Why Ottolenghi is the best thing that's happened to cooking

Why Ottolenghi is the best thing that's happened to cooking

It's no secret that, at Sprinkle, we’re huge fans of Yotam Ottolenghi. In the last ten years he has transformed the way we cook, changed how we stock our kitchen cupboards and revolutionised how we think about food. He’s made home cooking way more fun and vegetables sexy. He’s helped us all become better cooks and sparked a global conversation about the importance of bold, bright, unapologetic flavours in contemporary cooking. Here's how to navigate his cookbooks and be the best cook you can be.

 

Ottolenghi has taken the lead and was open and transparent about his cooking secrets long before chefs sharing recipes on social media became trendy. He taught us to embrace food that was engaging, loud, zesty and loaded with real natural flavours.

He has challenged us to hunt down exotic ingredients. He’s proven that olive oil, lemon and garlic can set a dish apart. He’s demystified spices. He is the reason we rave about preserved lemons, know all about za’atar, casually sprinkle urfa chilli and Aleppo pepper on our dishes and won’t be caught without pomegranate molasses in our pantries.  

Like Yotam, I was born in Israel, a melting pot with an extremely diverse cultural backdrop. Back in the 70s and 80s, Israel wasn't the culinary hot spot it is today. But there was always an abundance of different flavours, smells, cuisines and bustling markets everywhere you looked. Your school friends' parents would cook Moroccan, Iranian, Yemenite, Russian, South African, Argentinian or Hungarian food at home. And there were of course typical Middle Eastern street foods like proper hummus, shawarma, falafel and bourekas (puff pastry stuffed with cheese, potatoes or spinach) eaten in local eateries everywhere across Israel that we all grew up with.

Tel Aviv's food scene today is much more grown up and has become one of the best places to eat in the world. It’s brimming with innovative restaurants that serve modern Israeli cuisine, blending the best of traditional Jewish cuisines with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences and a contemporary Israeli twist, eaten in a friendly and unpretentious atmosphere.

Similarly to Yotam, I lived in London for over 15 years. When I first came across his Ottolenghi deli on the vibrant Upper Street in Islington in north London, I fell in love with the colours, smells and vitality of the place. His buzzing deli reminded me of the food vibe back home in Israel that celebrates food - and flavour - for its pure pleasure in a self confident and bold sort of way. The informal communal seating, the lively atmosphere, the bright all white interiors which highlighted the dazzling array of sultry cakes, fragrant muffins, colourful meringues and generous trays of luscious salads that entirely stole the show.

 

ottolenghi roast cauliflower with tahini and za'atar

 

“Ottolenghi”, Yotam’s first cookbook with recipes from his London delis, came out in 2008 and was a revelation. The book is straightforward and honest and shows us how to make his legendary marinated eggplant with tahini and oregano salad, popular roast chicken with sumac, za’atar and lemon, green olive loaf and apple and olive oil cake with maple icing.

While everyone cooks his “Simple” recipes nowadays, we love the first “Ottolenghi” cookbook because it’s such an ageless classic. It was groundbreaking at the time (and still is) because it established what we now know as trademark “Ottolenghi cooking”.

It captures the philosophy that food should be celebrated through imaginative flavours, generous gestures, remarkable colours and an abundance of unusual ingredients. It proved that we could all cook the most delicious food in our very own kitchens. It focused our attention on simplicity and the real flavour of “unadulterated and unadorned” ingredients. As Yotam says in the introduction to the book, “A chocolate cake should, first and foremost, taste of chocolate” and have a “muddy, fudgey flavour and plain appearance”.

 

Ottolenghi braised eggs

 

“Jerusalem” was then published in 2012 (co-authored with Sami Tamimi) as a nostalgic trip back to their culinary pasts. It features hearty, slow cooked, comforting and distinctly Middle Eastern fare that’s great for kicking off autumn with. It teaches us all about Palestinian cooking, soaking chickpeas and how to make a great majadra (typical Middle Eastern rice and lentil dish). It encouraged us to mix spicy, sweet, savoury and sour and showcases those in the chicken with caramelised onions and cardamom rice recipe.

“Plenty” was published in 2011, followed by Plenty More in 2014. These are vegetable forward books with awesome summer salads, lighter fare and lots of yoghurt. The roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, green chilli and lime is to die for. These books teach us that there’s more to cooking vegetables than boiling and that vegetables have huge potential, interesting textures and can be as satisfying as any meat dish.

Nopi came out in 2015 and was the more challenging of the Ottolenghi books yet no less fabulous. The roasted carrots with coriander seeds and garlic are one of our all time favourite Nopi dishes to rustle together for dinner parties.

 

Ottolenghi charred tomatoes with yoghurt

 

Sweet was published in 2017 (co written with pastry chef Helen Goh) and is all about classic desserts with unexpected twists. It features lemon and raspberry cupcakes and strawberry and vanilla mini cakes (a childhood favorite of Ottolenghi’s) as well as more adventurous combinations that incorporate sweet warm spices (star anise, cardamom and cinnamon), delectable middle eastern elements (Turkish delight, pistachios, figs and halva) and - of course - the lemon and blackcurrant stripe cake which is a real showstopper and the rolled pavlova with peaches and blackberries that’s a statement dessert perfect for festive summer gatherings.

And, of course, “Simple”. The latest and greatest addition that demystifies Ottolenghi’s cooking and makes it a lot more accessible. We loved so many of the Simple recipes that we keep making them over and over again. The charred tomatoes with cold lemony yoghurt, the braised eggs with leeks and feta, the zucchini and ciabatta frittata...yum!! But, really, the slow cooked lamb shoulder with mint and cumin and baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic are down right incredible.

Ottolenghi does note in Simple that for the recipes to be easy to accomplish, your pantry needs to be well-stocked with ‘Ottolenghi ingredients’ that includes things like urfa chilli, Aleppo pepper, pomegranate molasses and rose harissa. But that’s totally okay because we’ve been exposed to those in his previous books and appreciate their value.

 

ottolenghi eggplant with spiced yoghurt

 

Needless to say, we've tried many Ottolenghi recipes over the years and loved every single one. He managed to do something rather tricky - he got people to expand their culinary horizons, step out of their cooking comfort zones and be comfortable with breaking a few rules along the way. His story about the Irish stew adaptation told at his recent Sydney Opera House interview is hilarious and a great insight into his forward looking philosophy that seeks to shatter cooking conventions and show us there is a much better way of doing things, if we just follow his lead.  

Before Ottolenghi (if anyone can remember how utterly dull that was like), many people explored international or more exotic cuisines at restaurants or in takeaways. Or they'd cook the occasional stir fry or curry every now and then.

But the so called ‘Ottolenghi effect’ is so impressive because Yotam changed how we cook our weeknight dinners and what it means to throw a decent dinner party. He shaped our enjoyment of food in a much more personal and profound way.

Suddenly, za'atar, sumac, pomegranate molasses, tahini and preserved lemons are a kitchen staple in the UK, US, Australia, Europe and beyond. People throw Ottolenghi dinner parties everywhere from Auckland to Vancouver. His flair for injecting unusual flavours, drama and sometimes controversy into cooking has turned us all into die-hard foodies and discerning home chefs almost overnight.

One of the most accurate and beautiful comments on Ottolenghi was written by Nigella Lawson (about his first cookbook): “Ottolenghi changed the way we cook in this country...It brought into our kitchens bold flavours, a vivid simplicity, a spirited but never tricksy inventiveness and, above all, light”.