Yotam Ottolenghi on 'Flavour': Even run-of-the-mill veg can be heavenly
SA chef Danielle Postma of Moemas fame is a protégé and friend of the acclaimed celebrity chef. She chatted to him about his new cookbook
I met the delightful Yotam Ottolenghi when I was a student at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London in 2000 when he was head pastry chef of Baker & Spice in Walton Street, London, the teeniest of bakeries in the hidden streets behind Harrods.
He came to the school as a guest lecturer and watching him work I was smitten and took the opportunity to ask if I could work with him.
He's even a nicer person than you might think, attracting similar souls, and work never felt like work despite the long hours and endless orders ... it was always fun.
I recently caught up with Ottolenghi via Zoom to chat about his new cookbook, Ottolenghi Flavour (Ebury press), in which he's given vegetables the starring role in a variety of dishes.
In your latest cookbook, Flavour, an ode to vegetables, how do you come up with all your ridiculously ingenious ideas?
I think I realised very early on that there's a limited number of ideas that can come out of my head. And that it's much better, more productive, to work in a team. It comes naturally to me and I love to work in a team. I actually really dislike working by myself.
I've written one cookbook, Plenty, which is solely a work of my own, and going into the kitchen, testing the recipes, writing them down, sending them off, I said never again.
I love the idea that people have a conversation around food, and I've been a beneficiary of these conversations for quite a long time now. And since my book Plenty, all the other books on one level or another were collaborations.
I've worked with an incredible woman called Ixta Belfrage — she's only been working with this kitchen (the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen) for four years, or nearly five now.
She's got an incredible history with food in Italy, in Mexico and Brazil, a little bit of China, and she just brings all that to the table. So when we have a conversation, I learn as much as I teach and it's always a new, really, really interesting conversation. And I just love it — for me that's the culture that has been created in our test kitchen in Camden (London) where we test the recipes.
What was the most surprising recipe you created in Flavour?
The miso butter onion recipe is really an incredibly clever idea that came out of a Friday fridge clear-up where there was lots of miso and there was butter and there was more or less nothing else. And we said, “Oh let's just throw those in the pan and try”.
Obviously now that we've tried it, it kind of makes total sense because what happens when the onion pieces combine with butter it turns into like a gravy with the flavour of the juices of the onion.
You know it takes quite a lot of tests to get it right. And I think we mentioned it in the introduction to the recipe, to get the proportions right, and I know from years of recipe testing you can have all the right ingredients but if something is not right in terms of proportion, the size of the pan, the amount of liquid, it can burn or it can fail so easily.
I know editors like short and sweet recipes to inspire effortlessness. How did you fare in Flavour?
I think we're getting it right, and books improve thanks to experience. And we've tried to give people a lot of information, so even if you're not a confident cook you'll get it right, which is exactly what you want. If someone reports a disaster in the kitchen with one of my recipes it's like my total devastation.
Is aubergine still your favourite vegetable?
It kind of changes. I do love aubergines but this book is also a kind of journey of discovery of vegetables that I love.
The last couple of books have had a lot of cauliflower, which kind of threatens to dethrone the aubergine and take over top spot because cauliflower is so wonderfully versatile. It had such a bad reputation, but not any more, at least here in the UK.
And so cauliflower and also celeriac — such a wonderful overlooked vegetable as people really don't know what to do with it. It's just a wonderful thing.
I see onion takes centre stage on the cover of Flavour.
In this book we have recipes for kohlrabi, swede and potato. They are pedestrian ingredients and run-of-the-mill roots, but they can become heavenly if you give them the right treatment.
This is the message of the book, and why it has the onion on the cover with all the layers. If you layer it with acidity, layer it with heat, layer with a certain degree of sweetness, or slow cook it and get those sugars coming up naturally, you'll get something good, even if it's okra.
GET A TASTE OF THE RECIPES IN OTTOLENGHI FLAVOUR
ROASTED AND PICKLED CELERIAC WITH SWEET CHILLI DRESSING
Says Ottolenghi: “This dish features celeriac in two very different guises — slow-roasted and pickled — giving it textural contrast and flavour complexity which enables it to take centre stage in a vegetable feast.
“You can make the dressing a day ahead, but don't mix in the fried chilli and garlic until you're ready to serve it.
“You'll make more pickle than you need, but it keeps in the fridge for 3 days and is great stuffed into sandwiches and toasties or tossed through a salad. If you don't want to pickle a whole celeriac, use just half and roast the other half instead.”
Serves: 2 as a main or 4 as a side
1 large (900g) celeriac, hairy roots discarded (no need to peel) and scrubbed clean
60ml olive oil
2 spring onions, finely sliced at an angle, to serve
5g Thai basil leaves, to serve
Flaked sea salt
1 medium celeriac, trimmed, peeled and cut into thin, 6cm-long batons (500g)
3 celery sticks, cut into thin 6cm-long batons (120g)
2 garlic cloves, skin on and crushed with the side of a knife
3 limes: finely shave the skin to get 6 strips, then juice to get 60ml
150ml rice vinegar
Sweet chilli dressing:
120ml sunflower oil
5 garlic cloves, very finely sliced
3 red chillies (30g), finely sliced into rounds
2 whole star anise
1½ tbsp white or black sesame seeds, or a mixture of both, well toasted
2½ tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp rice vinegar
60ml soy sauce
2 tbsp chives, finely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 170°C fan.
