Ottolenghi: The Accidental Vegetarian
By Beverly Stephen
Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another way to cook cauliflower along comes Yotam Ottolenghi, the British Israeli chef/author, with a new book, Flavor. Have you ever thought of grating it raw? Of roasting it in chile butter?
If Ottolenghi’s books have anything to say about it, cauliflower could be the next kale. Unless it’s eggplant or Brussels sprouts or even carrots.
Ottolenghi’s books have a way of making all vegetables beautiful and mouth-watering. The photography is stunning, he does his own food styling, the covers are arresting. So far, his book sales have topped five million—a publishing phenomenon. He has said the most important thing is that his food “smiles.” Apparently, it has his fans smile too.
Ironically, he isn’t actually a vegetarian. In 2006 he was asked by the noted British newspaper The Guardian to write a column, “The New Vegetarian,” because his London deli displayed such amazingly beautiful platters. That too was accidental, he has explained. He wanted to have the bountiful platters displayed at room temperature and that wouldn’t have been possible with meat.
His whole career was almost accidental. Like many parents, his were not exactly enthralled with the idea of a son becoming a chef. Professor was more along the lines of what his intellectually distinguished family had in mind. But he gave up what looked to be a promising academic career, moved from Jerusalem to London and enrolled in the Cordon Bleu. Soon he began a career as a pastry chef and while working at the artisanal pastry shop Baker & Spice met his long-time business partner, the Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi. Could their collaboration be a hopeful sign for peace in the Middle East? Sadly, he admits, it doesn’t look like food holds out any hope for bringing the two sides together.
Once he started writing his vegetarian column, one thing led to another. The column led to a book which led to another and another until we are now at book number eight. He was in the right place at the right time when vegetable-forward cuisine was gaining ground and Middle Eastern cuisine was a rising star.
At the same time, he has built a mini restaurant empire that now numbers six delis and cafes in London. They had only recently re-opened after the first lock-down and now London has imposed a new lock-down which means that restaurants will be closed from November 5 to December 2. Ottolenghi, like most restaurateurs, is uncertain what the future holds for the industry.
He has also been signed up to give a Master Class, joining another such distinguished chef/instructors as Thomas Keller and Massimo Bottura.
Right now, he’s on a whirlwind book tour for Flavor. He collaborated on this volume with Ixta Belfrage, a former cook at Nopi who heads up the London test kitchen.
“The umpteenth way to cook cauliflower didn’t just present itself out of thin air,” Ottolenghi writes, praising Belfrage’s skills. And “How many ways are there to fry an eggplant? The answer, I am delighted to report, are many.”
Recipes include eggplant with herbs and crispy garlic and eggplant dumplings alla Parmigiana.
What distinguishes this book from his previous volumes is that it’s divided his into three sections, each explaining different ways of making the most of flavor.
In Process, the emphasis is on cooking techniques: charring, browning, frying, and aging.
In Pairing, flavor is “dialed up by the pairings within a dish.” He believes the most important pairings are “sweetness, fat, acidity and chile heat.” Classic examples are tomato, basil and mozzarella or the BLT and many other sandwiches. Ottolenghi’s ideal sandwich would be “olive oil roasted vegetables and chiles piled over toasted sourdough with some pecorino shavings or feta on top.” Belfrage favors Porchetta and apricot mostarda.
In Produce, the focus is on allowing a vegetable to shine on its own. Once a cook grasps these concepts, it’s relatively easy to do their own riffs on vegetable dishes.
Once again, these global flavors will enable home cooks to travel the world in their own kitchens, a good thing in these times when most travel is either armchair or kitchen stove.
“The chef has a gift for seeing across borders, for connecting flavors between cuisines in ways that make familiar foods fresh.,” says the serious cooks’s Manhattan book store Kitchen Arts & Letters proprietor Matt Sarwell. “He’s captured the imagination of hundreds and hundreds of our customers because he not only offers them new recipes but inspires them to riff on recipes they already know.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t been to London recently and have not had the opportunity to try Ottolenghi’s food in person but if I get to go, I’ll make a beeline. My foodie friends who travel to eat say the food at his restaurants is extremely beautiful, delicious, and well-executed. The dishes mirror those in the books.
“As I have traveled extensively to places such as Israel, Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt and love their exotic cuisines, I was drawn to the type of cooking Ottolenghi does,” says Marsha Palanci, a marketing executive who blogs at “Tarte Tatin Tales.” “Tahini, sumac, preserved lemons, cardamom, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, ras el hanout—bring it on!”
Hummus has become mainstream in America, but other aspects of the Middle Eastern pantry are still less familiar and not everyone has as global a pantry as Marsha. A handful of exotic ingredients are necessary to prepare Ottolenghi’s recipes—pomegranate molasses, tahini, black garlic, rose harissa, preserved lemon, za’atar, sumac, ground cardamom, Urfa chili flakes, dried barberries—and he suggests you assemble this pantry to start. If you lived in London you could pop over to his shop, (yes, he also does retail) and purchase his Simple 10 Kit and be in business. Stateside, the items are easily ordered from Kalustyan in New York City or on Amazon.
Our mothers, who admonished us to eat our vegetables, often boiled and overcooked, had no idea what the possibilities could be. Celery root steaks with Café de Paris sauce? Sweet and sour onion petals? Even broccoli two ways with chili and cumin? “Vegetables boiled in water are only ever going to taste like hot versions of themselves,” declares Ottolenghi.
Of course, interviewers can’t resist asking him what his own boys Max 7 and Flynn 5 eat. He admits it isn’t always easy feeding kids. He jokes they don’t eat preserved lemon for breakfast.
Ottolenghi is not a proselytizer. He doesn’t tell people what to eat and certainly not that they should be vegetarians. But vegetables have been good to him. He grew up in Jerusalem and spent time in Italy and California, so it’s not surprising he should know from vibrant vegetables and even fall in love with them. But who knew vegetables would be such a focus of his lucrative career in London. He shares his vegetable love and opens up your eyes to endless possibilities. The rest is up you.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.