Yotam Ottolenghi's Year in Food
We spoke to mould-breaking Israeli chef and restaurateur, Yotam Ottolenghi, who talked us through pancakes, pumpkins and why he serves black food on Valentine's Day...
January has begun and a new year lies ahead – after the decadence of the Christmas period, what do you think makes a good foodie new year’s resolution?
I’m not a fan of abstinence and I don’t really believe in the concept of ‘detox’. If my body is crying out for a bit of a rest from it all, though, I head towards South East Asian food. A rasam broth, for example – sharp in tamarind – or soothing coconut laksa. Miso soup is also great. I also tend to have a bit of an anniversary with sprouted seeds and toasted nuts in January: a great big bowl of mixed sprouts and thinly chopped raw vegetables and fresh herbs can go a long way to cancel out the blue-cheese-and-red-wine effect.
Try our salmon, squash and prawn laksa.
We’re all about healthy eating at the start of the year – do you have any of your own healthy eating tips for our users?
Use a squeeze of lemon to finish off a dish, rather than always dressing it in a heavy sauce. And use herbs and spices or fermented things like miso or tamarind paste to pack in flavour, rather than butter.
Valentine’s Day is the perfect excuse for a slap-up meal. What’s your idea of a romantic feast for two?
I’d buck the pink vibe and go for something big and black and full of flavour, like pappardelle pasta with lamb’s liver and black garlic. To offset the drama of the black here, I’d concede with a splash of pink-purple-orange colour with a bittersweet salad to start, made from segments of blood oranges, torn red leaves like radicchio and red chicory and then some pomegranates sprinkled on top. Ricotta dotted on top and some toasted pine nuts also work well. Just a bit of dark chocolate for pudding and a nice bottle of orange or red wine on the table.
Every year we see our steak content rocket in popularity around Valentine’s Day – what would be your ultimate steak dinner?
I’d go all out on the ultimate steak sandwich for a Valentine’s lunch as it's more fun than the pressure imposed by the candlelit vibe. A well-aged rump steak, chargrilled and sliced, freshly made bread rolls (or a good ciabatta, to save time), all the right condiments, freshly made – mustard mayonnaise, fried onion rings, chilli and coriander jam, sliced tomatoes, iceberg lettuce – are hard to beat.
Our users go 'flipping crazy' for Pancake Day – what’s your serving style of choice come Shrove Tuesday… and where do you stand on the filling situation?
I love sweet-savoury pancakes, for example pancakes filled with cheese, drizzled with honey and orange blossom and sprinkled with pistachios. Or turmeric crêpes with spiced sugar and lemon. I also love pancakes made from alternative flours, like gram flour pancakes with a spiced aubergine condiment or buckwheat and parsnip pancakes with caramelised apples. I don’t have a fixed stance on the filling situation. Sometimes I fold, sometimes I roll, sometimes I serve them as they are with the accompaniment alongside.
We tend to tighten up our food spend in February. What are your tips for cooking on a budget?
Batch cooking. Rather than buying a set of ingredients for one meal, double or triple a recipe so that it can be there in the fridge or freezer for the days to come. Buy fruit and vegetables in season, from your grocer. As well as tasting much better, the cost of produce changes hugely depending on whether or not it’s in season.
Spring sees us celebrating Mother’s Day. What influence does your family have over your cooking? We’re talking first meals right through what you like to eat with your family nowadays.
My folks are both great cooks and the food I grew up eating bookends everything I do. Even if it's not obviously there in the meal I’m making it’s there, holding everything together: the principle of food, family meals and eating together being the most important thing.
Spring is a time to clean our kitchens of clutter – but what piece of kitchen kit could you never part with?
If I could only keep one or two pieces of kit they would be my garlic press and lemon squeezer. I use them every day.
What’s your idea of the perfect Easter spread? From choice of egg to the finest roast dinner.
Eggs would be soft boiled and served on a celery and green pepper salad with fresh herbs, capers, green chillies and chunks of feta - a fresh and palate-cleansing start to a meal. I’d make a big pie for the main meal – a chicken pastille, for example, rich in slow-cooked chicken stirred through with Catalan spinach and wrapped in filo pastry. It’s a real ‘wow’ of a dish. Pudding would be something celebratory and booze-filled, like a pear and saffron trifle with brandy in the sponge, Muscat in the sabayon and champagne in the jelly.
As soon as the sun shines, we dust off our barbies. How do you go about throwing a truly sizzling barbecue spread? And what do you do when the weather fails you?
