How Ottolenghi’s Intriguing Flavors Are Changing the Way I Eat

Eleven months into the pandemic, it can sometimes be hard to feel enthusiastic about cooking. How many different ways are there to prepare chicken, anyway? But a new book by Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi has infused some new flavors into my kitchen that have inspired an experiment with eating differently – and perhaps, more healthfully.

Ottolenghi’s latest book, co-written with Ixta Belfrage, is called Flavor. Its recipes make use of 20 essential ingredients that layer a punch of heat, spice, or texture within Ottolenghi’s typically vegetable-forward creations. These flavors include chiles (aleppo, ancho, cascabel, and chipotle), fish sauce, gochujang (fermented soybean paste), mango pickle, miso, rose harissa, tamarind paste, and more. You can find each of these ingredients online or in local specialty markets, and they add complexity, variety, and depth to the Middle Eastern flavors for which Ottolenghi is typically known.

The book’s three major sections describe how to transform vegetables with cooking processes (charring, browning, infusing, and aging), how to pair them with other flavors to bring out their intrinsic qualities, and how to get the most out of different types of produce, keeping them at the center of individual dishes. Ottolenghi’s “ultimate roasting-pan ragu” recipe develops a rich umami flavor with the use of both oyster and dried porcini mushrooms, as well as miso paste and tomato paste, and also includes a complex heat from the addition of rose harissa. And using cumin seeds, soy sauce, and coconut cream helps steer the dish in the direction of Asia, a surprising turn for those used to making a meaty, typically Italian Bolognese like Marcella Hazan’s well-regarded sauce.

As is customary for Ottolenghi, the number of elements included in some of his dishes can turn a recipe that seems easy into a cooking project. When I made his asparagus and gochujang pancakes the other night, it involved mixing a dipping sauce, toasting sesame seeds, chopping vegetables, making a batter, cooking pancakes individually, and garnishing them with cilantro. Sure, you could simplify the recipe, but would the results be as delicious or as visually interesting?

Ottolenghi argues that the extra effort helps his recipes move beyond just tasting good. He expanded upon his cooking philosophy on a recent episode of the Milk Street Radio podcast with Christopher Kimball. Ottolenghi said that his recipes are designed to look appealing, with an emphasis on visual contrast. “I hate a boring meal, even if the level of cooking is exquisite … A smooth soup with nothing in it is kind of my idea of hell,” Ottolenghi said. That aesthetic is also something he brings to his restaurants, like his takeout shop in London’s Notting Hill that I visited in 2019. His dishes are presented on large, colorful platters, which he says recreates the feeling of the souks he grew up near in Jerusalem.  

Inspired by the interesting flavor combinations and appealing look of the recipes in Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, I’ve decided to experiment this winter with eating less meat. Instead, I’ll look to gain satisfaction from using a variety of produce as well as some of his essential flavors that are less familiar to me. I’m eager to try Ottolenghi’s ultimate ragu, as well as meatless schnitzels made with romano peppers, and tacos that are filled with celery root and a date barbecue sauce that contains black garlic and smoked paprika.

And if these dishes start to feel like too much effort for a weeknight dinner? Well, I’m also a fan of Ottolenghi’s 2018 cookbook, Simple. His cauliflower, pomegranate, and pistachio salad is something I can whip together quickly. And when I’m ready to switch things up again, it seems like that dish would go great with some lamb and feta meatballs.

What I Ate (A Few Days Ago): Ottolenghi’s asparagus and gochujang pancakes

Asparagus and gochujang pancakes by Ottolenghi pack a world of flavor into a small bite

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