Although he probably wouldn’t admit to it, Jerusalem-born Yotam Ottolenghi is a certified “celebrity chef,” a reputation he deserves as the bestselling author or co-author of a host of cookbooks, New York Times columnist and co-owner of eponymous delis and restaurants that feature a vegetable-forward cuisine.
The food he espouses is a layered distillation of Middle Eastern flavors and textures, married to a Mediterranean palate and a Southern California (or Hudson Valley) farm-to-table sensibility.
This layering of ingredients, tastes and texture was recently evidenced in his Times recipe for a “chef’s salad” of butter beans, tossed in a dressing of Greek yogurt with lemon and garlic, topped with a layer of crumbled feta, another layer of peas tossed with olive oil, mint and dill, finished with a crunchy dukkah (a personal favorite small, good thing) composed of chopped toasted nuts, cracked seeds and spices and dried herbs.
A mashup of flavor and texture, the dish has no right to be as good as it is, with its jarred butter beans and frozen peas. I can’t quarrel with the frozen peas — a culinary secret weapon that freezes well and is readily available and inexpensive — but the butter beans are more problematic. To my experience, jarred beans always bring a bit of a discernable but unwelcomed taste, no matter how much you rinse them. I tried the recipe with frozen lima beans, blanched briefly in boiling water, drained and chilled, which at the time seemed more agreeable. But that opened up the recipe to digression and expansion, the result of which you see here.
Why couldn’t this recipe or at least the tactics behind it be a conversation between the seasons? Dried beans, especially “fresh” dried beans, no more than perhaps a year old (not the fossilized things you find on supermarket shelves in plastic), cook up nicely with a bit of a “tooth” to them and offer the cook opportunities of choice in both variety and preparation. Keep an eye out at farmers’ markets or look for Rancho Gordo or Purcell Mountain Farms products, both available online.
Instead of frozen peas, what about the asparagus just beginning to appear in green markets? In addition, make the fresh and dried herbs and spices talk to each other: Sliced fennel adds crunch to the beans and is echoed by substituting fennel seed for cumin in the dukkah, while fresh mint and basil is a better mix for the asparagus and mirrored by dried mint and basil in the dukkah. (Were it later in the season, tarragon would have been a great option.) While less assertive than salty feta, goat cheese’s creaminess pulls things together nicely.
This layering approach to recipe composition can be a useful strategy for addressing the omnivore’s real dilemma: balancing seasonality, variety, flavor and surprise with creativity and economy. Serve it on a bed of tender lettuces for a fully satisfying dinner salad, or as Ottolenghi himself would attest, as an excellent side dish to a roast salmon, lamb or pork headliner.
With a little imagination you really can have everything everywhere all at once.
Salad of White Beans, Goat Cheese & Asparagus with Pistachio Dukkah
For the dukkah
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1½ teaspoon green peppercorns
½ cup roasted shelled pistachios
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried mint
For the salad
½ cup plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt
1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and cracked white pepper
3 cups cooked white beans (I used flageolets; substitute cannellini, Great Northern whites or Navy beans.)
½ cup thin-sliced fennel or celery
½ pound blanched and cooled asparagus spears, bias cut into 1- to 1½-inch pieces
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, cut into a thin chiffonade
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, cut, as above
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
- For the dukkah: In a small pan, toast the coriander and fennel seeds stovetop over medium heat, shaking the pan until the seeds color and become fragrant (about 2 minutes). Transfer to a small bowl to cool; repeat with the peppercorns for 30 to 60 seconds, adding them to the same bowl as the seeds when done. Once cooled, add the spices, pistachios, dried basil and mint to a small food processor or mini-prep. Pulse to a rough crumble with larger bits of pistachio. Reserve.
- For the salad: Whisk together yogurt, grated garlic, lemon juice, 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add beans and fennel (or celery). Using a spatula, gently fold the vegetables to coat in yogurt dressing, being careful not to mash the beans.
- In another bowl, toss together asparagus, fresh mint and basil chiffonade, with a pinch of salt and a healthy glug of olive oil. (Add a splash of a sweetish white wine vinegar if you have it.)
- To assemble, layer the dressed beans and fennel into a large shallow serving bowl or large concave plate. Scatter the goat cheese evenly over the surface of the beans. Layer the dressed asparagus and herbs over that, and top with a healthy (¼ to ⅓ cup) dusting of the pistachio dukkah, followed by a drizzle of good olive oil. This is best served at room temperature.