“Would You Make This?” is a sporadic new column where personal chef Alix Wall evaluates a new cookbook by making two of its recipes, sharing them with friends and asking what they think of the results.
Hi, my name is Alix and I’m a member of the cult. The cult of Ottolenghi, that is. I feel I should begin this way to acknowledge that I am one of the thousands who have come down with a new kind of Jerusalem Syndrome, one where, our older cookbooks remain spatter-free and collect dust, because somehow, after the “Jerusalem” cookbook, none of them seems to compare.
On a recent pilgrimage to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Nopi restaurant in London, a waiter told me that “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” by the chefs (out in the U.S. on Sept. 3) that’s new to us is his favorite of the team’s three books. “Better than ‘Jerusalem?’” I asked, incredulously. He thought so. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. And yet, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy to find out. I was tempted to buy the U.K edition, British measurements and all, but I decided to wait. And luckily for me, that wait didn’t turn out to be long at all.
Without Jerusalem or vegetarian fare as a unifying theme, this “Ottolenghi” is a bit harder to make sense of, for those who have never visited an Ottolenghi restaurant.
While Nopi is the fine dining exception, Ottolenghi restaurants are cozy, casual affairs, some with communal tables. In the Notting Hill location I visited, mounds of meringues and other pastries were stacked in the window, while platters of vibrant salads were elevated in differing heights, almost to eye level. Since the turnover is so high, nothing is refrigerated. Walk into a store, and the beauty of the food stares you right in the face, not from behind a refrigerator case.
What unifies this cookbook is that these dishes are the food that made these stores famous and Ottolenghi himself, an Israeli of German and Italian descent, and his business partner, Palestinian-born Tamimi such food celebrities in England and now abroad; so many customers asked for a cookbook, they finally acquiesced and “Ottolenghi” was the result.
So, for now at least, I forsake “Jerusalem” (thankfully, use of my right hand remained intact) to take “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” on a test-drive. I chose two recipes that sounded perfect for Rosh Hashanah dinner: roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey and a side dish of couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash. After an afternoon of cooking, I brought my meal to my friends Leah and Brahm’s house. Our friend Adam joined us.
The chicken was a unanimous hit, though Brahm questioned whether there might be too many onions. Adam said it reminded him of his mom’s “Yontiff chicken,” in that it was sweet and savory but not too sweet. “It definitely feels suitable for a chag,” he said.
Leah said it was “delicate but not overpowering,” in that none of us tasted the rosewater or the honey separately, though we wondered whether we wouldn’t like it even better if we did (acknowledging that one should increase the rosewater in very small increments, because too much rosewater can definitely be a bad thing). Brahm appreciated how the honey allowed the chicken skin to brown nicely, which doesn’t always happen when chicken is marinated, and I thought the hazelnuts gave an added richness.
Would you make it? All of us agreed that we would.
I thought I was the only one bored with couscous. In general, couscous pilafs seem to lack imagination. You put your dried cranberries, you put your toasted nuts, you put some chopped parsley. Turns out I wasn’t alone in my thinking.
While Ottolenghi’s couscous does have a lot of steps, the result “would make me make couscous,” said Adam. Leah immediately picked up on the chopped tarragon and mint, and liked that “you get a different experience in different bites.” She also appreciated the use of dried apricots rather than the standard currants or cranberries, adding that small chunks of raw fuyu persimmons would make a nice substitute for the roasted squash when the time comes.
We all agreed that couscous can often be dry. This one was not, for two reasons. One, you make it with either vegetable or chicken broth (I used veggie). Two, the ratio of “stuff” to couscous is much higher than in most couscous recipes.
While the recipe calls for three tablespoons of olive oil to be added over the stock to the couscous. I thought that sounded excessive, and omitted it, figuring the residual oil from the roasted squash and caramelized onions would be enough. While the couscous was dry when I first fluffed it, once I mixed it with the other ingredients, it was fine. While Leah and Brahm both found the couscous a bit too salty for them, Adam and I did not.
Would you make it? Leah and Brahm: yes with some adjustments. Adam and I: yes.
One thing to note with Ottolenghi food: His dishes have so much flavor because his recipes often require numerous fresh herbs and spices. While one way to cut down on cost is to grow your own herbs, some may stay away from his recipes because they are more expensive than most. Both of these recipes required saffron, which instantly raises the price. While it’s something to think about when considering his cookbooks, we all agreed this was more holiday food than weeknight dinner food, and of course on those occasions, spending more, when you can, is often warranted.
Roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts, and honey
1 large organic or free-range chicken, divided into quarters:
breast and wing, leg and thigh
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
a generous pinch of saffron threads
juice of 1 lemon
4 tbsp cold water
2 tsp coarse sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
scant ¾ cup / 100 g unskinned hazelnuts
3½ tbsp / 70 g honey
2 tbsp rosewater
2 green onions, coarsely chopped
1) In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces with the onions, olive oil, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, lemon juice, water, salt, and pepper. Leave to marinate for at least an hour, or overnight in the fridge.
2) Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C. Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Chop coarsely and set aside.
3) Transfer the chicken and marinade to a baking sheet large enough to accommodate everything comfortably. Arrange the chicken pieces skin side up and put the pan in the oven for about 35 minutes.
4) While the chicken is roasting, mix the honey, rosewater, and nuts together to make a rough paste. Remove the chicken from the oven, spoon a generous amount of nut paste onto each piece, and spread it to cover. Return to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the nuts are golden brown.
5) Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and garnish with the chopped green onions.
Couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash
1 large onion, thinly sliced
6 tbsp olive oil
scant ½ cup / 50 g dried apricots
1 small butternut squash (about 1 lb / 450 g), peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch / 2-cm dice
1½ cups / 250 g couscous
12/3 cups / 400 ml chicken or vegetable stock
pinch of saffron threads
3 tbsp coarsely chopped tarragon
3 tbsp coarsely chopped mint
3 tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
grated zest of ½ lemon
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1) Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Place the onion in a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of the oil and a pinch of salt. Sauté over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside.
2) Meanwhile, pour enough hot water from the tap over the apricots just to cover them. Soak for 5 minutes, then drain and cut into ¼-inch /5-mm dice.
3) Mix the diced squash with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and some salt and pepper. Spread the squash out on a baking sheet, place in the oven, and bake for about 25 minutes, until lightly colored and quite soft.
4) While waiting for the butternut squash, cook the couscous. Bring the stock to a boil with the saffron. Place the couscous in a large heatproof bowl and pour the boiling stock over it, plus the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and leave for about 10 minutes; all the liquid should have been absorbed.
5) Use a fork or a whisk to fluff up the couscous, then add the onion, butternut squash, apricots, herbs, cinnamon, and lemon zest. Mix well with your hands, trying not mash the butternut squash. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Serve warmish or cold.
Reprinted with permission from “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi”, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.” Photography credit: Richard Learoyd © 2013