Yotam Ottolenghi: ‘You can cook your meal today but you can also take the first steps toward the next meal’

I’m chatting to Yotam Ottolenghi at my kitchen table. For any follower or fan of contemporary food culture, the man is a giant.

ven if you’ve only vaguely heard of him, if you’ve ever eaten a salad jewelled with pink pops of fresh pomegranate, or dipped flatbread into zingy za’atar or creamy labneh, or had Turkish eggs for brunch, or tucked into cauliflower steaks or charred broccoli with chilli and garlic, or ticked pomegranate molasses off your shopping list, or seasoned pre-soaked chickpeas with the tang and shade of Middle Eastern spices or the rich heat of harissa, you largely have Ottolenghi to thank for it. The Jerusalem-born, London-based food writer, chef and restaurateur is the creative force behind a battalion of cookbooks, and the chef-patron behind London’s Nopi and Rovi restaurants, as well as five Ottolenghi delis. He is to Middle Eastern flavours what Julia Child was to French cooking: a conduit for one culture into another culture’s culinary back catalogue.

All of this, and here he is, this giant of 21st-century gastronomy in a small box on my laptop screen, Zooming in from a bright room in the new north London home of his Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (or ‘the OTK’, as its ever-expanding team of contributors call it). In a separate Zoom box, his co-author and right-hand woman, Noor Murad, has also joined us from her London home. They are chatting with me this morning about their ingenious new cookbook, Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Extra Good Things, which is stuffed full of soon-to-be indispensable recipes for the aforementioned condiments and pantry essentials. These pickles and sprinkles and oils and sauces of every imaginable kind are all cleverly built in as ‘takeaways’ or handy leftovers from meal-based recipes that you’ll want to cook immediately.

“The idea of this book came out of this particular moment [during rolling pandemic lockdowns] where we were all making condiments like pickles and sprinkles and oils and sauces that were just an easy way to put a meal on the table with less effort,” he tells me. “Then you can just grill your fish or make your rice and you’ve got all the flavour already in the jar.”

Ottolenghi proves as personable as in his food writing, which began with a still-running weekly recipe column in The Guardian, and most recently saw this 10th cookbook being authored, or rather co-authored, as the second published under the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen moniker.

While his then editor at The Guardian’s Saturday magazine, Merope Mills, once remarked that “Yotam has literally changed what supermarkets stock”, his food writing has always responded to shifts in how we want to eat as much as it has shaped them. If his seminal 2010 cookbook, Plenty, captured the zeitgeist of an emerging vegetable-forward culinary approach where vegetables took centre stage, 2018’s Simple answered our collective desire to create these vibrant flavours everyday with less faff and fuss. Likewise, just as the 2021 publication of Shelf Love, the first official publication of Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, evolved from a very particular moment in time — written in 2020, when early lockdowns had us raiding our pantry shelves to avoid unnecessary shopping trips — so too does Extra Good Things speak to how we’ve been cooking in the intervening stop-start years.


Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Extra Good Things

“We’ve all been making those condiments for ourselves much more than before, because the daily grind of cooking has become so monotonous,” Ottolenghi picks up. “We found this notion very attractive: that you can just cook your meal today — and it’s a whole dish and those recipes are standalone recipes — but you could also take the first steps toward the next meal.”

Building on Shelf Love’s invitation to take comfort from simple pleasures in the kitchen-bound moment, Extra Good Things is about cooking forward by creating gifts for your future self to base a meal on. As Murad explains in this latest cookbook’s promo video on the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen YouTube channel, each “flavour bomb” acts as “the secret culinary weapon to ‘Ottolenghify’ every one of your meals”. (Yes, ‘to Ottolenghify’ is now an official verb — or at least it is in the OTK lexicon, and the introduction to Extra Good Things even proposes its dictionary definition: “To add flair, a slight twist to the familiar” or “a surprise in the mouth”. And so you might blend a harissa butter to stuff a panko-coated Portobello mushroom kiev, and then toss it another day into steamed vegetables, or mash it into a jacket potato. You might roast off cinnamon almonds for a sweet and savoury chicken pie, and use the leftovers to bring cheer to your morning porridge.

