After a day in the test kitchen, when I’ve been eating all day, supper tends to be a handful of nuts, a glass of red wine and a hunk of hard cheese. It’s the perfect combination and all I need. The cheese is usually one of the two big Italian hard cheeses: parmesan or, more often than not, pecorino .
Parmesan is wonderful, of course, with its intense, umami savouriness; but the appeal of tangy, tart and salty pecorino, which is made from sheep’s milk rather than cow’s milk, is its sheer range. Parmesan is always taken to the point of maturity – it’s either mature or very mature – but pecorino comes in all stages of maturity, from young to aged. Young pecorino (fresco) is firm, but creamy and moist, and has a mild, milky flavour. Across Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, the first young cheeses of spring are traditionally enjoyed with delicate new fava or broad beans; I’m more inclined just to pull it apart and dot the cheese through a rocket and basil salad with fresh figs, a drizzle of honey and a little olive oil .
The more mature the pecorino, the sharper and more pronounced its flavour gets, so you can be more robust with your flavour pairings as it runs from half-aged (semistagionato) to fully aged (stagionato), when the cheese is at its saltiest and most intense. I like to eat mature pecorino just as it is, but it probably makes most sense grated or shaved over all sorts of dishes: sweet, sharp and creamy flavours all work well.
In cooking, such pairings are brought into play by the likes of sweet roast figs, sharp sorrel and creamy mascarpone. And now that I think of it, my post-recipe-testing snack is simply fast-tracking those same flavour combinations: wine takes the place of the fruit, nuts stand in for the creamy mascarpone, but there’s the constant of the salty, fatty, savoury kick from the pecorino.
White pizza with potato, anchovy and sage
Makes two pizzas, to serve two as a main course with a salad, or four as a snack.
For the dough
200g strong white bread flour, plus a little extra for dusting
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing
Salt and black pepper
120ml lukewarm water
For the topping
180g new potatoes, finely sliced (unpeeled) on a mandolin
3 tbsp olive oil
40g pecorino, finely shaved
4 anchovies, finely chopped
8 sage leaves, finely chopped
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (you need 2 tsp worth)
50g spring onions, trimmed and sliced thinly at an angle
Put the flour and yeast in a large bowl with a tablespoon of oil and half a teaspoon of salt. Stir to combine, then pour in the water and use a spatula to bring the mixture together until combined.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled worktop and, with lightly oiled hands, knead for five minutes, until soft and elastic. (You may need to add a little more oil if the dough starts to stick to the surface.) Divide the dough in half and transfer both pieces to a large oven tray lined with greaseproof paper, spaced well apart. Cover with a clean and slightly damp tea towel, then leave to rise in a warm place for 40 minutes. The dough should almost double in size.
Heat the oven to its highest setting, 250C or thereabouts: you want it red hot.
While the dough is rising, get on with the topping. In a small bowl, toss the potato slices with a tablespoon of oil, an eighth of a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Transfer the potatoes to a large oven tray lined with greaseproof paper – the tray needs to be big enough for the slices to lie flat and spaced apart – then roast for seven minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the mascarpone, pecorino, anchovies, sage and lemon zest with a good grind of pepper.
Grease two large oven trays with olive oil, and lightly flour a work surface. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll the dough into two 30cm x 20cm rectangles, then carefully transfer to each of the trays.
Spread the mascarpone mix evenly over both pizza bases, leaving a 2cm border around the edges. Sprinkle the spring onions on top, then add a layer of potatoes. Drizzle a tablespoon of oil over each pizza and bake for nine minutes (switch the pizzas around halfway through, so they both get a turn at the top of the oven), until the edges are crisp and golden. Scatter with a generous grind of pepper and serve warm.
Sorrel rice with pecorino and egg yolk
I like serving this as individual bowls, so everyone gets to stir in their own egg yolk (so long as it’s served straight from the pan, the heat from the rice should be more than enough to cook the yolk through). Don’t worry if you can’t find sorrel: you can use extra spinach instead – just up the overall weight to 270g, and stir in two teaspoons of finely grated lemon zest when you add the second batch of oregano, to make up for the spinach’s lack of zesty sourness. Serves four.
40g unsalted butter
½ small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
5 fine strips lemon peel (from ½ lemon), plus 1 lemon, cut into four wedges, to serve
200g basmati rice
4 tbsp picked oregano leaves
120g sorrel, thick stems removed
150g large spinach leaves
90g pecorino, shaved or finely grated
4 egg yolks
Melt 30g butter in a large saucepan for which you have a lid, on a medium-high heat. Add the onion and lemon peel and fry for five minutes, until the onion is soft and caramelised. Add the rice and half a teaspoon of salt, stir through for 30 seconds, then pour on the water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low, cover and leave the rice to cook for 10 minutes, until soft.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 10g butter in a medium frying pan on a high heat. Once melted, add half the oregano, half the sorrel and half the spinach. Cook for two minutes, until the leaves have wilted, then stir the greens into the cooked rice, along with half of the pecorino. Turn down the heat to medium-low and continue to heat for five minutes, until it’s the consistency of a thick porridge. Stir through the remaining oregano, sorrel and spinach, until the leaves have just wilted and the rice is bubbling. Divide between four shallow bowls, carefully top each portion with an egg yolk so it won’t break, and sprinkle with some of the remaining pecorino. Serve with the rest of the cheese on the side and a lemon wedge for squeezing over.
Fig and blackberry bruschetta
Roast the fruit a day ahead, if you like, but don’t make the salsa or assemble the dish until just before serving: neither the nuts nor the bread like to sit around for too long, so make them as close to serving as you can. Makes four bruschetta, to serve four as a first course.
200g figs (about 5), quartered
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar
½ tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
2½ tbsp olive oil
¾ tbsp honey
20g walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
5g basil leaves, finely chopped
5g tarragon leaves, finely chopped
1 lemon – finely grate the zest of ½ to get ½ tsp, then juice to get ½ tsp
4 2cm-thick slices sourdough bread
80g pecorino, roughly crumbled or shaved
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Put the figs, blackberries, vinegar, fennel seeds, a tablespoon of oil and half a tablespoon of honey into a small baking dish that’s just big enough to hold everything snugly. Stir to combine, then bake for 20 minutes, until the fruit has softened and the liquid is bubbling. Remove from the oven and leave to cool dermes.
While the fruit is baking, in a small bowl mix together the remaining tablespoon and a half of oil with the walnuts, herbs, lemon zest, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
Put a ridged griddle pan on a high heat and ventilate the kitchen. Once the pan is good and hot, grill the bread on both sides for a minute or two, until you can see clear char marks, then transfer to plates or a single platter.
Top the bruschettas first with the cooked fruit and then with the walnut salsa. Scatter the cheese evenly over each slice, drizzle with the remaining honey and serve immediately.
• Yotam Ottolenghi is chef/patron of Ottolenghi and Nopi in London.