Capturing the sea in a pasta bowl
Seafood generates compelling deep flavours reminiscent of the seaside right in your own kitchen, discovers Yotam Ottolenghi
IFIND the combination of pasta and seafood so irresistible that I spend way more time than can possibly be good for me — or that I can justify as professionally enriching — gazing at screens showing creamy linguine with mussels and scallops, or spaghetti with shrimp in one tomatoey sauce or another. Just try the hashtag #seafoodpasta on Instagram, and you’ll know what I mean.
Beyond the images, though, what makes these dishes so compelling are the deep flavours generated by seafood as it cooks, creating a virtually instant stock that emulsifies with the pasta’s starches. The ability of these sauces to coat, and the layers of seaside aromas they generate, are what make me — and many thousands like me, I’ll say in my defence — salivate over a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole peering at me from a bright display.
Vongole is the most straightforward take on this theme. The version you choose to cook, however, can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. My emphasis is on need. In my cookbook, Ottolenghi Simple, which was published in the United States recently, I have made a conscious effort to create dishes that do everything I love to do with my food — it must be surprising and multi-layered, yet comforting and simply good — while giving people the opportunity to easily fit cooking into their busy lives. You can cook for an occasion from it, but you can also cook occasionally, with far less commitment or effort.
Writing the book, I was surprised to discover how a set of flavours that I love and constantly cook with can be harnessed for totally different purposes and for varying degrees of effort or skill.
Take the classic combination of seafood, fennel and tomato.
My pearl couscous with shrimp, clams and tarragon is a reflection of my cheffy instincts. It involves making stock using the shrimp shells. It also calls for cooking the fennel, prawns and tomatoes separately and placing the last two on top of the pasta, like a Spanish paella, displaying them in their unadulterated glory.
It’s delicious and impressive — and likely to win you lots of Instagram likes — but there’s a certain commitment involved that makes it a special occasion kind of dish.