If Vegetable Heaven were a place on earth, it would definitely be Yotam Ottolenghi’s kitchen. The London-based Israeli chef is a prolific cookbook author, TV personality, restaurateur, and now the co-author of the new, and best-selling, NOPI: The Cookbook (Ten Speed Press), co-written with his restaurant’s head chef, Ramael Scully. Swarovski Magazine contributor and resident green girl, Rebecca Leffler, met the reigning king of vegetable cuisine.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner? What would you eat? Who would be cooking?
I’d love to have a chinwag with Kirsty Wark, Saoirse Ronan, Amy Poehler, Justin Welby and Mark Rylance. Getting that gang together would make for a fun dinner. I’d cook—I love dishes that can largely be prepared in advance, so there’s no fussing when guests arrive. I like a spread that people can pass around the table and help themselves to. I like to iron out the distinction between ‘host’ and ‘guest’.
What ingredients would be in your ‘dream team’? Are there, say, five staples that you add to most dishes, and couldn’t live without?
Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemons, tomatoes and onions. There are a whole lot of routes you can go down with this dream team. Add some pappardelle pasta and maybe some anchovies to the mix and I’d be a happy man for a long time.
What’s your favorite holiday culinary tradition?
I came very late to Christmas feasting, but in the last few years, the tradition of friends and family descending on our table is beginning to become established. I love it all—the menu planning and prepping before everyone arrives, and then letting everyone make themselves at home once the party starts. The distinction between one meal and the next tends to get blurred as we find ourselves still at the lunch table when supper is meant to be happening.
What’s your all-time favorite food?
It changes depending on the time of year and what I’m up to. It could be Mejadra—my go-to comfort food of lentils cooked with spiced rice and fried onions; it could be sushi; it could be smoked oysters eaten on toasted sourdough; it could be a bowl of pasta with a simple tomato sauce.
What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
I have memorable meal-moments every day! I get as excited, if not more, by a small bowl of something in the test kitchen (braised eggs in congee was yesterday’s revelation) as I do eating a full-blown meal when I’m out and about. I like eating informally—a simple dish of Hainanese chicken rice from a stall in a hawker center somewhere in Penang sticks firmly in the memory, for example; or an absolute standout platter of pickled herring fillets I had at Russ and Daughters café earlier this year in Manhattan’s Lower East Side: pickled onions, rollmops, a beet and herring salad, three sauces on the side—cream, mustard and curry. It knocked my socks off!
When you create a recipe, do you focus on flavor first and foremost, or does nutrition also play a role?
The test a recipe needs to pass for me is always the ‘very delicious’ one. Is this very delicious? Does it make me happy to eat it? Would I cook it at home for my friends and family? Is it both comforting and surprising at once? These are the questions I am led by rather than nutrition per se. There’s often a strong cross over between the foods I find ‘very delicious’ and the foods that people might eat for nutritional reasons, so I’m lucky that there’s often a natural overlap.
What does your typical breakfast look like?
During the week its porridge at the family kitchen table; I like to sprinkle over seeds and nuts and then drizzle over date molasses and tahini. On weekends we stretch them out to become rather long and elaborate savory affairs with slices of cheese and cooked meat, smoked fish, pickles, fresh bread and strong coffee.
What are you cooking up for 2016? Any new projects, books or restaurant news to share from the Ottolenghi empire?
2015 has been an extraordinarily busy year with all sorts of new projects, so I’m quietly hoping that 2016 will be a bit less eventful. It never seems to work out that way, though. We’re working on an Ottolenghi baking book, so that’s keeping things sweet for now.
Can you share a recipe for a dream dinner with you?
Butternut squash with ginger tomatoes and lime yogurt
Roasted wedges of squash and roasted slices of eggplant: these are two bad boys that have been around the Ottolenghi delis and NOPI restaurant for a very long time. Any new player has to have very good credentials to gain the respect of the old-timers and earn a place on the menu. The combination here of sweet roasted squash with lime-fresh yogurt and gingery oven-dried tomatoes was deemed to cut the mustard. Ready-made crispy fried shallots can be found in Asian food stores. If you want to make your own, see the instructions on page 110 of the book. They’re a nice addition, but with the crunch already provided by the cashews, the dish can stand well without them, if you prefer.
1 medium butternut squash, trimmed, unpeeled, halved lengthwise, seeds removed, then cut width-wise into 1-inch/2.5-cm slices (1¾ lb/800 g)
3 tbsp olive oil
6 large plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise (1lb 1oz/500 g)
1¼ -inch/3-cm piece of ginger, finely grated (1 oz/30 g)
1 red chili, seeded and finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 heaped tablespoon dark muscovado sugar
coarse sea salt and black pepper
scant ½ cup/120 g Greek yogurt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
Finely grated zest of ½ lime, plus 1½ teaspoon lime juice
1/5 oz/5 g cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1 oz/30 g cashew nuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/3 oz/10 g crispy store-bought fried shallots (optional)
• Preheat the oven to 465°F/240°C (425°F/220°C convection).
• Mix the squash with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Spread out on a large parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool.
• Reduce the oven temperature to 340°F/170°C (300°F/150°C convection).
• Place the tomato halves on a parchment-lined baking sheet, skin side down. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon of salt, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil, and cook for 80 minutes, until softened.
• Place the ginger, chili, garlic, sugar and ¼ teaspoon of salt in a medium bowl. Mix to form a paste, and then spoon it on top of the tomatoes. Cook for another 40 minutes until the tomatoes have caramelized, and set aside to cool.
• Place all the ingredients for the lime yogurt in a small bowl, with ½ teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well and keep in the fridge until ready to serve.
• Spread the squash out on a large platter and layer the tomatoes in between. Drizzle over the lime yogurt, sprinkle with the cilantro, cashews, and shallots, and serve.
Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright © 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Photography by Jonathan Lovekin © 2015.