Cooking simply lith Dttolenghé
Yotam Ottolenghi aims to prove you don’t need an entire weekend to make one his recipes
Baked potatoes, fish fingers and oven chips. Who’d have thought the day would come when Yotam Ottolenghi, the founder of Middle Eastern fusion food, released a cookery book (Ottolenghi Simple, published this week) which includes recipes for dishes like these?
Admittedly, the simple-sounding potatoes are loaded with spinach and (very grown up) gorgonzola; the fish fingers are coconut-crusted and the oven chips coated in oregano and feta. But this is a new direction for the chef, whose recipes have long been dubbed ‘too much work for a weeknight’.
The man himself admits some debate between him and co-writers, Esme Howarth and Tara Wigley over the baked potatoes: “We had to give them an Ottolenghi twist and they do fit the flavour profile” he insists.
Howarth and Wigley have both worked with him for several years, helping develop and test recipes at his test kitchens in Camden.
What was the catalyst for a book seemingly the antithesis of all things Ottolenghi? Perhaps the constant teasing about the lengthy lists of sometimes hard to source ingredients, and recipes that can take a day to prepare that we are used to?
Ottolenghi admits to feeling some pressure on that front, when even family members complained. “My sister had said ‘I love your food, but I don’t have time to cook it!
I work and have kids — I have a busy life!’”.
He defends himself against the labour intensive label. “I kind of get it, as many of my recipes can be, but a lot aren’t. The assumption has been that Ottolenghi recipes are for weekends or when you have a long time. I wanted to show that they could be easy and leave people in their comfort zone.”
So he, Howarth and Wigley (all busy working parents) set about writing the book — which includes some new dishes plus pared down versions of existing ones.
A conversation with Wigley in the early stages of planning, established that ‘simple’ meant different things to each of them. “For some of us it was something quick. For others, it was food prepared ahead that just needed warming up, or maybe not having to shop for special ingredients.”
So they devised six categories, making an acronym of ‘simple’. Each recipe is marked with one more letters — ‘S’: ‘short’ in time; ‘I’: 10 or fewer ‘ingredients’ ; ‘M’, for ‘make ahead’; ‘P’: ‘pantry’ — using items most of us have in our stores; ‘L’ is ‘lazy’ — the lower effort dishes and ‘E’ ‘easier’ than you think.
There are also suggested menus for all occasions, from mid-week suppers (like seeded chicken schnitzel; new potatoes with peas and coriander and cucumber and lamb’s lettuce salad) to full-on themed feasts.
Those already stocked up with standard Ottolenghi staples shouldn’t need to go shopping as, for once, there are no new spices or other unusual ingredients, only a list of his top 10 store cupboard ingredients. “Things I love to cook with, rely on a lot in the kitchen and will keep on championing until, I hope, they become a lot of people’s ‘everyday’ ingredients.”
At home, he says he’s both an ‘s’ and an ‘m’. “I do like the ‘short on time’ recipes as I’m really busy” he admits, but also likes to be able to make things in advance. “For daily cooking, I can put things together in an hour.” He admits though that his partner, Karl, does most of the weekday cooking. “He’s still at home with the boys (their sons Max, 5 and Flynn, 3) so he does a lot of the batch cooked food they love. He’s much better at that than I am.”
His family has definitely affected his cooking. “When I was living in a household of two, it never made sense; but now both Karl and I are keen on batch cooking — which is useful if you don’t know if the kids will eat what you have for them.”
Gratifying to hear that as a parent, he struggles with the same issues many of us face daily. He doesn’t seem too phased though: “They’re good actually, generally speaking. They eat vegetables and love fruit, so I try to give them lots of that. I don’t mind giving them the odd pizza once in a while — it’s good to eat what you enjoy, so long as it’s in moderation.”
He’s probably harder to feed than his sons.
“I’m surrounded by food all day, so it’s hard to muster an appetite and I often tend not to eat at home. Maybe a glass of wine, some nuts or cheese to calm things down in the week.”
At the weekend he cooks more, but definitely relies on the sort of recipes he includes in the book.
“One of the most simple is a dessert that I do all of the time at the moment. It’s a baked custard with strawberries and rhubarb. It makes a big impact but with very little work. You just mix the ingredients, put them in a pan for five minutes, then bake the strawberries in the oven. I’ve been doing it at the weekend and everyone thinks it’s far more sophisticated than it is.”
Will he be using any of these recipes for Rosh Hashanah? “I don’t know where I’ll be, but there are quite a few chicken recipes in th book. The one that would work the best is my take on Chicken Marbella, which has olives and dates and is a great recipe to cook for a big event like that. People love it. I serve it with a baked rice with pomegranate seeds and olives. And a lovely cinnamony cake.”