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The Ottolenghi way - testing, testing, testing

"It’s where concepts take shape and plans for future projects – recipes, articles, books and restaurant dishes, bagged products, cakes and treats of any shape or form – are developed. The general spirit of things to come is dreamed up in the test kitchen." Yotam Ottolenghi

I confess that I found my second Christmas cookbook Ottolenghi Flavour, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage, a little dry, shall we say. I'm not talking about the recipes - they are mostly pretty interesting and different and pretty much vegetarian at least, with just the occasional anchovy and fish sauce marring the vegetarian thing. He calls his approach 'flexitarianism' - a trendy word for a trendy and very fashionable chef - for he is a chef not a cook. Well that's how I see it anyway. I should point out that I chose this book - David was with me buying Christmas presents and asked me which book I would like and so I chose this one. Obvious yes and I felt a bit guilty about that. Was I succumbing to clever marketing I wondered. Am I, as I said before, a secret food snob? Or am I just lazy and not willing to browse the shelves, rather than pick up the books that are being heavily promoted?

Truth to tell I have not made that many of his dishes, and I have several - almost all of his books and they are generally gorgeously presented, with vibrantly different dishes, largely focussing on vegetables but not entirely. And why not anyway? I'm sure that most of us these days are trying to eat more vegetables and less meat. "Vegetables with a side of meat" as I saw one writer describe it. And those dishes, which used to have a mainly Middle-Eastern flavour were so interestingly different. Yet generally complicated. So far I have enjoyed Simple most, probably because of the relative simplicity.

One of the things that intrigued me about Flavour though, was the co-authorship. He has co-authored books before, which I guess shows a generosity of spirit in acknowledging the team behind his fame, but in this case I really wondered how much of the book was owed to his co-author Ixta Belfrage because of all those chillies I wrote about yesterday. Well it seems that she is a member of his test kitchen team, and the test kitchen - not the restaurants - is where he spends most of his time.

"the centre of my universe outside home was my test kitchen. A modest space underneath a railway arch in Camden, north London, it doubles as a cooking hub and an office. Six of us spend most of our time there, thinking up ideas, testing dishes repeatedly and talking about them ad infinitum." Yotam Ottolenghi

Some chefs who produce cookbooks, just have a restaurant and presumably test their recipes there. Yotam Ottolenghi - and doubtlessly the other big cookbook producers such as Jamie and Nigella, has a business, not a restaurant. Ottolenghi even more than Nigella and Jamie I guess, because he has an online store as well as several restaurants. Jamie did have restaurants - but they've gone bust. Nigella just has books and TV shows in which she appears to be cooking at home. Does she really I wonder? Another thing to look into some time.

But back to Ottolenghi. In his test kitchen recipes are developed - not necessarily by him. Indeed I almost have the impression that others, such as Ixta Belfrage develop them and he might refine them, make suggestions, gives the final say so. Is he the mentor rather than the creator? No I'm sure has ideas too. After all this is where he would have begun. His first book simply named Ottolenghi, was, after all, based on recipes from his first eponymous restaurant.

"it's the beginning of the story of a chef and a restaurant bringing livelier, louder, funner (yes, funner) food to the scene, evident in the flavor combinations that'll repeat themselves in later books" Sarah Jampel - Food 52

Since then his recipes have become rather more complicated on the whole often with ingredients like the Aleppo pepper flakes, and gochujang that take some finding. This is also daunting because the approach of the test kitchen is pretty rigorous:

"Often, recipe books are not meticulous enough, and then the recipes don't work. ... So I'm quite proud to say ... our recipes work well because of the hardships of testing and retesting and double testing. I think the recipes are pretty reliable." Yotam Ottolenghi

"my test kitchen team – Ixta and Noor – put a recipe through its paces, trying it on average three to four times. For things like bakes that involve more chemistry, it could be up to 10 times. Then it gets sent to Wales. If Claudine isn’t happy, we reassess."

Claudine is his recipe taster - meant I think to represent ordinary people.

And all this testing really shows in the words in Ottolenghi Flavour. The words - mostly written by Tara Wigley, who has 'authored' the text of at least two other of his books, are sort of text book words. The book is divided into three sections - Process, Pairing and Produce in which there are semi learned pieces on things like Charring - yes charring, Infusing, Chilli heat, Acidity and so on. At times it even seems to be reproducing some of Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. Quantities are very precise, and there are not often any substitutes given for the ingredients because:

"The Ottolenghi staff believes it's easier for home cooks to improvise to taste after they've mastered the recipe as written. So the book won't instruct you to throw in "a pinch of this" or a "bunch of that." You can do that yourself once you've figured out the basics." Madhulika Sikka - NPR

Which is somewhat pedantic and off-putting for the novice and quite a different approach to that of Jamie and Nigella, who, for example when talking about gochujang says:

"If you can't get hold of gochujang, I dare say a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes would serve as a stand-in; it certainly would bring the heat."

Admittedly she does say that you should try to get some gochujang, but she is obviously willing to admit that it could be difficult for some. In times of COVID Jamie has been all about making do with what you've got.

In that same article from NPR though the writer said that:

"he wants to "try to get it tasting and looking like it would if people are using normal ingredients. Because I know 80 percent of people would not go to specialty shops. They'll shop in their local supermarket."" Madhulika Sikka - NPR

And so he and his staff are said to buy their ingredients at the local supermarket on their way to the test kitchen. I don't think this is completely true because elsewhere when he talks about his various favourite ingredients he talks about buying them in bulk, online or from speciality stores. Besides - he has a business selling these things online.

Interestingly though, in an article that he wrote for the New York Times and the Irish Times, he talks about how COVID has meant that the test kitchen just cannot be used, and how this has refocussed his, and his testers' thinking.

"it quickly dawned on me that the cooking that we’d be doing during the coming period, feeding ourselves and our families, is actually priceless material for us."

He goes on to recount the different ways his staff have been refocussing, and he himself has found, for example, that he has to substitute - for example making his own Quick Chilli sauce.

"Our jars of chilli, constantly replenished, are symbols of our sanity and, hopefully, of normalcy soon to return."

So maybe this will mean a change in direction with the next cookbook. Flavour, in fact, was finished in the early days of the COVID crisis. And because of COVID new ways of communicating are being developed:

"Ixta and Noor, like the rest of us, have found a vibrant Instagram to be the most effective and immediate channel to get our recipes out to the world."

I know I have been a bit negative about the book but I shouldn't be really as it is packed with interesting and tempting recipes some of which are very simple. Here are three - the first and the last recipes, - both extremely simple - and the one that caught my eye - Aubergine dumplings alla Parmigiana. I am going to try this sometime. The first recipe is from his chef, Calvin von Niebel, at his Ottolenghi restaurant, although it was developed in his test kitchen. It's called Calvin's grilled peaches and runner beans. Tricky for Australians though - hard to find runner beans here unless you grow your own. The last is super simple and is called Berry platter with sheep's labneh and orange oil. Perhaps unusually here he says you can use Greek yoghurt instead of the sheep's yoghurt. I think you might have to do that. No sheep's yoghurt in the supermarket here. Looks lovely though.

And really I should say in all fairness, that rather dry though the text is, it is indeed informative and helpful. Just not a huge amount of fun. If you buy the book you get access to an app as well with all the recipes, so that you can have them on your iPad or phone in the kitchen whilst you cook. I wonder is it worse to get mess on your cookbook or your iPad/iPhone?


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