When Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook Plenty was published here in the United States last year, it was an immediate hit and consistently found its way to the top of everyone's best cookbook lists, including our own. Yotam has followed up that effort with an equally stellar but perhaps more personal cookbook called Jerusalem, which he co-authored with his co-chef and business partner, Sami Tamimi. They sat down with me over mint tea last week to generously share some of their kitchen wisdom for home cooks.
Yotam and Sami were both born (in the same year) and raised in Jerusalem, Yotam in the Jewish west and Sami in the Arab east. They first met in the late 1990's on the London restaurant scene and soon opened a restaurant of their own together. Several very successful restaurants and cookbooks later, they travelled back to their origins with Jerusalem, to explore and highlight the vibrant and varied cuisine of their home city.
Both chefs are passionate home cooks and in fact develop most of their recipes at home, with ingredients from the supermarket. Yotam explained it was very important to them that their cookbooks are accessible to people cooking at home, that they are not too fancy or chefy. While Sami and Yotam both are handsome and somewhat glamorous men (to my eye at least) they are equally warm and down to earth, much like the food they make: vibrant, beautiful, satisfying and very welcoming.
Sami and Yotam's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
1. Immerse yourself in a single cuisine. Yotam's encourages a deep and thorough study of a specific cuisine. Set yourself up with the proper ingredients, equipment, spices, and study the terms and techniques, he advises. Cook it as often as possible and you will become quite a confident, focused cook.
2. Don't take on too much, read your recipes, and remember joy. Sami cautions home cooks to not get to complicated. Choose a few good recipes and always read them from A to Zed before cooking, he cautions. And always cook the recipe as written first and then change it next time around if you want. Remember that cooking is supposed to be a joyful, happy thing to do!
3. Knives and simplicity. Sami also advises that every cook should have one good knife, or more specifically one good larger chef's knife and one smaller paring knife. You don't need a lot, he says. Two good knives and maybe a spice grinder - that's it. Simplicity is very important.
4. On cooking vegetables. Yotam rarely boils vegetables and cautions against overcooking them when you do. Maybe 3 or 4 minutes for green beans, he suggests. He prefers to roast or grill most vegetables (beetroot, cauliflower, okra were a few that he listed) as this concentrates their flavors. He also likes to keep the vegetables as whole as possible or, if cutting is required, to slice them in relation to their natural shape and architecture. Fat wedges for beetroot or long slices from root to stem for carrots, for example. Avoid dicing everything and allow the integrity of the vegetable to come though.
5. Slice, dice, chop - know and obey these terms! Both Sami and Yotam agree: it's vital to understand and follow prepping directions in recipes. They are very important and usually there's a reason why something needs to be chopped finely or sliced thinly. Ingredients need to be a certain size in order for a recipe to work. We were obsessed with the details in our books, said Yotam. If you follow them exactly, they will work perfectly.
Like all of the cooks and chefs I spoke with, Sami and Yotam were enthusiastic and generous in sharing their knowledge. Here are a few other points they raised. Always taste as you go: don't wait until you are finished. Fresh ingredients are too random in their strength, texture, and degree of moisture, so you you will probably have to adjust for that by tasting at each step of the recipe. Yotam and Sami notice that people fail to do this all the time when they teach classes and feel it's really, really important to take on this habit.
A list of favorite ingredients: Sumac, za'atar, pomegranate molasses, good Lebanese tahini, rose and orange blossom water, date syrup, ground cardamom, allspice, saffron, chervil, cilantro, fresh herbs in general. Use fresh herbs as an ingredient, not just as a garnish, says Yotam.
Try to find dried barberries, an Iranian spice. Barberries are sharply sweet/sour (emphasis on sour) and a vibrant red in color. Use them in a rice pilaf, or in meat, fish, and chicken dishes, or as a part of a fruit salsa. Yotam sometimes poaches them in a sugar syrup before using.
Thank you, Yotam and Sami!
• For more information on Yotam and Sami and their restaurants, visit their website.
• Our review of Plenty with recipe, and our review of Jerusalem.
Previous Expert Essentials:
• Preeti Mistry's 5 Essential Things for the Home Cook
• Cooking Teachers Jodi Liano & Catherine-Pantsios 5 Essential Tips for Home Cooks
(Image: David Sandison/The Times of London)