London chef upgrades ‘cacio e pepe’ with ‘za’atar’ spice

Kate Krader

BLOOMBERG – We are entering the high season for cookbooks. Fall is prime cooking time and not coincidentally, it’s when the food world’s heavy hitters come out swinging. One of the most important new volumes to arrive this fall is the upcoming Ottolenghi Flavor: A Cookbook from the transcendent London-based chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi. Co-written with Ixta Belfrage, who works in his test kitchen, it contains more than 100 plant-based dishes, from eggplant dumplings alla parmigiana to corn “ribs” and tofu meatball korma.

It’s not unusual for popular cooks to move the needle on ingredients, but Ottoloenghi has almost single-handedly introduced America to less-familiar Middle Eastern ingredients and products. Za’atar, the fragrant mix of herbs, spices, and seeds, worked its way into the country’s vocabulary, courtesy of Ottolenghi. There’s no definitive recipe, but it might include dried thyme, oregano, and sumac, as well as cumin and sesame seeds. The result is addictively nutty, tangy and woody.

In Flavor, Ottolenghi makes za’atar a guest star in a completely unexpected dish – cacio e pepe, the popular butter-and-cheese-packed pasta.

The result is exceptional – a pasta dish with the unstoppable spirit of cacio e pepe but with a haunting flavour of za’atar that’s both sizzled in the butter that coats the pasta and used as a garnish to finish.

The fragrant, gently spiced layers play off the pepper that traditionally flavours it.

Cheesy cacio e pepe is enlivened by a hit of fragrant za’atar. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

ZA’ATAR CACIO E PEPE

Ingredients

Table salt

16 oz dried bucatini or long pasta

Five tbsp unsalted butter

One tbsp za’atar, plus half tsp

Two tsp ground black pepper

Five oz Parmesan, finely grated

One oz pecorino, finely grated

Two tbsp olive oil

Two tsp whole marjoram leaves

Steps:

Bring seven cups of water to a boil in a wide pan over medium-high heat, then season with one teaspoon salt. Add bucatini and cook for about nine minutes (or per package instructions) until just al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving all the cooking water. (You should have about two-and-a-quarter cups – if not, top up with a little hot water).

Melt butter in a large, high-sided, nonstick sauté pan on high heat until bubbling.

Add one tablespoon za’atar and pepper and cook for one minute, stirring until fragrant.

Add the reserved cooking water, bring to a rapid boil, and simmer five to seven minutes until silky and slightly thickened. Add the pasta and stir vigorously into the sauce.

Add the Parmesan in two batches, stirring, until the first half has melted before adding the next. Once the Parmesan has all melted, add the pecorino, continuing to stir until it’s melted and the sauce is smooth and silky. Season with salt.

Transfer the pasta to a lipped platter or serving bowl, and finish with the olive oil, marjoram and remaining one-and-a-half teaspoon za’atar. Serve at once.