adding za’atar,” says Belfrage. “It’s herby, nutty, sour, and a little salty, and all these flavors go fantastically well with the pepper and cheese.”
The following recipe is adapted from Ottolenghi Flavor, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage
Za’atar Cacio e Pepe
16 oz. dried bucatini (or other long pasta)
5 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. za’atar, plus 1½ tsp (see Note)
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
5 oz. Parmesan (about 1 ¼ packed cups), very finely grated
1 oz. pecorino (about ¼ packed cup), very finely grated
2 tbsp, olive oil
2 tsp. whole marjoram leaves (optional)
Bring 7 cups of water to a boil in a wide pan over medium-high heat, then season with 1 tsp salt. Add the bucatini and cook for about 9 minutes (or per package instructions) until just al dente, stirring every now and then. Drain, reserving all the cooking water. (You should have about 2¼ cups—if not, top up with a little hot water).
Melt the butter in a large, high-sided, nonstick sauté pan on high heat until bubbling. Add the 1 tbsp. za’atar and pepper and cook for 1 minute, stirring until fragrant. Add the reserved cooking water, bring to a rapid boil, and simmer for 5-7 minutes until silky and slightly thickened. Add the pasta and stir vigorously into the sauce.
Add the Parmesan in two batches, stirring, until the first half has melted before adding the next. Once the Parmesan has all melted, add the pecorino, continuing to stir until it’s melted and the sauce is smooth and silky. Season with salt.
Transfer the pasta to a lipped platter or serving bowl, and finish with the olive oil, marjoram, and the remaining 1½ tsp. za’atar. Serve at once.
Note: Za’atar is available at Whole Foods markets and many food stores, as well as by mail-order. Quality can vary, and it lessens quickly with time. Look for fragrant products that aren’t close to expiring.
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