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Full marks for concept, middling for taste - an Ottolenghi recipe

"Whatever adaptations you may be making to the dish, follow the methodology" Ever Open Sauce

Two days ago in my post about an ordinary day I said the following:

"I am now going to pick a cookbook and find something amazing to cook for tomorrow's dinner. I feel it's time for something really special. ... So shall I go for something new and very different or shall I go for something old and not cooked for many years?"

Well I chose the new and different course, and yesterday I announced my choice - Ottolenghi's One pan crispy spaghetti and chicken, which is shown here in the photograph from my source - Shelf Love - his most recent cookbook, written in conjunction with his Test Kitchen staff, headed by Noor Murad. I suspect, though that this particular dish is one of Ottolenghi's own.

The reason for thinking this is that in an article in The Irish Times - I think an offshoot of The New York Times, there is a long introduction by Ottolenghi himself in which he talks of the recent death of his father and of cooking with his two sons. In the book, all of this rather touching obituary - for that is what it is really - is condensed down to a reference to his sons - "the most brutally honest of critics" being "so keen that they asked for it two nights in a row."

One finishes by believing that this particular dish is really close to his heart because its inspiration is:

"the cheesy-crunchy-swirly gratin my dad used to prepare with leftover spaghetti. Recreating this textural bliss, even when there aren’t any leftovers around, was the impetus behind my one-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken. It has a crunchy layer on top, helped by a sprinkle of Parmesan crumbs, and another one at the bottom, where the pasta touches the hot pan and fries a little."

Something that the kids would like. It was David who made the final decision to make this particular 'special' meal - I think for something like the same reasons. It seemed sort of familiar yet new. No difficult ingredients - you would have all of them in your cupboards and fridge. He knocked back my alternatives - Sautéed chicken salad with cider and watercress (sorry - no picture or recipe online) - the chicken being sautéed with cider, apple juice, cider, honey and mustard from Nigel Slater, who also had a Marmalade chicken recipe which was rejected on the grounds that the stocks of marmalade were getting low. The last option was Chicken and mushroom casserole with cider from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, whose Rolled breast of lamb with lemon and apricot stuffing was unfortunately not possible because you don't seem to be able to get lamb breast here.

BesidesOttolenghi's pasta dish looked so good. The picture at the top of the page is from the book - the one below from The New York and the Irish Times.

So first of all let me take you through the process - for two people - I halved the quantities. Check out the actual recipe for the original. Then I'll tell you what we thought - and others too. Lots of people have tried this, for it seems to have been singled out as one of the star recipes in the book.

First of all you fry your chicken in the pan you are going to use. (It needs a lid.) I used a small non-stick casserole that I have. I think non-stick is good because there might be a danger of burning otherwise. But then again maybe not. Fry the seasoned chicken on a high heat for 7 minutes without touching it, skin side down. And for once I had no difficulty finding thighs complete with bone and skin - maybe they are coming back. If you do this the chicken will not stick to the pan and it will be brown.

Turn the heat down, add a coarsely chopped small onion, and turn the chicken over. Cook for five minutes until the onion is soft and slightly brown. I think I had mine turned down too low so the onions were not all that brown. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 1/2 tablespoon thyme and 2 crushed cloves of garlic. Stir for a minute. Turn the chicken skin side up and pour in 75ml of water. Cook for 10 minutes stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has dried up.

Add another 250ml of water and 125g spaghetti broken into thirds, Make sure the spaghetti is submerged and place chicken on top of the spaghetti. Cover with a lid and bake for 30 minutes at 200ºC (fan). All the liquid should have been absorbed.

delicious. has a video as well as the original recipe on their website and does a couple of things differently - the first of which is that they don't break the spaghetti into thirds. Well I needed to because they wouldn't have fitted in my pan, otherwise, and I see that the 'official' photo in the book (above) has them broken up.

