Life

Top chef Yotam Ottolenghi plans to make life in the kitchen nice and simple

Ella Walker chats to trend-setting Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi about his latest cookbook – which is quite a step away from his usual schtick

London-based Israeli chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi has been instrumental in popularising Middle Eastern cooking in the UK in recent years

YOTAM Ottolenghi is taking a very, very different tack with his latest cookbook – and he knows it.

It's called Simple, and no, he's not being ironic. He's the man who has taken Middle Eastern cooking mainstream in the UK and single-handedly had us all knocking the seeds out of pomegranates with wooden spoons and stocking up on ruby jars of spicy harissa – and he knows what we all say about him behind his back: Why so many ingredients? Who the hell owns sumac? What even is black garlic? Why so many steps when we just want to eat?

Until fairly recently, simplicity just wasn't something the Israeli-British chef even considered in the kitchen. "It never crossed my mind," Ottolenghi confesses, with a good-natured laugh. "Recipes were always things that I cooked and made sense to me in a particular way; those kind of requirements [simplicity, easiness] were not something I was even thinking about."

Then a few years ago, The Guardian – for which he writes a weekly column – requested that he put together a series of simple, seasonal recipes for a supplement.

Despite "scratching my head and thinking, 'Oh gosh, how do I do simple?'", the outcome was a success and became something of a series. Eventually, developing a whole cookbook of simple Ottolenghi recipes made sense.

Of course, some things don't change. In the introduction, you are knowingly urged to invest in 10 'Ottolenghi' ingredients, including rose harissa, black garlic, tahini and sumac.

"It is a compromise between what is familiar to most cooks, and what is the 'Ottolenghi' worldview, which is slightly less familiar," explains the 49-year-old chef. "So we meet somewhere in the middle with these recipes."

It means that, alongside za'atar, barberries and preserved lemons, Simple also features ingredients such as potatoes and pasta, although he "tried to think a little bit differently with them". So, an Ottolenghi jacket potato it turns out, comes stuffed with spinach, gorgonzola and walnuts, rather than a mound of beans and cheese, and his oven chips aren't crinkly, they're topped with oregano and feta.

He's right though, the inventiveness of this book does not equate to tumultuous lists of obscure ingredients. In fact, these recipes lean massively towards being short, snappy, achievable, and outside that standard Ottolenghi stereotype.

"I just had to take it head-on, because I do know that that perception exists," he admits wryly when quoted the book's introductory statement, which says: "Ottolenghi Simple is not a contradiction in terms! I know, I know: I've seen the raised eyebrows, I've heard the jokes".

The deli owner and restaurateur gets it, he loves his tahini and his sumac, but adds: "Sometimes I think it's not justified. Many, many of the recipes that I've published in the past were really easy and simple and doable. [It's just that] the recipes that became most famous are the ones that do have 25 ingredients and involve six bowls."

Ottolenghi himself is a combination of both the complex-leaning and simple cooks, depending on the time of day, and the day of the week.

"As I come home from work, which is in the early evening, I tend to do something that is quick. I grab a few things from the bottom of the fridge, a couple of vegetables, then I go to the pantry and look for packets of pasta or rice or chickpeas, whatever I've got, and put it together quite quickly – this is weekday cooking," he explains. "I've got a couple of young kids, so you can't really hang around too long before you feed them, otherwise all hell will break loose."

But when he has friends over on the weekend for Sunday lunch, "I'd normally think about it a little bit more in advance and plan and make things ahead," he says. "For me, really good food for entertaining is food you could have more or less ready to dish up and put together without too much effort."

His husband Karl meanwhile is all about batch cooking and stocking the freezer with soups, stews and casseroles. "I am very fond of the freezer, I have to say," says Ottolenghi with a laugh. "It's very useful, as long as you don't forget things in there for years."

All these types of cooks are catered for in Simple, with recipes labelled accordingly, using the acronym: S – short on time, I – 10 ingredients or less, M – make ahead, P – pantry, L – lazy, E – easier than you think.

If all else fails though, Ottolenghi is "not a purist" and is happy to admit he and his family get take-out every now and again. "I always say I don't do guilt. I have a lot of sweets in the glove compartment of my car, Skittles and gummy snakes – and I had it before I had kids.

