Some Thoughts on Lunch from Yotam Ottolenghi

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Courtesy Ottolenghi)

This past week we shared a collection of favorite lunch recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi, and as always, his fresh, vegetable-forward, Mediterranean recipes were exactly what we wanted to eat all week long.

I also talked with Ottolenghi about lunch in general — why did he go into the business of lunch, through his delis, from the get-go, and what, in his mind, characterizes a great lunch?

Your cafes are a delightful place to eat lunch. What inspired you to make the midday meal the place you began, as a restaurateur?

The gap we saw in the market was for absolutely top-quality take-away food, so this made us focus our attention on lunch in the early days. Our vision for the delis was to offer the best savoury and sweet foods for our customers, without the obligation to have to sit in and eat it there. The evening service and people sitting in for their meals developed quite naturally, as a result of customer demand.

In the States, lunch is not usually a leisurely or expansive meal. What are some good ways to bring thoughtfulness and graciousness to a busy midday lunch?

Not eating in front of a computer helps; taking 15 minutes out of your day to just eat and focus on eating sets you up far more for a busy afternoon than unconsciously snatching some food whilst half-looking at your phone or inbox. Eating food which is more interesting and delightful than the inbox is also a good incentive. I like to eat with people as well. Again, it’s just 15 or 20 minutes of your day but the benefit of all taking a moment out together, eating and talking, is huge.

Lunch is often also considered a boring or rote meal, made of leftovers. Do you have any tips for dressing up simple meals to make them more appealing for the midday break?

Leftovers can always be spruced up with some toasted seeds or nuts sprinkled over, to give them a fresh crunch, or else a sprinkle of something like za’atar or sumac, to give it a new kick. A fresh drizzle of citrus – lemon or lime – often helps as well.

There are so many dressings you can quickly make to freshen up any roasted root vegetables from the night before — yogurt mixed with a little bit of tahini and seasoning, for example, or even just a little bit of chili sauce in some yogurt works well, spooned on top of any pulses or root veg.

Sometimes we come across something we wouldn’t have thought of as a make-ahead lunch option, like your vegetable tart, but that obviously works beautifully. Are there any dishes that have evoked that moment of discovery for you?

I’m a huge fan of food at room temperature so, honestly, I’ll eat pretty much anything at lunch. Leftover room temperature quinoa patties (just take a wedge of lemon to squeeze on top), a slice of cauliflower cake, chickpea salad with diced mango, rice salads, all sorts of frittatas – I made a lovely one the other day with courgette and ciabatta.

Anything that doesn’t involve fresh leaves (which go soggy), or anything that has been battered and fried (like tempera vegetables, which also go soggy) works really well.

Out of all your books, which 3 or 4 recipes have remained your favorites to eat for lunch?

Anything noodle- or pasta-based is always a favourite – the legume noodle soup or tagliatelle with walnuts in Plenty More, for example. I always forget how much I love the three rice with chicken salad in my first book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook until I eat it. There’s also a recipe for corn cakes with a beetroot and apple salad in my new book, The Nopi Cookbook, due out in September, which I could eat every day for lunch.

What did you eat for lunch today?

Today was a testing day so “lunch” tends to start at about 11 a.m. and go on until about 3 p.m. Highlights included kohlrabi kimchi, vegetable fritters, sprouted chickpea and chicory salad, and a spicy potato hash.

Not all at once, of course.

Thank you so much for the lunch inspiration, Yotam Ottolenghi!