Whilst it's all cooking in the oven you make your crunchy topping - 10g Parmesan, 10g breadcrumbs, 5g parsley, 1/2 tablespoon thyme, 3/4 tsp grated lemon zest, salt and pepper. Well of course I was not as prescriptive. The herbs were just thrown in in abandon, and I think I mistakenly doubled the Parmesan - maybe the breadcrumbs too. Anyway when you take the dish out of the oven, you put the grill on high, scatter the crumbs over the top , drizzle with oil (I forgot), and grill for 3-4 minutes until browned. Leave for 5 minutes before serving. And here is the second thing that delicious. did differently. They seemed to just scatter the breadcrumbs over the chicken and not so much over the pasta, and, as it was served they scattered some more over it all. It also looked suspiciously like the breadcrumbs had been fried or toasted as well. Which may not actually be a bad idea.

And here is my finished result - not great food styling, but you can see I was lavish with the herbs.

So what did we think? Well we agreed that it was Ok, but not great - The taste was almost bland, and I don't think my topping was crunchy enough. My spaghetti wasn't terribly crunchy either. This may be because I added a bit more water than I was told because I didn't think it was enough - you really should trust the experts - and also maybe a non-stick pan is not actually a good idea. We gave it 3 1/2 stars. I'm not giving up on this though as it's such a clever concept, as others agree:

"You have to give it to this guy. He is so clever. And this dish is just that. Like, screw you clever. Like, why didn’t I bloody think of that clever." Robby Dog Cooks - their version at right.

Indeed, why didn't I think of this because, really when you think about it, its just like all those pasta bakes that you have probably made at some point. An evolution from lasagne. Indeed Ottolenghi himself says it's inspired by dishes of a similar kind cooked by his father. I suppose the main thing that is different is that you have actual chicken pieces, and that the pasta is not really mixed up with anything but just forms a base.

Lots of people have tried this - even the French - here are three different attempts: Glam Adelaide; Little Piggy; and Ever Open Sauce

The first one shown above from a website called Glam Adelaide looks a bit anaemic I have to say, and I'm really not sure I would have served it with plain green beans and cauliflower. All it needs is a green salad. The writer of Glam Adelaide said "that the finishing touch of a grilled parmesan, breadcrumb and herb topping left the dish very dry." Well I don't think it's supposed to be wet and theirs doesn't look dry anyway. Somebody else had never made pasta with chicken - how weird is that?

It could be improved upon though. The book, of course, has a space for you to write in your thoughts (I have written them all over the page), and to add your own touch. To start you off down that path they suggest:

"Use up any soft herbs or hard cheeses you have on hand. Add some spices and chilli heat if making an adult version."

I do think more cheese would be a good idea. Who doesn't like grilled cheese on top of things? No chilli in this house though. Another website called Lord Web which is written in rather quaint English - I think they are not a native English speaker - says:

"Ottolenghi himself doesn’t always use chicken, sometimes turning the dish into a vegetarian pasta bake or channeling classic spaghetti and meatballs. “Joyful [meatballs] out there are the meatballs that nestle in the spaghetti like we do the chicken here,” he says. “Just make your meatballs ahead of time. [Or] you could replace the chicken with a vegetable – it’s definitely a good way to go about it.” Lord Web

The writer was also somewhat confused over Ottolenghi's sex. I think it was the children and husband thing - Ottolenghi is gay and married with two sons - but the writer was truly confused - sometimes saying he and sometimes she.

I also came across another Ottolenghi recipe - Slow cooked chicken with bucatini which is in many ways similar, but with many more flavours - and without the crispy bits. It's more of a casserole really, but maybe this is another source for his children's dish. For really that's what this is - comfort food for one and all with crispy bits for the kids.

So how could you make it tastier? Perhaps you could add things like spinach, or olives. Use wine instead of water. More lemon. Paprika? More herbs. Any ideas? Please contribute, because I really think it's worth having another go. Maybe we have become spoilt today. A dish that would have been sensational in our youth, is now just a tiny bit ordinary. And the concept is definitely worth revisiting.

And I did make us a dessert as a treat - this rather glum looking (but delicious) apple and blackberry strudel - with a few almonds and a bit of that ricotta thrown in.

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