I was forced to relinquish the map; I had no idea where we were and was getting visibly stressed out. This was our first real trip and I was trying to impress not only with my ability to pick out good restaurants but also that I had fine navigational skills, which by the way, normally are quite strong. And yet those skills were failing me at that very moment – big time.
We were somewhere near Notting Hill, desperate to find one of the Ottolenghi restaurants we’ve heard so much about. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the map, but managed to take a wrong turn and there we were, in a cozy residential part of London that was, distinctly, not where we wanted to be.
I started to stress-sweat through my shirt: I expected Andrew to get angry and sullen, and blame me for not doing enough research, but instead, he calmly took the map, looked at it for a minute, and started to walk in the opposite direction.
“I think it’s this way,” he said, taking a right turn off the main street. I followed him, quietly. We reached our destination ten minutes later but not before Andrew spotted Idris Elba walking down the street and being chased by a group of squealing girls. I was too stressed out to notice Stringer Bell in the flesh. I regret it to this day.
Eating at Ottolenghi in Notting Hill required waiting in line; a wait that was well-worth the food. On our way out, our bellies full, we purchased a bag of lemon sandwich cookies so incredible, we had to ration them out in order to snack on them for the rest of the trip. One cookie per person per day. Draconian measures.
Everything we ate at Ottolenghi, and I mean everything, tasted superlative. Fresh. Seductive. Bright.
In the end, looking back on our London trip, it was by far my favorite place to eat. I don’t know if that makes me utterly unsophisticated in the realm of fine dining, but I could have had all my meals at Ottolenghi and would’ve remained a very happy woman. Everything was perfectly seasoned, with bright (I know I am repeating myself), bold flavors and always, always a nice note of surprise. Each dish made me want to know more. The flavor elements: tahini, za’atar, lemon, garlic, a crisp, bracing vinegar. Acid and salt – my favorite things.
And thus, Ottolenghi fastened himself in my mind as someone who makes ridiculously delicious food. Food that I want to eat with abandon. And food that makes even skeptical vegetable eaters – clean up their plates and never question the absence of meat. By the way, Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian, but what he does with vegetables, well – he even wrote a vegetarian cookbook, which is beloved in our kitchen.
Today, I offer you roasted butternut squash and red onion drizzled with tahini and sprinkled with za’atar. I know that it sounds good, but it tastes even better. You roast chunks of squash and red onion until they are slightly charred and have a pleasantly burnt taste. The onion blisters and turns deep, dark purple – which visually looks stunning against the orange squash.
While the vegetables undergo their transformation, you make a lemon-and-garlic spiked tahini sauce and cook some pine nuts in olive oil and salt until they get golden-brown. And then you layer everything together and serve it in one show-stopping stunner of a dish. The colors alone make you do a double-take. And then when you finally taste it, you’re done for.
If you think you might show more restraint, just talk to my husband who accidentally ate three quarters of it and forgot to ask if I wanted more. For the record, I would’ve done the same thing – it’s just that he got to it first.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar
Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I don’t normally insist on certain cookbooks beings a must-own in your library, but I really think you can’t go wrong with this book. The recipes are fantastic and straightforward, and while you might have to get a few “exotic” ingredients like tahini, za’atar, or date syrup, it’s well worth the investment. These ingredients will enable you to flavor your food differently, expand your palate, and make you a better cook. If you don’t have a Middle Eastern shop near you (I am, at the moment, very lucky in that department), there’s always Kalustyan’s which has all three of the above ingredients, and then some.
1 medium butternut squash (about 624 grams; 22 ounces) peeled and cut into 1×2 1/2 inch pieces
1 large red onion, cut into eighths
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt, divided plus additional to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons tahini paste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, pounded into a paste
3 tablespoons (30 grams; about 1.2 ounces) pine nuts
1 tablespoon za’atar
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Flaky sea salt
1. Heat the oven to 475 degrees F with the rack positioned in the middle.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the squash and onion and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, and a few twists of the pepper grinder. Toss until the ingredients are combined. Spread the vegetables on a shallow baking sheet, leaving them enough “breathing” room and roast in the oven 25 to 35 minutes, or until the vegetables have taken on some color and are cooked through. You’ll want to see a little bit of charring, though not too much. Keep an eye out on the onion; you may need to pick it out earlier. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
3. While the vegetables are roasting, make the sauce. Place the tahini I a small bowl along with 2 tablespoons of water, lemon juice, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey. You might need to add more water or tahini, depending.
4. Pour the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil into a small skillet and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt, and cook, stirring often until the nuts are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove fro the heat and transfer both: the nuts and the oil to a small bowl (otherwise the nuts will continue to cook).
5. To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large plate or a serving platter, and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by za’atar and the parsley. Add a few flakes of the flaky sea salt and serve.
Serves 2 to 4.