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Exclusive Interview with Celebrated Chef Yotam Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi on his essential pantry, why we love vegetables, and choosing just two butternut squash recipes for Plenty More: "Sometimes there were really hard choices."

Celebrated London chef Yotam Ottolenghi introduced North American palates to Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients—and transformed classic vegetarian cooking—with his series of cookbooks that included Jerusalem and Plenty. Editor-in-chief Anicka Quin chatted with him when he hit Vancouver last month to celebrate the release of his latest, Plenty More.

Plenty More

With Plenty and Plenty More, you’ve done a series of vegetable-forward cookbooks, yet you’re not a vegetarian yourself. What was the inspiration behind it?
Although I’m not a vegetarian, I don’t think it excludes me really loving vegetables. And the whole idea was to do books that really celebrate vegetables to the extreme. I think that there is room for that, because people are really keen on including more vegetables and grains and legumes in their diet. Plenty did so well, and was so well received, I thought there’s room for more of that. There are some new ingredients, but mainly it’s the idea of putting together certain things that I haven’t put together in the past.

If Plenty was more about exposing the readers to new ingredients, this one is more about putting together things that are people will not necessarily be familiar with. Even on the cover, there’s that rhubarb and beetroot and dolce latte cheese dish. Not the most straightforward combination in people’s minds, but it opens up people’s perceptions to what can be done with vegetables, and how far you can go, juxtaposing things together, in a way that makes sense.

I’m really intrigued by your recipe development process. Plenty More has so many recipes!

One hundred and fifty!

That’s really unusual.

Yeah, normally there’s about 100.

 So how does that development process work? To me it’s as mysterious as writing a symphony.

Not quite! Most of the recipes have been published in the Guardian over the years, so in a sense, this is the pulling together of recipes that I’ve been working on for four years. They don’t come so easily from one day to the next. It’s a long process of personal development—of getting myself introduced to new ingredients, and travelling, and getting inspired.

The inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. Some of them are evident when I talk about, I’ve been to Turkey and I’ve eaten at that restaurant, I’ve had this salad and it’s amazing so I’ve just decided to make this combination of pomegranates and tomatoes, for instance. So that’s one way of getting inspired, by travelling.

The Tomato and Pomegranate salad was inspired by Ottolenghi's trip to Turkey.
The Tomato and Pomegranate salad was inspired by Ottolenghi’s trip to Turkey. 

And I’m kind of a hoarder of books and magazines. I constantly flick through and I get ideas. It’s not so much the ideas that I’m looking for, it’s more about the start of the creative process. Sometimes when I see an image, it kick-starts a creative process in my mind. So I see, let’s say lentils in a kind of turmeric-y, coconut-y broth. And I think, that’s interesting, maybe I’ll make a lentil and coconut salad.

And then I work in association. Normally I start with one ingredient that I want to feature, because it’s the season, or I’ve just recently had it, or it just came into my mind. And then I start working and expanding on it. I’ll give you the example of the lentils. If it’s lentils, then probably I want to start by infusing them with quite a lot of flavour because they’re quite bland to start with. So I’ll heat some oil with some aromatics, and then maybe lemon skin, maybe some thyme, maybe a couple of garlic cloves and some whole cloves. And then as soon as the lentils are cooked, I’ll throw this oil with all the aromatics on it to start absorbing the flavours. That’s the starting point, so what do I want now? What works with lemon, what works with thyme? Maybe I’ll do some breadcrumbs, something crunchy to go with things. And then I need maybe a dairy or something like caramelized onions to feel soft in the mouth. I work by way of association, and these things work in my mind. And when it’s time to test them, sometimes they don’t quite work the way I had them in mind, but often, they do, or they just need some adjustments in the process.

Do you have to write down as you’re going, or can you just remember what you did?

Oh no, I have to write down every second of something happening. Every 1/8 of a teaspoon of a spice, every pinch of salt, it’s all measured. Just because it is a bit like a symphony in that respect, you cannot miss a tone. If I want to recreate the same dish that I made yesterday and change it slightly, because the creative process takes a few days, until we’re happy with the recipe, then I need to know exactly what I did yesterday, and I need the readers to be able to recreate it. I don’t say one onion, I say 100 grams of onion. I want it to be exactly as I made it.

You mentioned that in Plenty that you introduced people to some new ingredients, and got people excited about different kinds of ingredients, do you have new ones in Plenty More too?

Yeah, there are new ingredients. For me in this book, I have used in abundance ingredients I haven’t used so much before, like miso and tamarind on the Asian side, also pandan leaf for infusing desserts with a kind of a beautiful Asian sweet flavour. On the savoury front, or the more Middle Eastern flavours, I’ve got an ingredient called kashk, which is a fermented yogurt that’s been allowed to dry, and then rehydrated. It’s quite commmon in Persian, Middle Eastern cooking. It’s got that kind of fermented aroma like Parmesan, and things that have been allowed to age.

I also use quite a bit of black garlic in this book. Again, for anything that could help the vegetables with a bit of umami, a bit of fermentation, and the long process of things changing and transforming.

The Sweet Potato with Orange Bitters recipe was inspired by one of Ruth Reichl's in Gourmet magazine.
The Sweet Potato with Orange Bitters recipe was inspired by one of Ruth Reichl’s in Gourmet magazine.

