Simply Ottolenghi | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Simply Ottolenghi

Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi

Noted Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi publishes “Simple”

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It’s safe to say that noted chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi will not be chopping any onions anytime soon. How could he? Any mortal who has signed as many cookbooks as he has during his book tour could not soon have full use of his cooking hand.

At a recent event at the 92nd Street Y with food blogger and author of Smitten Kitchen Every Day, Deb Perelman, the large auditorium at the Y was filled at close to capacity by adoring fans of both chefs. His latest book, his seventh, came out on October 16, and is already on The New York Times bestseller list. The book delivers on the promise of its title – the recipes require fewer ingredients and less time to execute than those in his other books, but the result is interesting, nuanced, flavorful food for which Ottolenghi is known.

Many of the 130 dishes in this book have 10 or fewer ingredients. Some, too, like the hot, charred cherry tomatoes with cold yogurt, take less than 30 minutes to prepare. For a dish that can be made in half an hour, requires 10 ingredients, can be popped in the oven, and is easier than it looks or sounds, Baked Mint Rice With Pomegranate and Olive Salsa may be for you.

Yotam Ottolenghi (Photography by Jonathan Lovekin)

It certainly is for him. “I’m obsessed with rice at the moment. I love cooking it in the oven,” he declared from the Y’s stage. “The rice absorbs the flavors of the herbs as it cooks. You almost have a meal as soon as it comes out of the oven.”

Perelman was interested in his ease with vegetables. “Vegetables have come a long way,” she said, “Maybe largely because of you and your influence. How did you convince people to do more with their vegetables?”

“While it is true that I grew up with the extraordinary vegetables available in the markets of Jerusalem, I didn’t set out to convince anyone about anything,” Ottolenghi said. “I don’t want to convert people. One of the worst things you could do with food,” he said, “is to make people feel badly about how, or what, they eat. To entice people to a dish, whether savory or sweet, meat or vegetable, it needs to look great.”

“When starting out in London more than 15 years ago, my partner, Sami Tamimi, and I had a café in Notting Hill. We created food to be displayed and put on a counter. We learned that if it doesn’t look great, nobody buys it.” The importance of the food’s visual appeal formed how Ottolenghi looked at food and prepared it. Freshness and color contrast were essential.

The cookbook is an explosion of fresh-looking, color-saturated elements presented on simple, white backgrounds. And while he couldn’t go completely basic, he was able to simplify the food he presented while still maintaining an element of surprise.

Perelman asked him which dish one should start with when cooking from Simple. He chose The Silver Palate’s iconic Chicken Marbella. In his version, there is no brown sugar, but you will find Medjool dates and a touch of date molasses – the Middle East meets Spain. He describes this dish as one with few ingredients that can be made in advance and left to lazily roast in the oven.

In fact, he and his team created a system for this book that classifies all of its recipes into six categories: S for Short on time: recipes that take less than 30 minutes; I for 10 Ingredients or less; M for Make ahead dishes; P for Pantry: Ingredients that most people can find in their cupboards; L for Lazy dishes like slow-cooked stews or roasts; and E for Easy, or, at least, easier than you may think. S.I.M.P.L.E. Every dish falls into at least one of these categories. And a few – Iranian herb fritters, mushrooms and chestnuts with za’atar and pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives and capers, satisfy all.

Several guests in the audience were interested in how his Jewish background impacted on his interest in cooking and whether he had plans to publish a kosher cookbook one day.

“No,” he said. I never practiced kosher eating or cooking and it has never been part of my repertoire. Kosher food is not in my DNA,” he said. And then he corrected himself, “Well, it actually may be in my DNA.”

He explained that he did not grow up with a lot of Jewish food in his home. In grade school, when students were encouraged to share traditional foods that they ate at home with their classmates, many of them brought in different forms of gefilte fish. Ottolenghi, whose father’s family is of Italian descent, brought in pizza.

And his favorite Israeli food to make? It’s a Middle Eastern dish – rice, lentils, and fried onions.

Perelman noted that there seems to be a rush on cookbooks that promise simple food. Why is that? “It’s a sign of the times,” he said in his British-and-Hebrew inflected English.

“People want a certain level of comfort and someone to hold their hand in the kitchen. They want things that are soothing.” And by focusing on dishes that require fewer steps and ingredients, while still colorful and beautiful, he hopes to be offering just that

Below, both Ottlenghi and Perelman share recipes from their recent cookbooks:

Puy Lentils with Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Yogurt

Hot, Charred Cherry Tomatoes with Cold Yogurt

Braised Eggs with Leek and Za’atar

Chocolate Pecan Slab Pie

Grandma-Style Chicken Noodle Soup

Granola Biscotti

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