Yotam Ottolenghi’s storecupboard sauce that makes everything taste better

‘There is something reassuring and comforting about crossing a fully stocked larder off the to-do list’

Giant couscous cake with roasted pepper sauce. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

Giant couscous cake with roasted pepper sauce. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

 

Stocking up, stockpiling, supermarket sweeps: 2020 has, for many of us, changed the way we shop. Even though we know, rationally, that there are enough tins of tomatoes and bags of flour to go around, our instinct can still be to have a surplus. There is something reassuring and comforting about crossing a fully stocked larder off the to-do list.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

It’s not, I have to say, an instinct I share. Not when it comes to shopping, at least. I just don’t want 15 cans of chopped tomatoes taking up space on my pantry shelves.

The few times I have succumbed to overshopping, it never seems to work out. I may well have 15 cans of tomatoes, but they’re of no practical use to me unless I also remember to pick up the garlic and onions, to stock up on the olive oil, and to make sure I already have the sugar, red-pepper flakes and sprigs of thyme I’ll want in order to make the tomato sauce those cans make me crave.

For it’s not the tins I want to stock up on in 2020, it’s the sauce itself. It’s here, in the cooking, rather than the shopping, that my instinct for stacking, stockpiling and shelf-sweeping kicks in. I’d far rather buy, say, four cans of tomatoes at a time, then pair them with all the bits and bobs I have at home to make a big batch of sauce.

That is where it all comes in: the glug of oil, the clove of garlic, the single onion, the teaspoon of maple syrup or sweet balsamic vinegar that needs finishing up, the basil or coriander leaves looking for a good home, the cumin seeds that could be given a new lease of life by being lightly toasted and blitzed. Any sauce made like this, using spices, herbs, vinegars and stray vegetables on hand, will always be so much more than the sum of its slightly neglected parts.

The starting point for a sauce could, of course, be a bunch of tins lurking in the back of your pantry, but, equally, it could be the result of a trip to your greengrocer or farmers’ market. A bagful of red peppers and fresh tomatoes will make a sauce you can use in all kinds of contexts.

It could go toward a giant couscous cake, or, instead, spooned alongside yesterday’s leftover turkey meatballs or tomorrow’s pan-fried tofu. It could go with scrambled eggs in the morning, a cheese sandwich at lunch, or spread over a seeded cracker and topped with some tangy cheese in a snack before supper.

If you can, always double or triple any sauce you make, so half of it can be sent on its way into the fridge or freezer. Once stacked on the shelves, these premade, ready-to-go sauces will provide all the comfort and reassurance anyone thinking about that to-do list needs. And it is the kind of stockpiling and shelf-sweeping that will, I hope, be one of the legacies 2020 leaves us with in the kitchen.

Giant Couscous Cake With Roasted Pepper Sauce

Serves four
Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients
For the pepper sauce:
2 small red peppers (340 grams), seeds and stems removed, quartered
1 small tomato, halved
4 tbsp/60ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large heads garlic, tops trimmed just enough to expose the cloves
1½ tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp maple syrup

For the couscous cake:
250g pearl (or giant) couscous
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
320 ml boiling water
10 spring onions, trimmed
7 tbsp olive oil
140g baby spinach (about 4 packed cups)
220g Greek-style yogurt
100g coarsely grated low-moisture mozzarella
50g finely grated pecorino, plus extra for serving
50g plain flour
2 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp coriander seeds, toasted and roughly crushed in a mortar and pestle
15g roughly torn fresh basil leaves, plus more for serving

Method

1. Heat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius.

2. Prepare the pepper sauce: Add the peppers and tomato to a baking sheet (tray) and toss with 1 tablespoon oil, ¼ teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Drizzle the garlic heads with a little oil, wrap tightly in foil and place them to one side of the baking sheet. Roast for 35 minutes or until the pepper skins are well charred and the garlic has softened.

3. When cool enough to handle, peel and discard the pepper and tomato skins. (Don’t worry if you can’t remove all the skin.) Add the peeled vegetables to a food processor. Squeeze the garlic cloves out of their papery skins (discarding the skins) and add them to the blender along with the vinegar, maple syrup, ¼ teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Blitz for a few seconds, then, with the machine running, slowly drizzle in the remaining 3 tablespoons oil until incorporated and the sauce is smooth. Set aside pepper sauce.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the couscous cake: Add the couscous, ½ teaspoon salt and boiling water to a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, then cover with a lid and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10 minutes, then set aside to cool.

5. Place a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Toss the spring onions with ½ tablespoon oil, then add to the pan and fry until softened and charred, turning halfway through, about 4 minutes. Set the scallions aside.

6. Turn the heat down to medium-high, then add another ½ tablespoon oil and the spinach to the pan. Cook until wilted, about 90 seconds, then transfer to a large bowl. Roughly chop the spring onions and add two-thirds to the bowl with the spinach. Add the couscous, yogurt, both cheeses, flour, eggs, garlic, coriander, basil, ½ teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper to the bowl and mix everything to combine.

7. Wipe out the skillet and heat 5 tablespoons oil over medium-high. Once hot, add the couscous mixture, and use a spoon to evenly distribute and smooth out the top. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes; the edges will be golden, the cake will start to set in the center, and you should be able to loosen the cake from the base.

8. Use a spatula to gently separate the cake from the sides of the pan, running it under the cake as well to try to loosen it from the bottom. Remove the pan from the heat and, very gently, invert the whole thing onto a large plate. Return the pan to the heat and slide the cake back into it, crispy-side up, to brown the other side. Cook for 8 minutes over medium heat, then transfer the cake to a large wooden board or serving platter.

9. In a small bowl, combine the remaining spring onion with the extra basil leaves and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Sprinkle the cake all over with the extra pecorino and top with the spring onion mixture. Serve with the pepper sauce in a bowl alongside. - New York Times.

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