What do you consider your essential pantry? Are there things you will always have on hand?

Well, I have a big pantry, because I’m someone who constantly experiments. But the Middle Eastern basics are always there. Tahini paste I have to have—it’s as important as the olive oil. Some preserved lemons, lots of garlic cloves, and a set of spices that I have to have—all spice cardamom, turmeric, coriander seeds, mustard seeds. It’s a long list. But having said that, I don’t think everyone needs to have all those things in their pantry.  It’s important to set yourself with a certain set of ingredients that you are going to cook with, but you don’t have to have everything. You can set yourself up with maybe 15 pantry ingredients in order to start my cooking, and that would get you quite far.

And what about the decision with how you structured the book, with the steamed, fried, roasted, etc., in each chapter?

Yeah, it was an organization system, but more than that, what I tried to do was draw attention to how important it is that with vegetables, it’s what you try to do to them. Some people have not cooked many vegetables in their lives, or were raised in a meat-heavy culture, don’t know how much the cooking method affects the vegetable. There is this idea that you do one thing with vegetable—you boil them or steam them, and that’s about it.

I was trying to draw attention that the cooking method is really crucial to the result, and different cooking methods result in really different cooking results from the same vegetable. If we’re talking about cauliflower, you can eat it raw, you can roast it, you can grill it, you can deepfry it, you can bake it in a savoury cake. It was very important for me to get people to understand that the world of vegetables is not just about discovering new vegetables, it’s much more about knowing what to do with the vegetables that are quite familiar. You don’t need to go to Japan and get your exotic radishes, you can take a normal radish that we have here and pickle it, or stirfy it, or eat it raw. In the book I’m really trying to show how far you can go with quite familiar ingredients.

You mention in Plenty More that was really challenging for you and your team to limit the number of squash recipes to two.

We did pumpkin competitions, and slaw competitions, and recipes I’d done over the year and choose the best from the book.  And sometimes there were really hard choices. Like with butternut— I love butternut and I cook a lot with it, so there were quite a few contenders to choose from!

The Butternut Squash and Polenta recipe features a slice of tempera lemon.
The Butternut Squash and Polenta recipe features a slice of tempera lemon.

What do you think it is about your cookbooks that have resonated with people – is there something about our changing palates that has made your recipes such a success in the mainstream?

There a few factors, actually. One is that it came at time when people were really eager to try to incorporate more vegetables into their diet. To really start eating more vegetables, and they were looking for things to do to make them more delicious, and Plenty does that in kind of a bold way. It’s not shy about using tons of spices and citrus and garlic and chilies etc, and that really helps the vegetables to be delicious for ominivores—people that have as their standard the flavour of great sirloin grilled on charcoal. That’s a high bar in terms of flavours. You need to give the vegetables a little bit of help.

The other aspect, I think, slightly less so but still pretty important, in Plenty and much more so in Jerusalem, was introducing people to a set of Middle Eastern ingredients that they may not have been familiar with. Things like tahini and zatar and pomegranate molasses; coriander and turmeric and saffron, barberries – I could go on naming them. Having exposed them to this world, they go, wow, those are interesting things to cook with.

When you’re cooking for yourself, what’s your comfort food dish?

To be honest, when I cook for myself, I try to make it really simple because I taste these foods all day. With all their intensity, I’m looking for things that are mild. So often I just have some pasta and olive oil and a glass of wine when I come home in the evening, or a little bit of rice and lentils, and with some fried onions and a few spices, not many. Something quite hearty is what I want after I’ve been experimenting with vegetables and intense flavours all day long.

Palate overload?

Palate overload, exactly!

What’s your favourite food destination?

I  love to go to two very distinct cities in the world that are equally delicious. One is Tokyo and the other is Istanbul. The food cannot be any more different, but I think they’re extremely rich food cultures, and I could spend days and days in these two cities and never get tired of the food.

Is there a dish that you beeline for as soon as you get there?

Istanbul is on the street, it’s got the most amazing pastries and breads, especially their bureks—this stuffed bread with cheese. As soon as I arrive to Istanbul I want to eat burek on the street with cheese, spinach, whatever it is. They’re swirled shape and you buy a piece, and they’re normally really fresh and wonderful.

Japan is slightly different—it would be in a restaurant, some kind of brothy thing, with miso and lots of really nice things in it. That would be my first attempt. Then I would go sushi and sashimi would be my second. Because first, when you land, you want comfort.

You have a child, a boy?

Yes, Max.

What kind of food does he like to eat, with a chef for a dad?

He’s quite good at eating, but he’s got funny things. He loves green things, beans and peas and cucumber, but he doesn’t like red things, like tomatoes or peppers, he wouldn’t even touch them. So I think these are phases, but at this point, he’s like that. I’m not trying to convert him—I just give it to him. Whatever he eats, he eats.

Find Ottolenghi’s recipe for Butternut Squash and Polenta here.

Yotam Ottlenghi and editor-in-chief Anicka Quin at Diva at the Met in Vancouver.
Yotam Ottlenghi and editor-in-chief Anicka Quin at Diva at the Met in Vancouver.

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