F&W Q&A: Yotam Ottolenghi
Yotam Ottolenghi's celebrated new book is a celebration of vegetables. Pal Hansen
The celebrity chef's latest book, Plenty More, celebrates vegetables.
The celebrity chef's latest book, Plenty More, celebrates vegetables.
I used four saucepans and one skillet to create Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Rice Salad with Nuts and Sour Cherries,” combining basmati and wild rice and quinoa along with herbs, toasted pine nuts, dried sour cherries and fried onions for Thanksgiving. Other than having to do more than the usual cleaning (and much more than required for most of Ottolenghi’s recipes, he apologizes), the dish was a flavorful and beautiful treat. I would happily do it again for Chanukah but I have dozens of other dishes from “Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghi” (Ten Speed Press) that I’m tempted to try.
This new book is signature Ottolenghi, bringing vegetables, grains and legumes to new levels of complex, delicious flavor. The recipes are innovative, uncommon and straightforward to follow, illustrated with lush color photographs. The award-winning author provides useful tips about substitution for some of the more rare ingredients (any kind of chile flakes will do if Urfa chile flakes from Turkey are not available). In the brief personal notes that precede each recipe, Ottolenghi, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in London with his husband Karl Allen and their young son, sometimes mentions his inspiration, culinary travels, the recipe’s evolution or why it absolutely had to appear in the cookbook. The notes reveal his passions, openness and sense of humor.
This is a follow up to “Plenty,” which also showcased creative, stylish vegetarian dishes, emphasizing spices, herbs and fresh ingredients, some exotic in a New York kitchen. These are cookbooks that home cooks will want to try page by page. Ottolenghi’s other books – both bestsellers -- “Ottolenghi” and “Jerusalem” (written with Sami Tamimi) are not purely vegetarian, but also highlight intriguing vegetable dishes. Those books are not kosher cookbooks, but can easily be adapted for a kosher kitchen.
“Plenty More” is organized by cooking techniques, the way to coax the most flavor out of each vegetable, whether roasting, braising, tossing, simmering, grilling, frying, baking, or adding sugar, for a dessert. He introduces many readers to kashk, a powder made from fermentation and drying of yogurt or curdled milk used in a lot of Iranian cooking, and dakos, barley rusks from Crete.
Through his books, Ottolenghi has sent New York readers to seek out harissa paste, barberries and curry leaves in local markets, and to sprinkle pomegranate seeds on vegetables. His “Jerusalem” inspired many Midwesterners to start cooking Middle Eastern style, and to search for fresh za’atar in places like Minneapolis and Cleveland.
The celebrated author, who owns several eponymous restaurants around London, spoke to The Jewish Week via email about his cooking style and career, sharing ideas about Chanukah, visual qualities of food, the city of Jerusalem and his love of his grandmother’s semolina dumplings.
I know that you’ve worked as a journalist before going into your work as a food writer and restaurant owner. Does that sense of journalistic curiosity inform the way you look at food?
I don’t know if it’s a journalistic curiosity so much as a curiosity in general but, yes, that questioning is certainly there. My approach is not a particularly cerebral or scientific one, though: It’s rather more basic or instinctive, if you like. There’s also a sense of play that makes me feel free to try things out – an unconventional pairing of things which might or might not work – which informs the way I look at food. I’m a perfectionist on one hand, but very unbossy on the other: ready to be delighted or convinced that something which has stumbled into the equation by accident or which someone else has brought to the table can work just as well, if not better, than what I had originally planned.
I won’t ask if you have a favorite dish, but I do wonder how would you mix up the ideal meal – by flavor, or texture, or balance between protein, grains and vegetables?
Texture and flavour are key for me: the contrast of crispy fried shallots on top of al dente lentils against perfectly cooked, soft, sweet spice-infused rice. I think this is why I like fried food so much: I’m obsessed by the contrast of the crispy outside of a panko-coated pea and mint fritter or an eggplant croquette, for example, and then the insides which melt in the mouth. I think about this contrast far more than whether a particular dish has a balance of protein, grains and vegetables: I like a spread of dishes – rather than one main dish – so most bases would be covered on that front from this more mezze-style approach.
