During the first pandemic lockdown in England, chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his husband were experiencing the same challenge many parents around the world were also facing: how to put three nutritious meals on the table each day while dirtying as few pots and pans as possible. His mind immediately went to pasta, a favorite of his two sons—and then to a dish his own Italian father often made when Ottolenghi was young: pasta al forno or baked pasta.
“He didn’t call it pasta al forno, it was just ‘pasta scraps in the oven with cheese,’” says Ottolenghi. “Whenever there was pasta left over from the previous day, the next day for lunch or for dinner it would happen. My siblings and I always used to love the bits that go crispy on top.”
Pasta al forno recipes are often made with rigatoni suspended in a tomato and meat ragu and encrusted with cheese. Its Italian name makes it sound a bit more sophisticated than what it really is—a practical way to serve leftovers.
“My boys would be very happy for me to just give them a bowl of pasta with nothing on it except for butter or cheese, but I just wanted to get some more nutrition into this,” he says. “I added chicken and I added some parsley—things that would kind of make it a more wholesome meal. It’s made especially to have those crisp edges. Children love it and big children love it, too.”
Out of the same spirit of necessity, Ottolenghi also found himself taking on a new book project with Noor Murad, head of the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, titled Shelf Love: Recipes to Unlock the Secrets of Your Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer.
Shelf Love, which was released on Nov. 2, comes as a bendy, flexible paperback and focuses on ways to make the most of workhorse kitchen staples you likely already have on hand—a departure from his past books like Plenty, Plenty More and Jerusalem.
“Essentially, it really focuses on adaptation and flexibility in cooking, which is really what Noor and I are encouraging people to do,” says Ottolenghi. “We’re in this moment in history where it’s become clear that we can’t always be so certain that we can get what we think we can get so easily. We need to be a little bit more frugal and thoughtful about how we use ingredients.”
While he doesn’t rely on leftover ingredients for his take on his father’s pasta al forno (which he dubbed “one-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken”—recipe below), it is a prime example of how to turn versatile pantry staples into impressive meals. Here are the chef’s tips and tricks for making the deliciously gooey and crispy entrée.
Ottolenghi starts off by cooking the chicken, browning the skin to give it texture and to render any fat and release liquid (which will come in handy later on). While you can certainly use boneless chicken or even chicken breasts for this dish, the chef favors bone-in, skin-on thighs for a few reasons.
“Chicken thighs do not overcook as much as the breasts,” he says. “Because it’s a richer cut of chicken they stay a bit moist and also the bones give flavor to the liquid in which the pasta is cooked.”
But Ottolenghi himself doesn’t always use chicken, sometimes he turns the dish into a vegetarian pasta bake or channels the classic spaghetti and meatballs. “You would sear the [meatballs] on the outside as we do the chicken here and then you’ve got those meatballs nestling in the spaghetti,” he says. “You just need to make your meatballs beforehand. [Or] you can swap the chicken for a vegetable—that’s definitely a good way to go about it.”
He’s had success with butternut squash and zucchini in the past, first dicing the vegetables and then following the same instructions as he would making it with chicken and adding it a bit of cheese, like mozzarella, to add back in a bit of richness that the chicken would have provided.
When Ottolenghi calls this a one-pan pasta bake, he means it. You don’t even need a separate pot to boil the pasta. He adds just enough additional water to ensure that the nine ounces of pasta cooks thoroughly. If you’re tempted to add more pasta or more water than what’s called for, keep in mind it will likely affect the outcome.
“It’s important to stick to those ratios,” he says. “If you’re in doubt about the amount of liquid, I would start with a bit less to see if the pasta is getting into the optimal range when it’s almost cooked. If you just see that it’s in need of a bit more liquid, add a bit of boiling water at the end, put the lid back on and let it just finish doing its thing.”
While he uses spaghetti, any shape of pasta works as long as it’s the same amount.
Ottolenghi is known for flavorful recipes and despite its simplicity, this chicken and pasta bake is no exception. Its thoughtful blend of background flavors, includes onion, garlic and tomato paste, but this recipe also puts fresh herbs like thyme and parsley, lemon zest, breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese to work, both mixed into the bake and as a deliciously crispy broiled topping. As with the choice of protein, however, there are no hard and fast rules—just look at what you already have in your pantry for a bit of inspiration.
Ottolenghi likes to “adultify” the bake by adding a healthy dose of chili flakes for heat, or even by simply adding more herbs (rosemary is a great option) and cheese. “It’s just a very practical day-to-day dish for feeding a family, so yes, you can definitely swap around with whatever you feel is appropriate or suitable for you,” he says. “One thing that is really nice to do is take baby onions or the heads of scallions and sauté them in the pan, and then cook them in the bake. They become quite sweet.”
While this dish starts off on the stovetop, you’ll quickly transfer it to the oven—which is where the magic really happens. Not only will this help to cook the pasta thoroughly, but it will also give it that classic pasta bake crunch along the edges. If that’s a quality you really love about pasta al forno, Ottolenghi says you can leave it in the oven a bit longer than the recipe calls for. While it might overcook a bit, “it’s not a big deal.” (But don’t let it get to the point that the pasta is soggy.)
“It’s not that kind of pasta that’s all about beautiful sauce because it’s so many other textures going on there with crisping on the outside, with the chicken, and a little bit of extra crisp on top with this breadcrumb mix,” he says. “It just cracks in a way that is just so beautiful and delicious.”
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 6 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in (1 lb 9 oz)
- 1 large onion, cut into half-inch dice (1.5 cups)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp thyme leaves
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 9 oz dried spaghetti, broken into thirds
- .25 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
- .25 cup fresh breadcrumbs, finely blitzed
- .5 cup parsley, finely chopped
- 1.5 tsp lemon zest finely grated
- salt and black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Put 1 tablespoon of oil into a large, oven-safe sauté pan, for which you have a lid, and place on high heat. Season the chicken with three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper and add to the hot oil, skin side down. Let cook for 7 minutes, without turning over, to brown well.
- Turn the heat down to medium-high, then add the onion and stir, turning the chicken over. Cook for 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is lightly browned. Add the garlic, 1 tablespoon of thyme, and all the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Arrange the chicken skin side up, add half a cup plus 2 tablespoons of water and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has reduced. Add another 1.75 cups of water, half a teaspoon of salt, and a good grind of pepper, then add the spaghetti, stirring to submerge and evenly distribute it. Use tongs to lift the chicken pieces so that they sit on top of the spaghetti, skin side up. Bring to a simmer, cover with the lid, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, at which stage all the liquid should have been absorbed.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together the Parmesan, breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon zest and the remaining 1 tablespoon of thyme.
- After 30 minutes in the oven, remove the pasta pan and reset the oven broiler to high. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mix over the pasta and chicken, drizzle with the remaining oil, and broil for 3–4 minutes, until nicely browned and crisp. Allow to settle for 5 minutes before serving warm, directly from the pan.