An Interview with Yotam Ottolenghi

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Is there any cookbook more popular right now than Sami Tamini and Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem? With their previous book Plenty also remaining in the spotlight, the folks at 10 Speed Press have rereleased a US edition of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, the very first Ottolenghi cookbook which was previously only available in its original UK edition.

Read on for our interview with Yotam Ottolenghi on this first cookbook, his latest favorite ingredients, and what he's cooking in his kitchen right now!

Are you experiencing Ottolenghi-mania amongst your circle of friends who cook? I haven't gone to a potluck or dinner party in the last several months where there wan't at least one dish from Jerusalem and Plenty, the two Ottolenghi cookbook's available in the US at the time. I would complain but the truth is, everything I tried has been delicious. The flavors are fresh and new, and it's really wonderful to see so many people excited about cooking and discovering new ingredients.

Now that Ottolenghi: The Cookbook is availble here in the States, it's a perfect time to check in again with Yotam Ottolenghi on the past, present, and future of all things Ottolenghi!

→ Find it at your independent bookstore, local library, or on Amazon: Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

What was it like to revisit Ottolenghi: The Cookbook after five years and two subsequent cookbooks?

Lovely, actually! Unlike novelists, who tend to write books, set them free and then not return for years to come, I never really ‘let my books go’. It hasn’t been so much a revisiting, therefore, as a continued engagement. We constantly use the recipes for our menus at Ottolenghi.

Though first published over five years ago, so much that is at the heart of Sami and my vision, philosophy and pantry remains the same. New ingredients and techniques have appeared and the design of the books has evolved but many of the fundamentals – the cooking methods, our favourite products, the Ottolenghi team – have remained the same. It feels good to see that we haven’t swayed in this regard.

How would you distinguish it from Plenty and Jerusalem?

The recipes in Plenty are exclusively vegetarian and there are no puddings [desserts] so it’s different in that way. Speaking in generalisations, people are inclined to cook one or two single dishes from Plenty, unlike Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, where entire menus are often put together for lunch spreads or dinner parties. Although all our books come from the same place, as it were, Jerusalem more obviously has its roots in the food and place Sami and I grew up in. Ottolenghi The Cookbook is really a reflection of our shops: salad spreads, roasted veg, cold meats, small cakes, large cakes, breads — it's all there.

What are some of key ingredients in the Ottolenghi pantry (besides lemon and garlic, of course)?

How many shelves are in the pantry?! Can lemon include grated lemon zest as well as preserved lemon skin? And can the garlic include a recent favourite in the form of black garlic? Other current must-haves are cumin seeds, brown miso, freekeh, urfa chilli and pomegranate molasses.

Ingredients such as sumac and za'atar are becoming more readily available in US markets (thanks to your cookbooks, no doubt!) but some people are still having a hard time getting barberries. Are there any good substitutions?

Chopped up dried sour cherries make a good substitution or currants soaked in a little lemon juice.

Any chance that people in the States will be able to see your TV specials (Jerusalem on a Plate, for instance, or Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast)?

These have all just been put together on one DVD, which is available to buy. It’s a region 2 DVD so a multi-regional player is needed to view it.

Your books and international reputation have building over the years but Jerusalem seemed to be the tipping point. Why do you suppose that is? Was it timing or something intrinsic about Jerusalem?

To be honest, we weren’t sure that Jerusalem would have the wide appeal that it has. It was such a massive labour of love on Sami and my part that we didn’t realize others would take it to their hearts (and kitchen tables) as much as they have. It makes us really happy. It’s impossible to narrow these things down to a single explanation: the timing was obviously right, people’s appetite for the food from the region is growing, the cooking and eating of food from a certain place is a positive way for people to relate to the land and, crucially, the book itself looks absolutely stunning.

What is exciting you in the kitchen right now? What are you cooking?

I’m excited about so many things. Ingredient-wise, I’m experimenting a lot with kashk – a fermented Iranian yogurt which tastes a bit like goat’s yogurt mixed through with grated parmesan. It gives a real umami depth to sauces and stews.

I get excited most days, though: just last week I was roasting whole zucchini before peeling and mashing them as you would an eggplant to make baba ganoush and the smoky result – served drizzled with a blue cheese yogurt and chilli butter pine nuts – was a little revelation. It’s the renewed perception of an everyday ingredient like zucchini that makes me really excited.

Is there anything coming up on the horizon for you, Sami, and Ottolenghi that you can share with us?

So many things! I am working on a follow-up to Plenty and also a NOPI cookbook with our head chef at the restaurant, Ramael Scully.

Thank you, Yotam!

(Image: Keiko Oikawa)

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