Today we’re visiting with Yotam Ottolenghi, acclaimed London-based chef and James Beard- and IACP-award-winning cookbook author. His latest cookbook, Plenty More, has served as inspiration for one of our more popular cooking classes this season. Yotam’s innovative and delectable take on vegetarian fare has put vegetables front and center on dinner plates everywhere, even in front of the most formerly ardent meat eaters.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
It’s unapologetically bold at the same time as being very simple. I’m addicted to bursts of flavour in a dish — whether that comes from chopped preserved lemon skin, piquant barberries, fried slivers of garlic or slices of red chile and so on — but my style of cooking is actually very home-cook-friendly and straightforward. It surprises and comforts at the same time.
Has that evolved over time?
Things are always evolving. I keep finding new ingredients I want to cook with, I’ll hear about new things I want to try out the whole time, the output increases — but, fundamentally, this philosophy — of food which both surprises and comforts at once – remains at the heart of my cooking.
How did you first become interested in cooking?
It started with eating, which I’ve always been interested in. I got into cooking when I was a student in Amsterdam. I thought I’d enroll in a cookery course to just scratch the itch and haven’t looked back since.
What are some of the earliest dishes you remember making?
Little coconut clusters dipped in chocolate. And a kosher version of a sausage roll that appeared in a children’s cookbook and were, funnily, named Moses in the Cradle.
Has writing a column for The Guardian affected the way you cook and approach food?
Writing for the home cook helps keep things real: I’m not using any of the kit and equipment that you’d find in most restaurant kitchens — Thermomixes, sous-vides etc. It’s very much pots and pans and garlic crushes and lemon squeezers and dishes which are generally straightforward to make. The whole point of writing recipes for The Guardian is to make recipes which people are inspired to cook and eat at home, so this — is it very delicious and do I want to eat it at home? — is always the main test for a dish.
What’s exciting about vegetables that wasn’t so thrilling for most home cooks a few years ago?
The word is spreading that cabbage and sprouts do not need to be boiled, that cauliflower is hugely versatile, that aubergine wedges roasted in the oven are so ‘meaty’ that any meat cravings will be forgotten, that courgettes can be chargrilled to make baba ghanoush and so on and so on. The more people cook with vegetables, the more confident they become, and all the exciting qualities of vegetables — their versatility, beauty, their utter deliciousness — are stealing much of the light. It’s really exciting.
The recipes in Plenty More are organized by preparation, not ingredient or course. What inspired you to arrange them this way?
Exactly this question of versatility. It’s all too easy for vegetables and the way we cook them to get stuck in a rut — carrots get grated, cauliflower doesn’t; aubergines get roasted, broccoli gets steamed — but foregrounding the method and playing around with this allowed me to show vegetables in all their variety and glory. Some of the simplest dishes in the book were the greatest revelation for me because they showed a vegetable I thought I knew so well in a new light. The courgette baba ghanoush, for example.
You often refer to these recipes as vegetable-based, not vegetarian. Why the distinction?
If something works like a dream alongside a roast bird — the root vegetable mash with braised shallots, for example — or a fresh salad which would benefit from the addition of some fresh crab or chunks of mackerel, I’d always feel happy to mention this link. It’s about switching the ratio around on a plate. Rather than the main meat and two supporting vegetable sides on a plate, I’d always prefer the meat or fish element to take the supporting role. It’s a big celebration of vegetables but it’s always been a party to which everyone is invited.
People often remark that your recipes call for long lists of obscure ingredients. How do you encourage the average home cook to get past that?
For me there is only one type of home cook — not a special one on one hand and an average one on the other. Some of my ingredients do require a trip to a specialist shop or a look online but, at the same time, I’ll often make suggestions for alternatives if someone can’t get hold of an ingredient. Using a mix of red wine vinegar and lemon juice instead of verjuice, for example or mixing some grated parmesan in with soured cream instead of the fermented kashk I love so much. Supermarkets are, also, beginning to meet the demand for certain ranges of ingredients which would have been considered obscure a few years ago, so that’s also an exciting development.
So what are you favorite ingredients to work with right now?
Tamarind pulp, miso and tahini are firm favourites at the moment. I’m also having a lot of fun roasting whole vegetables like cauliflower and celeriac.
What are some staples we’ll find in the Ottolenghi pantry?
In addition to the tamarind, miso and tahini, there will always be my bookends: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, Greek yogurt, harissa.
And any favorite cookware items in your kitchen?
So what’s next up for you?
I’m working on a new book — it’s the NOPI cookbook — with the restaurant’s head chef Ramael Scully. It’s very different to my previous books so that’s exciting. We’re also opening another deli in East London in the first half of next year. Busy times!
Thanks, Yotam! And if you’d like to work your way through a few of his latest recipes, you can enroll in our cooking class inspired by the book (and you’ll take home a copy). Or you can make his Cauliflower Cake right now. Do you have a favorite Ottolenghi recipe, vegetable-based or not? Let us know in the comments!