Get everything marinating the day before so that it’s all ready to go on the day; and just do a few things well rather than overwhelming yourself with 15 dishes (and then being left with lots of leftovers). Let everyone help themselves to everything, make sure there's enough ice and have a plan B (a chargrill pan and well ventilated kitchen) in case you need to duck inside.
What would we find in your picnic basket on a hot summer’s day?
A frittata or cauliflower cake, which are robust enough to travel and easy enough to eat with your hands. Rice salads are also better than leafy salads – more robust, less likely to wilt – and happier to be dressed in advance. Keep the bits you're stirring through separate or sitting on the top of the rice so that they don’t get soggy. Filled pastries are also good – samosas or burekas, for example. A punnet of strawberries, a block of chocolate, a bottle of wine. Again, as with barbecues, it’s always better to do a few things really well rather than trying to tick off every single dip-slaw-bread-cheese-salad known to picnic-kind.
Summer time means a nice relaxing holiday for lots of us – what’s your ultimate foodie travel destination, and what do eat when you’re there?
I love to go to one of the Greek islands with my family and friends. We rent a house and keep the rest fairly simple. Lots of eating in with local-sought fish and vegetables. It’s good for me to be cook without my measuring spoons and weighing scales!
September is back to school season – what do you think we should be teaching the future generation about cooking and eating? Were you an early kitchen dweller?
We should be teaching them to enjoy and celebrate food rather than to be scared of it or to think that being ‘healthy’ simply equates to not eating certain things. There’s all sorts of anxiety around food that makes me very concerned. It should be a normal, everyday, happy-making thing.
I was certainly an early kitchen dweller. I was on the ‘other’ side of the counter, as it were – reaching over to eat the food rather than standing stove side – but, yes, a lot of my childhood was spent in the kitchen.
We love a touch of ghoulish cooking on Halloween, and we particularly love creating a spooky pumpkin. What do you do with the surplus flesh?
I’d always start with smaller pumpkins – the flesh of larger varieties bred for carving don’t have any taste – and then either make soup or a root vegetable mash with the surplus. It’s delicious served with wine-braised shallots. You can either bulk out the flesh with Puy lentils or serve it alongside a roast bird, for an autumnal feast.
Bonfire night is all about bangers, parkin and gathering around a fire with marshmallows – what do you cook when the fireworks are flying?
Potatoes in one form or another. A spicy potato hash, for example, with ‘nduja (or chorizo), grilled with some grated Gruyère on top and served with a fried egg. You can make a lovely salad with the leftover potato skins as well, just mixed with a bit of harissa and oil and then roasted. The skins are great stirred through a crispy leaf salad with a citrussy dressing.
The year culminates in the ultimate foodie event – Christmas. What’s your favourite foodie Christmas present?
A tamahagane gyuto Japanese knife: I’m slowly building my collection.
Talk us through your Christmas Day experience – from breakfast choices right through to the post-lunch snooze on the sofa.
Breakfast is just family – a spread of food, porridge, cheese, bread, pastries, fresh fruit, good coffee – and then a big meal with lots of friends at some point in the afternoon. Again, it would be a big spread – I’d much rather there be lots of dishes to pick and choose from rather than one great bird at the table surrounded by various ‘sides’. I fell for a rice dish with confit vegetables this year so that will have to appear. I sometimes have a big duck or goose but it’s also nice to have lots of smaller stuffed poussins, so that the meat doesn’t dominate. Pudding is another spread – trifles, Christmas cake – all unified by my inclination towards having as much booze in my desserts as I can.
Everyone loves a party to celebrate New Year’s Eve. What’s your choice of tipple to raise at midnight? And what’s your ultimate party menu?
Whisky at midnight would be my drink of choice. And the ultimate menu? Maybe a whole sea bass after all the ham leftovers of the previous week, roasted with ginger and spring onions and served with a rice wine, sesame oil and soy-based sauce. Something fresh and simple to see in the New Year.
Looking back over the year, what’s your favourite foodie season in terms of ingredients – and how do you like to cook the season’s golden haul?
I love all the seasons: I love the robust big flavours of autumn – all the ‘meaty’ vegetables like mushrooms and aubergines – but then I’m all ready for the green lightness of spring when it arrives.
Looking to the year ahead, what trends do you see emerging in the food world?
More street-food style restaurants, more Korean food, more baking.
Ottolenghi portrait by Adam Hinton.