Yotam Ottolenghi came into Gourmandistani consciousness from two different directions. Michelle, constant comber of media and things food-related, had seen his weekly “The New Vegetarian” pieces in The Guardian and mentioned them to Steve. Steve, adrift in a sea of RSS feeds, forgot the mention—yet somehow coincidentally stumbled across Ottolenghi’s website, mentioning his food to Michelle. Michelle, after graciously reminding Steve that she already knew of the Israeli/Italian/German chef and his stylish London restaurant and take-outs, agreed we should explore his ideas. Probably not coincidentally, we agreed to start with an egg dish—a perennial quest with a ‘fridge constantly in danger of being overtaken by eggs. We loved its simple yet exotic flavors, and continued to look for more Ottolenghi ideas.
Recently we purchased Ottolenghi’s eponymous cookbook, and are now talking about making many more of his dishes. One of our constant favorites this Fall was an adaptation of couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash—a light but still satisfying mix of the grain-like pasta, roasted butternut squash, dried apricots, onion, spinach and roasted nuts (we’ve used both pepitas and cashews to equal satisfaction). We do think, as Gabrielle Hamilton said in a recent review of Ottolenghi’s latest book, Plenty, that his recipes sometimes seem underseasoned and overly acidic—but we’ve become accustomed to adjusting with garlic, hot pepper or other Gourmandistan staples, and believe we’re only improving on a good foundation. We’re just sorry we found the cookbook as we moved toward Winter, because many of Ottolenghi’s fresh ideas must await the return of local vegetables and herbs.
COUSCOUS WITH DRIED APRICOTS AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH
(adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook) (serves 4-6, depending on whether a main or side dish)6 TB olive oil 2 ounces dried apricots (preferably from California, not Turkish) 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice 1 cup couscous 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water Pinch of saffron threads 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 bunch spinach or other greens, cut into threads A handful of pepitas or ch0pped cashews, toasted
3-6 TB of chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint and tarragon if available, or, if you’re in Kentucky in late Fall after the herb garden is gone, just a bunch of parsley) Grated zest of 1/2 lemon Sea salt and black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Soak apricots in hot tap water for 5 minutes, then drain and cut into small dice.
Mix diced squash with 1 TB of olive oil. Spread on a baking pan and roast for about half an hour, tossing occasionally with a spatula, until done. A little color is good.
While squash is cooking, sauté onion in frying pan with 2 TB of oil, stirring frequently, until golden. Set aside.
Sauté spinach in 1 TB of oil until wilted. Set aside.
Bring stock or water to a boil with the saffron. Add couscous. Cover and turn heat off. After 5 or 10 minutes, the liquid should be absorbed. Aerate with a fork.
In a large bowl, mix together the apricots, the roasted squash, the cooked couscous, the onion, the spinach, the nuts, the chopped herbs, the lemon zest and the remaining 2 TB of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm, at room temperature or even cold.