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Ottolenghi on vegetarian cooking, the Middle East, feeding a 2-year-old

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Wildly popular British cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi is back with 'Plenty More'

Yotam Ottolenghi, who burst onto the American scene out of almost nowhere a few years ago, is back. He has a new cookbook, “Plenty More,” and is touring the country.  

Ottolenghi, who has four restaurants in London, was virtually unknown in this country when his first book, “Plenty,” was published. A vibrantly flavored vegetarian cookbook based on the flavors of the Middle East, it was a runaway bestseller (to date it has more than 500 reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 4 1/2 out of 5 stars).

He followed that up with the even-more popular “Jerusalem.” Ottolenghi, who was raised in a Jewish family in that city, co-wrote the book with his business partner Sami Tamimi, who was raised in a Palestinian family only a few miles away.

His newest book is “Plenty More,” another collection of vegetarian recipes.

I interviewed him for Live Talks LA in front of a crowd of almost 500 of his fans at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills. The full video podcast of that talk will be available soon on iTunes, but until then, here are seven takeaway moments, edited and abridged.

On the success of “Plenty”.

“Plenty” came at a time when many people were deciding to begin to cook more vegetables, and everybody knows how bad vegetarian food used to be. And also how exclusive the vegetarian movement was – “If you’re not one of us, you’re not anything.” I think the vegetarian movement wasn’t doing itself any favors by this attitude. I’m happy to say that things have become more relaxed. A lot of people have realized that you’re not going to get more people to eat more vegetables if you insist that they become exclusively vegetarian or if you’re cooking food that is [vegetarian because it is] just void of something. That kind of attitude is all about self-denial and I don’t think self-denial is very constructive or attractive.

On the “Ottolenghi effect”

I’m a little bit a victim of my own success, in a sense. When I cook something that is slightly less, uh, noisy, I give it to tasters and they say, “Yes, that is quite good, but it is not an Ottolenghi.” We all know what it means. It means that there is a certain set of expectations — that you need surprise in an Ottolenghi dish, there are layers of flavor that kind of come and go in the eating experience. And that is difficult sometimes. I made a really delicious pea soup a few months ago and we were tasting it and they said it was brilliant, it’s got this great color from the process, and it was really nice and fresh, but it didn’t have that something that really distinguished it from other pea soups. We found a way around that, we made some specially flavored crumbs. But you know, that’s just the way it is. There is a certain set of expectations and I go around trying to meet them.

On the visual presentation of the food in his books.

I’m very involved in the way the food is photographed; there is no food stylist when we shoot, just us and the photographer. It’s really important because I want the food to appear as it would if I had just brought it to the table; it is a little messy. Both Sami [Tamimi] and I take pride in the way we present the food, which is kind of reminiscent of the fruit and vegetable markets in Jerusalem, that way of piling things way high up and presenting them in a certain way. We pay a lot of attention to the color and the contrast of colors. In those markets there is a whole artistry to setting up your stall and that sensibility is always with me when I think about food.

On falling in – and out – of love with ingredients.

I do have ingredient crushes. There will be one thing that I cook with a lot and then I just get fed up with it and move on to the next one. I have a couple of crushes at the moment —I’m crazy about black garlic that I use a lot in marinades and dressings. I have another new love and that’s kataifi pastry -- it’s like angel hair, very finely shaved phyllo dough. It’s super-easy to work with, wonderful for frying, wonderful for baking with a lot of butter and oil. It’s wonderful for sweet things and for savory things. It’s also very good for people who are afraid of pastry, because you don’t need to roll it out and you don’t need to worry about it drying out like phyllo. It’s kind of foolproof.

On feeding his 2-year-old son.

Max is very funny. He eats green things but he doesn’t eat red things and the red things are kind of just shoved onto the floor. But he loves greens, and peas and cucumbers. I don’t know where he got this idea that he can’t eat red, but he makes it very clear. And he’s also very particular about the order in which he eats things. He likes to separate everything, all of the components of a dish. So if I give him something that’s a combination of two vegetables, he separates them. It will take a while, it will take him an hour. First he will eat all the peas, and then he moves to the fava beans, and then lastly he will go to the French beans. It’s like religious for him. I don’t know where he gets that from.

On “Jerusalem,” the Arab-Israeli conflict and the burden of expectations.

[We are in] troubled times and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like that’s going away. Look, we need to separate our daily professional lives in London. [Co-writer] Sami [Tamimi] and I are nothing more than really good friends and work colleagues. [Our relationship] has nothing to do with the Middle East conflict. We’re not good representatives of our respective cultures, you know. We never want people to think that I’m a typical Israeli Jew and he’s a typical Palestinian Muslim. We are just two human beings.  On the other hand, it is terribly stressful to see what is going on and we are very deeply affected by it. We are trying to do our best. We never want to see ourselves as poster boys for peace. Because we’re not. “Jerusalem” really struck a chord with certain people because we actually showed how similar the foods are and that is a basic cultural thing. Food, it’s the very bedrock of a culture. People took from that quite a lot and I’m very glad that they did. And if that helps just a little bit then that will be great, but [I don't see that happening] at this point. Maybe in the future it will help, just a little.

On the politicization of food.

Sometimes the politics of food can overshadow the flavors. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the politics of food and we forget about taste. I’m a firm believer that you really need to start with the flavors and that should be the first thing. Guilt comes into this quite a lot and it’s not helpful. I never try to guilt someone into eating their vegetables. To me, I make it as delicious as I can and if they eat it, that’s great, but if they don’t, that’s fine, too.

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