"In life, you have to be very flexible," he adds, "otherwise it's just too hard."

Ottolenghi Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi with Tara Wigley and Esme Howarth, photography by Jonathan Lovekin, is published by Ebury Press, priced £25. Available now.

PLUM, BLACKBERRY AND BAY FRIAND BAKE

(Serves six, generously)

200g blackberries

4 ripe plums, stones removed, cut into 1cm wide wedges (360g)

1tsp vanilla extract

60g caster sugar

3 fresh bay leaves

1tsp ground cinnamon

60g plain flour

200g icing sugar, sifted

120g ground almonds

8tsp salt

150g egg whites (from 4-5 large eggs)

180g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

Method

Place the blackberries and plums in a bowl with the vanilla extract, sugar, bay leaves and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Set aside for 30 minutes. Don't be tempted to leave them sitting around for longer than this, as the fruit will become too juicy.

Preheat the oven to 190C fan. Mix the flour, icing sugar, ground almonds, the remaininghalf a teaspoon cinnamon and salt in a separate large bowl. Set aside.

Lightly whisk the egg whites by hand for 30 seconds, so they just start to froth. Stir into the flour mixture, along with the melted butter, until combined.

Tip the batter into a 20 x 30cm parchment-lined baking dish and top evenly with the fruit and juices. Bake for 40 minutes, covering the dish with foil for the final 10 minutes, until the batter is golden-brown and the fruit is bubbling. Set aside for 10 minutes before serving.

HOT CHARRED CHERRY TOMATOES WITH COLD YOGHURT

(Serves four as a starter or mezze)

350g cherry tomatoes

3 tbsp olive oil

3/4tsp cumin seeds

1/2tsp light brown sugar

3 garlic cloves, finely sliced

3 thyme sprigs

5g fresh oregano (3 sprigs left whole and the rest picked, to serve)

1 lemon halved (finely shave the skin of one half to get 3 strips, and finely grate the other half to get 1tsp zest)

350g extra thick Greek-style yoghurt, fridge-cold

1tsp Urfa chilli flakes (or 1/2tsp regular chilli flakes)

Flaked sea salt and black pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C fan. Place the tomatoes in a mixing bowl with the olive oil, cumin seeds, sugar, garlic, thyme, oregano sprigs, lemon strips, half a teaspoon of flaked salt and a good grind of pepper. Mix to combine, then transfer to a baking tray just large enough to fit all the tomatoes together snugly. Roast for 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are beginning to blister and the liquid is bubbling. Turn the oven to the grill setting and grill for six to eight minutes, until the tomatoes start to blacken on top.

While the tomatoes are roasting, combine the yoghurt with the grated lemon zest and a quarter of a teaspoon of flaked salt. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve. Once the tomatoes are ready, spread the chilled yoghurt on a platter (with a lip) or in a wide, shallow bowl, creating a dip in it with the back of a spoon. Spoon over the hot tomatoes, along with their juices, lemon skin, garlic and herbs, and finish with the picked oregano and chilli flakes. Serve at once, with some bread.

CAULIFLOWER, POMEGRANATE AND PISTACHIO SALAD

(serves four)

1 large cauliflower (800g)

1 medium onion, roughly sliced (130g)

80ml olive oil

25g parsley, roughly chopped

10g mint, roughly chopped

10g tarragon, roughly chopped

Seeds from 1/2 medium pomegranate (80g)

40g pistachio kernels, lightly toasted and roughly chopped

1tsp ground cumin

1.5tbsp lemon juice salt

Salt

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C fan. Coarsely grate a third of the cauliflower and set aside in a bowl. Break the remaining cauliflower into florets, roughly 3cm wide, and add these to a separate bowl with the cauliflower leaves, if you have any, and onion. Toss everything together with two tablespoons of oil and a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, then spread out on a large parchment-lined baking tray. Roast for about 20 minutes, until cooked through and golden-brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Once cool, put the roasted vegetables into a large bowl with the 50ml oil, the grated cauliflower and the remaining ingredients, along with a quarter of a teaspoon of salt. Toss gently, just to combine, then transfer to a platter and serve.

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