Yotam Ottolenghi: Slow cooked spinach with halibut? It's amazing

For a lighter take on the same ingredients, try my halibut with chickpea and herb salad

Yotam Ottolenghi’s spiced halibut with spinach and chickpea stew. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times

Yotam Ottolenghi’s spiced halibut with spinach and chickpea stew. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times

 

Tunisian Jews make a condiment called pkaila or bkeila, which is extraordinary. It is prepared by cooking down plenty of spinach for hours in a generous quantity of oil. The spinach – Swiss chard is often used as well – loses all its water, and very slowly fries in the oil, resulting in a small amount of greasy paste as black as crude oil, which is used to flavour all kinds of soups and stews.

I have known about this method of cooking spinach for years, but I could never quite bring myself to try it. It seemed strange to cook a leaf for so long, and until it goes entirely black. What flavour could possibly be left? It was counterintuitive, particularly to someone like me, who has been pleading with people for years to please not overcook their vegetables.

After putting a tiny spoonful in my mouth I thought, Wow, I don’t think I’ve actually tasted spinach before. The long process distilled the flavour to its essence

Still, I tried it, and after putting a tiny spoonful in my mouth I thought, Wow, I don’t think I’ve actually tasted spinach before. The long process distilled the flavour to its essence. It was pure spinach, and absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t have much of it – it was super-rich – but I then cooked my own version of tfina pkaila, a beef, bean and pkaila stew, served on Saturdays and special occasions in Tunisian homes. Mine had oxtail and butter beans, with the pkaila imparting a spinachy magic all over. As I was devouring it, all I wanted to do was add more and more pkaila.

These days many Tunisian cooks use a short cut: in France, where large numbers of Tunisians have settled over the years, you can get a jarred version that saves hours of cooking and stirring.

For this column I am cooking halibut in a mild version of pkaila, which won’t overwhelm the fish but still maintains the brilliant effect of the fried spinach. I altered the method to make the process shorter and added some aromatics. Persian lime is there because tfina pkaila really reminds me of the Iranian stew ghormeh sabzi, but you can easily leave it out.

My second recipe is a fresher play, with a similar set of ingredients. The fish is quickly seared and served with cooling yogurt. Even though the spinach isn’t cooked at all (sending me back to my old comfort zone), its flavour is amplified by chile, spring onion and some of my favourite herbs and spices.

SPICED HALIBUT WITH SPINACH AND CHICKPEA STEW

Serves four
75-minute cooking time

Yotam Ottolenghi’s spiced halibut with spinach and chickpea stew. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times
Yotam Ottolenghi’s spiced halibut with spinach and chickpea stew. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times

Ingredients
60ml olive oil
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
¼tsp dried Persian lime powder (optional)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2tsp lemon zest
¾tsp sea salt
4 skinless, boneless halibut fillets, patted dry (about 450g total)
1 400g can chickpeas, drained and patted dry
2tbsp vegetable oil, for frying

For the spinach stew
Olive oil
80g finely chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 mild green chilli peppers, such as Anaheim, finely chopped
1tsp ground cumin
½tsp dried Persian lime powder (optional)
½tsp ground coriander
1 fresh cinnamon stick, roughly crushed
50g coriander
25g flat-leaf parsley
450g baby spinach
1¼tsp flaky sea salt
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
1½tsp granulated sugar or caster sugar
3tbsp lemon juice

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For the salsa
1 lemon (peel the skin to get 3 strips and juice to get 2tbsp)
1 mild green chilli pepper, such as Anaheim, halved lengthways and finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced on an angle
2tbsp olive oil
5g coriander, roughly sliced
Flaky sea salt and black pepper

Method
Step 1 Marinate the fish and chickpeas: in a small bowl, mix the first seven ingredients together. Add 2½ tablespoons of marinade to a bowl with the halibut and mix well. Add two tablespoons of the marinade to a separate bowl with the chickpeas and stir to combine. Set both aside at room temperature.

Step 2 Prepare the spinach stew: add 75ml of the olive oil to a large pot over a medium heat with the onion and gently fry for eight minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic, chilli, spices and cinnamon stick and continue to cook for five minutes, stirring often.

Step 3 Meanwhile, add the herbs and some of the spinach to a food processor and blitz until finely chopped. Repeat in batches until all the greens are finely chopped. Add the chopped spinach and herbs to the pot with the onions, along with three tablespoons of oil and some flaky sea salt. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring often, until the spinach turns a deep green colour, almost grey.

Step 4 Add the chicken stock, sugar, lemon juice and 100ml of water to the pot. Bring to a rapid simmer and then lower the heat. Cook for 20 minutes until thickened slightly.

Step 5 Make the salsa: finely slice the lemon skin into very thin strips, then mix with the lemon juice and remaining salsa ingredients and set aside.

Step 6 When you’re ready to serve, heat a large nonstick frying pan on a high heat, then add half a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add the chickpeas and fry for six minutes, stirring every now and then, until crisp and golden brown. Transfer to a plate and wipe the pan clean.

Step 7 Return the pan to a medium-high heat with the remaining 1½ tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the halibut fillets, spaced apart, and fry for three minutes on one side, then flip and fry for another two minutes on the other side, until both sides are crisp and golden brown.

Step 8 Add about two-thirds of the chickpeas to the stew and stir together, then transfer the stew to a large platter with a lip. Put the halibut fillets on top of the stew, then scatter with the remaining fried chickpeas. Finish with the salsa and serve at once, sprinkled with more flaky sea salt if you like.

PAN-FRIED HALIBUT WITH SPICED CHICKPEA AND HERB SALAD

Serves four
50-
minute cooking time

Yotam Ottolenghi’s halibut with spiced chickpea and herb salad. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times
Yotam Ottolenghi’s halibut with spiced chickpea and herb salad. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/New York Times

Ingredients
60ml olive oil
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
¼tsp ground Persian lime powder (optional)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
¾tsp sea salt
2 lemons (finely grate the zest to get 2tsp, juice to get 2tbsp and cut the remaining into wedges)
4 skinless boneless halibut fillets, patted dry (about 450g total)
1 400g can chickpeas, drained and patted dry
80g plain yogurt
10g coriander leaves
2tbsp parsley leaves
4 spring onions, finely sliced
1 small bunch large-leaf spinach, firm stems removed, leaves finely sliced
1 or 2 mild green chillies, such as Anaheim, to taste, finely sliced and seeds removed if you like
Salt
2tbsp vegetable oil

Method
Step 1 Marinate the fish and chickpeas: in a small bowl, mix the first six ingredients together with the lemon zest. Add 2½ tablespoons of marinade to a bowl with the halibut and mix well. Add two tablespoons of the marinade to a separate bowl with the chickpeas and stir to combine. Set both aside at room temperature for 20 minutes. Mix the remaining marinade together with the yogurt and set aside.

Step 2 Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, blend the herbs together with the spring onions, spinach, chillies, lemon juice and a good pinch of salt.

Step 3 Heat a large nonstick frying pan over a medium-high heat, then add half a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add the chickpeas (and bits of garlic) and fry for six minutes, stirring every now and then until crisp and golden brown. Transfer to a plate and wipe the pan clean.

Step 4 Return the pan to a medium-high heat with the remaining 1½ tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the halibut fillets, spaced apart, and fry for three minutes on one side, then flip and fry for another two minutes on the other side, until both sides are crisp and golden brown.

Step 5 Very carefully transfer the fillets to a large platter. Toss the chickpeas gently with the salad, then transfer the salad to the platter next to the halibut fillets. Drizzle half of the yogurt over the salad and serve with the lemon wedges and the remaining yogurt sauce alongside. – New York Times

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