How do you mark the festival of Chanukah? What would you recommend that we serve?
We don’t observe the whole of Chanukah but we sometimes get together with friends for supper. Anything fried in butter and/or oil is generally a winner for me so I need no persuasion to find an excuse to eat latkes, dipped in sour cream. Sometimes I’ll ring the changes and make blinis instead, possibly with slices of beetroot in the mixture, which evoke the same sense of comfort and pleasure I remember from the latkes I ate in my childhood.
Are your interests in food connected to memory? What dish/recipe brings you right back to your parents’ kitchen?
When I was writing “Jerusalem” with Sami, the relationship with food and memory was at the forefront of our mind. The food of my childhood bookends everything else on my pantry shelves. For all the products that are as much a part of my repertoire today as the ingredients I grew up with – new things like miso and tamarind paste, black garlic and seaweed, Pandan leaves and palm sugar – the bookends are always there – the tahini and tomatoes, the olive oil and lemon, the yogurt, garlic, sumac and za’atar – keeping it all together. These are my roots. There are lots of dishes which bring me back to my parent’s kitchen: Dad’s pasta bakes, Mum’s tomato soup, my grandmother’s semolina dumplings, tahini cookies . . .
Your dishes are so visually appealing. How important is presentation?
It’s really important to me. The food markets I grew up surrounded by played a big part in this: piles of colourful fruit and vegetables, nuts and grains and pulses, raised high and looking bountiful at the same time as looking totally organised and controlled. We try to recreate this in the way our food is presented on big platters in our delis and restaurants and then, in a smaller fashion, on individual plates. Food is beautiful and I want to preserve this is every dish that I make.
In one of the recipes, you credit Claudia Roden for teaching you about traditional Jewish cooking. Are there typical Jewish dishes that interest you? Is that something you are interested in exploring?
I’m interested in exploring food from all over – Mexican corn tamales, Polish Pierogi and Asian slaws have all been recent favourites – but, yes, there are Jewish dishes which I love to explore. Anything dumpling-and-broth like is generally a winner in my book – I loved making some Iranian Gondi dumplings last year, which took a few trials before they stopped looking like porcupines floating in broth, and I am always a sucker for matza balls. I adore anything stuffed: from red peppers to quails to whole fish. Babka cakes are massive favourites.
I was very moved by the way that you and Sami Tamimi wrote about your shared city of Jerusalem. Do you return there often? On a personal level, do you see openings, particularly through food and culture, of Israelis and Palestinians, getting to understand one another?
I return to the city often to see my family: We are all together a lot. I’m not out and about in the city enough to know about the small-scale openings that will be taking place to foster understanding but, on a larger scale, the gulf is still wide.
It sounds like you read a lot of cookbooks, and you’re so generous in crediting the writers. What else do you enjoy reading?
A lot of my reading is food related – cookbooks, websites, blogs I’m directed to on twitter, magazines – but I’ve also recently got a great app on my phone which allows me to ‘pocket’ interesting articles I want to read but don’t have the time to read when I see them. Saving these longer articles up like this – things from The New Yorker, for example – to read when I am travelling is always a treat. Beyond that, with a nearly-two-year-old in tow, I’m working my way through the works of Julia Donaldson.
Glad to see that you’re a fan of Balaboosta. To what do you attribute the increasingly popularity of Israeli food in New York City and other places as well?
I think people are loving the mezze-type spread of dishes you can often get from an Israeli menu – like tapas, it can be a lot more sociable and fun than a meal when everyone just has their own main course. Israeli food can also be very vegetable focused – or certainly a meal can give equal priority to vegetables, pulses and grains as it does to the meat or fish element – which people are inclining more towards. It's irreverent, very creative cooking which fuses together various Jewish traditions with local Arab cooking.
Would you think of opening a restaurant in New York City? We’d love to have you here!
I’d love to, of course, but I’m far too controlling and perfectionist to run a restaurant from one side of the Atlantic to the other. It works for some people but I need to see the food daily, taste it the whole time, work closely with the chefs and see the customers: It’s still my little baby. I’m not ready, yet, for it to fly the nest.