Me and Ottolenghi

I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.

This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand. 

Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
  • 45 ml olive oil
  • 1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
  • 25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped 
  • 1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
  • 480  g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
  • 1 tsp soft brown sugar
  • 400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
  • 200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
  • 50 g baby spinach leaves
  • 15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
  • 1½ tsp za’atar
  • salt and pepper
  1. Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
  2. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  3. Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.

A few notes on this dish.

  • Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
  • If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
  • I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
  • I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
  • If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.

Simple, Ottolenghi, 2018.

31 thoughts on “Me and Ottolenghi”

    1. I’m using this idea as motivation. I need a kick up the bum to get inspired to make interesting meals… otherwise I’m up to my neck in preserving. It is the time when the produce takes over.

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  1. Francesca, interesting recipe to try out. Looks a bit like minestrone soup but with a Middle Eastern touch. Every now and then I stumble on a new word in a recipe book, the last one being Hing, said to be essential in Indian cooking. I must admit I had never heard of it but now have it handy in the cupboard. Za’atar is a mystery. What’s that?
    The latest recipe I wish to try is a Trinidad chicken curry. So now I have this “Simple” one as well.

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    1. Hing is a useful ingredient, but you probably also know it as asafoetida, that little yellow box of stinky powder. Indians who don’t use onion or garlic often sub hing/asafoetida.
      The basis of za’atar is dried thyme mixed with sesame seeds. It’s a common condiment used in the Middle East. You may have had it before baked on top of pie breads from A1 bakery or an equivalent Lebanese bakery? It’s a handy ingredient. I buy mine at Bas foods, but smaller packets should be available.

      The dish, pasta and ceci, is a sauced pasta dish and not soupy like minestrone. We tend to eat a lot of combos like this given we don’t eat meat.

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  2. His long list of ingredients was a turn-off for me. I had his book ‘Plenty’ and went through it, ready to tab the recipes I couldn’t wait to try. Sadly, there were maybe two. During a purge this past summer, I got rid of the book. I have plenty of other cookbooks tabbed for cooking, but will gladly watch as you cook your way through his newest offerings.

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  3. You and I are in agreement over the way Ottolenghi adds new flavor twists to old recipes. I am also loving “Flavor” (spelled differently in North America!) I’ve tried his variation on another classic pasta recipe — which also added za’atar. Another favorite, from the cookbook titled “Jerusalem,” was chicken with three different forms of fennel and clementines.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. That chicken dish sounds most unusual. I think I may have been a bit harsh on Jerusalem. A winter fave is barley risotto with marinated fetta. It’s good to return to cookbooks, inspiring when the kitchen tasks get a repetitive.

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      1. Gosh I can’t remember. Because I cook so much I tend to use them more as reminders and guides and I like the anecdotes like hummus wars. . I think probably mujedra (brown rice, lentils and fried onions) and I think he may also have a muhummara (pepper walnut dip) both of which I know I have spelt wrong

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  4. Have to smile as Australia Post has just notified me my copy of ‘Flavour’ is finally almost here ! Only have a couple of others but love to simply look, read and learn even if I do not immediately cook. . Have seen most of his cookery episodes and am a keen follower on Instagram . . . somewhat frustrating at times to see all the things I would love to have but cannot because of the distances !! Thru’ the years I have treated Yotam more as a general teacher not only for food matters but food history and sociology . . . I would not know half as much about the Med and Israel had I not taken the time . . . love your recipe and shall try soonest . . . be well . . .

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  5. I’m in need of some food inspo. I’ll be on the hunt for za’atar and hing… the latter I’d considered previously but its smelly reputation put me off. I have one Ottelenghi book, I think, I love finding-buying cookbooks but after perusing them which never fails to make me hungry… when it comes to inspo and recipes I tend to go to my bookmarked favourites or wing it using ingredients to hand from a loose recollection of a recipe idea… so I too will be enjoying your Ottelenghi exploration.

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    1. Dale – asafoetida or hing is absolutely priceless in all vegetable recipes and I don’t think you’ll put the za’atar far away once you get it ! These days I buy both on line from Gewurzhaus: love the way they use small glass jars in which the spices keep so much better than Herbie’s plastic packaging . . . a wee bit cheaper also . . . enjoy !!!

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    2. I can send you some za’atar Dale, I bought way to mucibh, straight from the home of Lebanese ingredients, though it might be xrayed in the mail,☺☺😎 I think I still have your address

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  6. I enjoy reading recipe books for inspiration too. I live with a carnivore so his thinking around meal planning starts with meat whereas mine starts with vegetables. Just recently I cooked Yotam’s Chicken Marbella which i liked but i also think it would work very well with Aubergine. I bought some dried sugar plums on line from Prickle Hill Farm- they are delicious and are the way prunes used to be i.e. not mushy and coated in oil, I think they would substitute very well for the dates in the recipe. I also particularly like his recipe from ‘Jerusalem’ – BBQ boned lamb leg with almond, herb and orange blossom sauce. Looking forward to more of your vegetarian recipes, Francesca.

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  7. There are maybe a handful of recipes in any of his books that I make as yes the ingredients make it challenging and they are fiddly (he and I have different definitions of Simple, clearly). I am fortunate to have a local library with an extraordinary cookbook section so I borrow them instead. He also often has more approachable recipes in his Guardian column (loved the pastis garcon). His orzo with feta and prawns has become a regular dish and a favourite of The Marito (though I skip the orange), and I also love the cauliflower cake. There is a great orrechiette with chickpeas and capers dish too. Oh and the peach and hazelnut cake for dessert. They’re my picks Signora.

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    1. I used to rely on cookbooks libraries before Covid shut pura down for most of the year 2020. They have reopened now though my favourite library, Melbourne city library, only works on the reservation system… no random perusing. And so I bought some as hard lockdown reqards. I’ll follow up on your recommendations Signorina.

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    1. Simple is useful. As you cook some of the dishes, they remind you of other classics you already know but always with a twist. Ottolenghi freely borrows from every cuisine, sometimes without due recognition. I purchased this on as Amazon during lockdown at a bargain price, it made the isolation more bearable. Flavour is more fiddly but with very tasty offerings.

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