- For the roasted celeriac, pierce the celeriac with a fork all over about 40 times and place on a parchment-lined baking tray.
- Mix the oil and 1 tsp of flaked salt, then rub the celeriac generously with the oil mixture.
- Roast for a minimum of 2¼ hours, or up to 2¾ hours, depending on the size of your celeriac, basting every 20 minutes or so, until the celeriac is deeply browned, soft all the way through and oozes a celeriac caramel.
- Leave to rest for 15 minutes, then cut into either wedges or steaks, brushing each cut side with the oil and caramel left on the tray (you may need to add a little a more oil if there isn't enough to coat the cut sides).
- Combine all the ingredients for the pickled celeriac with 20g flaked salt in a large bowl and set aside for at least 2 hours, stirring now and then, while you prepare the rest of the dish. You can make this up to 3 days ahead and keep it refrigerated.
- Heat the sunflower oil for the sweet chilli dressing in a small saucepan on a medium-high heat. Once very hot, add the garlic, chillies and star anise and fry for 2 minutes, stirring to separate the garlic slices, until the garlic is crisp and pale golden (it will continue to colour after you take it out of the oil, so don't take it too far).
- Strain through a sieve set on top of a small heatproof bowl to collect the oil. Set the fried chilli and garlic aside, to serve.
- Remove 80ml of the aromatic oil and reserve for another recipe. Combine the remaining 40ml of oil with all the remaining ingredients for the dressing.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C fan.
- Place the roasted celeriac wedges on a parchment-lined baking tray, cut side up. Make sure they've been brushed with their cooking oil and celeriac caramel by this point and, if not, brush with some olive oil and a little maple syrup or honey. Roast for 20 minutes, or until golden-brown.
- Arrange the wedges on a large platter and sprinkle with a little flaked salt.
- Add the fried chilli and garlic to the dressing and spoon over and around the celeriac.
- Top with 200g of the pickled celeriac mixture, avoiding the pickling liquid, garlic and lime skin.
- Garnish with the spring onions and Thai basil, and serve.
SWEET AND SOUR ONION PETALS
Says Ottolenghi::"These onions — sweet inside, charred at the edges and swimming in a tart pomegranate syrup — started their life at Testi, a north London Turkish restaurant that we love, where a similar dish is made by charring onions next to lamb on the grill, then tossing them in salgam, a juice made from the sour-salty brine of fermented purple carrots and turnips, and finally sweetening them with pomegranate molasses.
“The bittersweet onions are served alongside the meat, cutting through its fattiness like a sharp knife.
“Our onions are made with reduced pomegranate juice instead of molasses and salgam. They would obviously sit well alongside grilled meats, but we find them totally delicious also in a vegetarian context, with or without the goat's cheese, which is optional. They will go really well with hummus, an aubergine salad and some bread.”
Serves: 4 as a starter or as part of a meze spread
500g golf-ball-sized red onions (about 12), peeled, then halved lengthways
75ml olive oil
400ml pomegranate juice (100% pure)
10g chives, finely chopped
70g young and creamy rindless goat's cheese, broken into 2cm pieces (optional)
⅔ tsp Urfa chilli flakes (or another variety of chilli flake if you can't get them)
- Preheat the oven to 200°C fan.
- Heat a large non-stick frying pan on a high heat until very hot.
- Toss the onions with 2 tbsp of oil and ¼ tsp of salt and place them, cut side down and spread apart, in the hot pan. Place a saucepan on top to weigh the onions down and create an even char, then turn the heat down to medium-high and cook, undisturbed, for about 6 minutes, or until the cut sides are deeply charred.
- Transfer the onions to a parchment-lined baking tray, charred side up, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until softened. If your onions are larger than golf-ball size, this may take longer. Set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, put the pomegranate juice into a medium saucepan on a medium-high heat. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 12 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced to about 70ml and is the consistency of a loose maple syrup. Set aside to cool; it will thicken as it sits.
- Combine the chives with the remaining 45ml of oil and a good pinch of salt, and set aside.
- Pour the pomegranate syrup on to a large platter with a lip and swirl it around to cover most of the plate.
- Use your hands to loosely separate the onions into individual petals, then place them haphazardly over the syrup.
- Dot over the goat's cheese, if using, spoon over the chive oil, and finish with the Urfa chilli flakes.
• Chef Danielle Postma in partnership with her husband, Mike Caudle, originally started Moemas, a shop/bakery/restaurant in Parktown North, Joburg. Now that Moemas is closed, she runs a successful catering company by the same name and offers private and group Ottolenghi-inspired cookery classes. See moemas.co.za