With his revolutionary cookbooks Ottolenghi, Plenty and Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi has changed the way cooks around the world think about vegetables. This month, the chef — famous for his eponymous London delis and restaurant NOPI — is out with Plenty More, full of new, creative vegetarian dishes starring the bold flavors for which he’s known.
To celebrate the launch of the new book, we asked Yotam all about his “vegi-renaissance,” his best flavor discoveries, and what we’ll find in Plenty More. Read his responses below, then see a sneak peek of recipes from the book (out next week!) and join us in select Williams-Sonoma stores to meet Yotam — details and dates below.
I was finishing off my Masters studies in Amsterdam, getting itchy feet in the library. A lot of my energy and creativity was being used up in the kitchen, cooking for friends, delighting in food and eating an extraordinary amount of croquettes. I thought that enrolling on the Cordon Bleu course in London would be a way to scratch the itch, before I got back to the career in academia it was thought I would follow. I’m still scratching, all these years on.
Describe your food philosophy and cooking style.
I’m not sure it’s a philosophy, but I like food that is bold and vibrant and full of surprise and delight. I don’t want a pack of highlighters on my plate but I do love small bursts of flavour in every mouthful – something achieved by a sprinkle of piquant sumac, for example, or a mouthful of sweet-sharp dried barberries. At the same time, and without thinking it’s a contradiction, I often like ingredients to be kept as close to their natural state as possible. Rather than slice or grate a carrot, for example, I instinctively like to cut it into little long batons, so that they still look like a carrots. Ditto asparagus, endive, fennel, gem lettuce and so on: I’d always slice them lengthways to preserve their original shape rather than widthways. It’s a small point to go into such detail on, but philosophy is a big word!
How did growing up in Israel influence your cooking style? What are some flavors from your childhood you still love and use often?
It had a huge impact on my cooking style. Not only in terms of ingredients – I will still always spread tahini or halva on my toast rather than think to buy peanut butter – but also in terms of the way that I cook and eat. Vegetables were always a huge part of our day-to-day meals and there was a real democracy to the way the table was set. Rather than having one “main” and meaty dish in the middle of a table or plate and a couple of vegetables on the side, we were far more into the mezze-type spread, where a large number of dishes sit side by side for people to taste and share. This way of eating feels completely natural to me and I’ll still always be more excited about a tapas menu – where I can choose 8 things without being greedy! – rather than the formal starter-main course-pudding way of eating.
Flavours I grew up with which I still love and use: creamy tahini, sweet-sharp pomegranate molasses, my much-loved za’atar and sumac, fragrant rose water and orange blossom.
What’s the story behind your new cookbook Plenty More? How does it expand on (the very popular!) Plenty?
It’s vegetarian, like Plenty, and there is, quite simply, more of it! Not only in terms of recipes – there are over 150 sweet and savoury dishes – but also in terms of volume, which has been turned up a notch further. It feels like vegetables, legumes, pulses and grains are all having a very loud party at the moment and I’m delighted to be on the guest list.
In the book’s intro, you talk about your hesitations with writing a vegetarian column for the Guardian. What were you worried about?
About running out of ideas, about being pigeonholed, about getting bored. And hungry. The reality has been, on every count, the diametric opposite.
What was your “vegi-renaissance”? How did you start transforming vegetables into the creative dishes you’re known for?
I just started experimenting. It was all very low key at the beginning – me in my back-of-the-aeroplane-sized kitchen at home, covering my hand-written notes in tomato sauce before moving to the kitchen table to type it all up – and has built and grown very organically from that.
What are some new flavors or ingredients you love that you discovered along the way?
So many! I never thought I’d come to love and rely on Asian ingredients as much as I do. Tamarind, Thai basil, Pandan leaf, rice wine vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, miso, yuzu juice, seaweed: they are some of my absolute favourite ingredients.
This book is divided into chapters by technique: tossed, steamed, blanched, etc.? Why? How does that reflect the way you cook?
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with the way that we cook certain vegetables – gem lettuce will always be raw and tossed in a salad, for example – which limits their potential. Drawing attention to the cooking method, rather than ingredient, allowed me to play around with this, shake things up and shine a new light on the everyday. Roasting zucchini whole, as you would an eggplant to make baba ganoush, for example, was a complete revelation; wilting little gem lettuce in the pan to appear in a summer stew. It’s an absolute reflection of the way that I cook. I never do it for the sake of it, but often I’ll find myself inclining towards the non-obvious choice and, more often than not, being delightfully surprised by the results.
How do these recipes compare to what you serve in your restaurants?
There is some cross over with the food we serve at our delis (as opposed to our restaurant NOPI, where the food is entirely different). The dishes which work well piled high on platters – the rice salad with nuts and sour cherries, for example, or any number of the green bean salads with a range of dressings and accompaniments – but others, which were first created for the column I write for the Guardian magazine – are much more for the home cook feeding family and friends.
What are your favorite recipes from this book and why?
With the disclaimer that tomorrow’s choices will be entirely different from today’s (how can I choose the favoured child!?) I’d say the tomato and pomegranate salad, the cannellini bean puree with pickled mushrooms and pita croutons and the zucchini baga ghanoush. They are three of the simplest recipes in the book but they were all a mini-revelation to me when I first tasted them. Combinations I’d never thought of, either in terms of ingredients or ingredient and method, which I’d never imagined could work so well.
What are the 3 pantry ingredients you can’t go without?
Lemons, garlic and olive oil.
What inspires you in the kitchen?
An insatiable appetite for delicious food.
What’s for dinner tonight?
It’s the Plenty More launch party in the UK so lots of dishes from the book, shrunk down to the size of a bite.
Join us at your local Williams-Sonoma store for a special book signing and talk with Yotam Ottolenghi. He will be signing copies of his new cookbook, Plenty More.
Columbus Circle – Co-hosted by Christine Muhlke of Bon Appétit
Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 6:00pm
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019
Monday, October 20, 2014 at 6:00pm
1550 N Fremont St., Chicago, IL 60622
Thursday, October 23, 2014 at 5:30pm
339 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Friday, October 24, 2014 at 3:30pm
340 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94108
We hope to see you there!