Having a fridge or pantry stocked with these extra good things makes it a cinch to build flavour into meals or personalise individual dishes. Ottolenghi’s indispensable extras are a whole host of homemade chilli sauces, oils and condiments. “My kids don’t eat the level of heat that I use,” he says of his sons, nine-year-old Max and seven-year-old Flynn, “so it’s very handy for a mixed household of children and grown-ups.”

That Flynn’s name has a decidedly Irish ring to it can be explained by Ottolenghi’s husband, Karl Allen, who is Northern Irish. The four of them have spent extended periods of time in Co Down, where Allen’s family are from — and Ottolenghi has claimed that he prefers Irish weather to London weather, where you often get endless grey days without the sunny breaks that our changeable skies offer.

Murad’s antidote to those long, grey, English days is to have a fridge full of fresh herbs, and her favourite hack is to blitz a herb pesto, seal it with olive oil to extend its shelf-life, and then “just spoon it into some nice jarred beans and put that on toast for a really delicious meal”.

Born in Bahrain and heavily influenced by formative university and early adulthood years in New York, Murad always swore that she would never move to her English mother’s home country — unless under very specific conditions. “We used to spend the summers in Northampton and I wasn’t impressed. The weather’s not nice, and I didn’t know the people,” she says. “I always said that I would only move if I got a job at Ottolenghi — and I did, so it was meant to be!” She now heads up the dozen-strong team of contributors at the OTK’s Holloway Road headquarters.

Browsing through this latest book, it strikes me that if ‘to OTK’ was also a verb, it would be to play with your food — and that sense of playfulness and open-ended invention infuses this latest book. When I ask Murad what her signature-style verb would be, her thoughts turn quickly to sour (“so, sumac and lots of lemon and black lime; when you see these kinds of flavours, you’ll know that’s a very Noor thing”) and to herbs.

“Lots of herbs. I don’t mean just sprinkled on top, I mean built into the base of things.” She references her recipe for green frittata with burnt aubergine and pomegranate salsa, a sort of mash-up of a traditional Persian kuku sabzi (herb frittata) and kuku bademjan (aubergine frittata), which takes a heavy-handed approach to herbs in the main recipe and accompanies it with even more fresh herbs in the salsa. “That amount of herbs is something that totally makes sense to me,” she says. “Someone else might look at a recipe and be like, what do you mean 250g of herbs? But for me, that’s nothing.”

“When you use herbs this way, which is so typical to the part of the world where Noor grew up,” Ottolenghi chimes in, “when you cook down an abundance of herbs like mint and dill and coriander and parsley, like they do for Persian stews and soups and kukus, it’s a particular set of flavours that people won’t even recognise from just using herbs in a Western context. It’s a very particular thing, that slightly metallic — in the best possible way — flavour, and it’s a wonderful thing for people who don’t cook that way to try to experience.”

Ottolenghi and Murad often pick up each other’s points like this, as they evidently do throughout their working day with the rest of the OTK team — building layers of understanding around a subject and drawing out nuance and complexity in the way you might build flavour and complexity in a dish that you’re developing.

That finely collaborative process is Murad’s favourite thing about her job. There are days when she’ll come to work feeling uninspired, and then a conversation with a colleague about an apple pie eaten in New York will spin off into the basis for a recipe of baked apple with rye crumbs, and the ‘extra good thing’ of pumpkin caramel to be used as a topping for ice cream or other roasted fruit.

“Those conversations are so vital and so critical to our work, and I really feel like it’s what makes the test kitchen what it is today.”

Murad and Ottolenghi both believe that one positive to come from the pandemic was our greater investment in time spent in the kitchen, whether on projects like perfecting sourdough and banana bread, or simply more meals shared with the people we live with.

“I think that people are now much more inclined to put different meals together and be more experimental in the kitchen and have fun with new ways to enjoy food,” Murad says. “We just really wanted to encourage that.”

Join Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad for An Extra Good Night at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, at 8pm on Saturday, October 8. Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Extra Good Things by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi will be released on September 29

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