We are celebrating the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi as our Monthly Featured Chef this week at I Heart Cooking Clubs. Arguably, one of IHCC most popular chefs, we cooked with the master of vegetables and flavors back in 2013 and he holds a special place in many of our hearts. More dramatically but completely true, Ottolenghi actually saved IHCC!
Settle in, here is a little IHCC history...
When it started in 2009, IHCC had four hosts/founders and in the spring of 2013, two of the four made the choice for different reasons, to stop co-hosting this event. My pal Kim (Stirring the Pot) and I were left and feeling pretty burnt out ourselves, we made the hard decision to end IHCC with the current chef at the time, Madhur Jaffrey. We had looked to see if anyone wanted to step in and take over the event, but couldn't find any takers and just didn't see things continuing. Those of you that have ever hosted a weekly event know that while the community you build is rewarding and it can be incredibly fun, it can also be a lot of work to keep things going week after week for years. We were tired and uninspired, but we were also having some regretful thoughts about just ending the club and so we scheduled a phone call to decide what to do.
In addition to being finally getting to talk to each other in person, which was lovely, Kim and I were able to determine that we still wanted to cook together and to cook with the community that IHCC built--but, we needed a chef that would spark inspiration and make us want to dive back in. Still somewhat unknown in the U.S., Yotam Ottholenghi was a fast-rising global star, his recipes were new and exciting, his cookbooks gorgeous, and so we made one of our handful of non-voted-on chef decisions and chose him as our new featured chef! We also asked Sue of Couscous & Consciousness to join the hosting team (a most excellent decision if we do say so ourselves), switched to a picture link format, and came up with a few other fun changes to switch it up a bit (like being able to cook any former IHCC chef's recipes during Potluck!). Three years later, IHCC is still growing strong with old and new friends and new chefs and experiences. And that my friends, is today's history lesson of how Ottolenghi saved our cooking club. ;-)
Moving back to the present, I have many Ottolenghi recipes tagged to make, but decided to go back to my first Ottolenghi cookbook, Plenty and pick a simple fennel recipe. I am crazy about fennel and I liked that this recipe used all the parts of it and mixed it with goat cheese and dill. I was able to get some small locally-grown fennel bulbs as well as some Surfing Goat Dairy "Udderly Delciious"--a simple, plain Chevre that is gorgeously soft and creamy. (Side note: if you are ever in Maui, definitely go by the Surfing Goat Dairy and take the tour. Bonus fun points if there happen to be adorable baby goats to pet when you go and if you try a chocolate/goat cheese truffle!)
Caramelized Fennel with Goat Cheese
From Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
4 small fennel bulbs
3 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
2 Tbsp sugar (reduced to 2/3 Tbsp for half-recipe)
1 tsp fennel seeds
coarse sea salt and black pepper
1 garlic clove, crushed
3/4 cup roughly chopped dill (leaves and stalks)
5 oz young and creamy goat cheese
grated zest of 1 lemon
Start by preparing the fennel bulbs. First, cut off the leafy fronds, keeping a bit aside for the garnish. Next, slice off the end of the root and remove the tough outer layers, making sure the base still holds everything together. Cut each bulb lengthwise into 1/2 in. thick slices.
Melt butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over high heat. When the butter starts to foam, add a layer of sliced fennel. Do not overcrowd the pan and don’t turn the fennel over or stir it around in the pan until one side has become light golden, which will take a few minutes. Using tongs, turn the slices over and cook for another few minutes. Remove from the pan, add a bit more olive oil and butter if needed and repeat the process with the remaining raw fennel.
Once all the fennel is done and removed from the pan, reduce the heat, then add the sugar, fennel seeds, and plenty of salt and pepper to the pan. (I also added the garlic here) Fry for 30 seconds, adding a little more oil or butter if needed, until the sugar is dissolved, then return all the fennel to the pan and caramelize them gently. Once the fennel is caramelized, coated with sauce and tender (but still with a bit of firmness to it).
To serve, toss the fennel in a bowl with the dill. Taste and adjust seasoning. Arrange on a serving plate with spoonfuls of goat cheese, a drizzle of olive oil if desired and garnished with the reserved fennel fronds and the lemon zest.
Notes/Results: Oh yes, this fennel made me happy. Such a great combination of sweet, herby, savory, and tangy. I made a half-batch with three small-ish fennel bulbs and halving or reducing most of the the other ingredients and then proceeded to eat the entire soup-size bowl for dinner with no regrets. ;-) Yes, there is a good amount of butter, olive oil, and sugar in this recipe but it is a splurge-worthy indulgence indeed. I was going to replace the sugar with honey, but instead I used about 2/3 of a tablespoon of coconut sugar and it worked well. I will definitely make this again.
In addition to saving IHCC, introducing me to the wonders of sumac and harissa, and teaching me how adding ice water to hummus while blending makes it ultra-fluffy, Ottolenghi led me to cooking some incredibly delicious dishes. I learned not to fear long lists of ingredients and to trust implicitly, his unique flavor and ingredient combinations.
That makes it hard to choose my favorite Ottolengi recipes as there have actually been very few that were not favorites, but I limited myself to my Top 5--the ones I loved, craved, and still think of the most.
I tried to resist having multiple soup recipes as favorites, but Ottolenghi makes it difficult as his soups are incredibly delicious with great layers of flavor. So, I narrowed myself down to two soups. The Garlic Soup with Chickpeas and Harissa from Plenty is probably my favorite Ottolenghi soup out of the many I have tried. The flavor is in the garlic (there's 25 cloves in the soup), herbs, and in the homemade harissa paste that goes on top. To make it more substantial, I added in the chickpeas and it was perfect. Mmm... makes me want to go make it again right now! ;-)
The Spicy Chickpea and Freekeh Soup from Plenty More is my second favorite soup, both for the hearty and nicely-spiced soup itself, as well as the fabulous Creamed Feta Paste that topped it. Hearty, warm and spicy, this is a satisfying and memorable bowl of soup.
Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta from Jerusalem makes me happy just to look at it. It was one of my first forays into non-rice risotto and it was AMAZING! Just a great example of the combining of flavors and ingredients in unexpected ways that Ottolenghi is known for.
A recipe that I loved and remake frequently is the wonderful Asparagus and Samphire (Sea Asparagus) from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Since sea asparagus is readily available here and I can find local asparagus most of the year, it's an easy and delicious starter or side salad with fish and I love the fresh tarragon and sesame-garlic dressing.
I make variations of Ottolenghi's Walnut & Fruit Crumble Cream from Jerusalem (here it's Almond/Walnut & Blueberry Crumble Cream) all of the time--in fact I am cooking a gluten-free version for a GF cooking class series I am teaching this month. There is nothing I don't love about this recipe--the fruit, the nutty crumb topping, and the pillowy cloud of spiced cream, yogurt, and mascarpone cheese is the stuff dreams are made of.
There are my Top Five Ottolenghi Favorites. However, if you click on the Yotam Ottolenghi tab on my side bar, you can see more of how his wonderful recipes came to life in my kitchen.
Do you have an Ottolenhi favorite?
You can see the Ottolengi recipes that everyone made this week for our Monthly Featured Chef Event by checking out the picture links on the IHCC post.
I'm also linking up this review and recipe to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.