Why Ottolenghi and co. are the tops

"food that we'd cook at home, for our friends and families, comforting but with a slight edge, a little twist, a 'cheffy' addition. ... Recipes that say without saying, 'I'll show you the rules, but here's how to break them.'"


I had a couple of potential subjects for today's post but then I started to read this week's Guardian newsletter and came across the Ottolenghi contribution for the week. It contained three dishes - this is the middle one that he calls Caramelised fennel and grape tarte tatin with saffron and olives - then there is also a spicy roast lamb and some roast cabbage. If you click on the link above you will find all three recipes. They were all so 'wow' to me that I just had to do another Ottolenghi rave, in spite of a couple of recent failures. Apologies to those who have had enough of Ottolenghi.


Because they all looked so delicious, so different and even easy, I was once again blown away by the Ottolenghi roller coaster and decided to investigate why I get sucked in to this. What is the 'it' factor and is it deserved anyway?


But before I go there just a quick word about these three recipes and why they attracted my attention.


The tarte tatin - yes I'm a sucker for appearances - we all know that. And underneath the lead picture we have this:


"Photograph: Louise Hagger/The Guardian. Food styling: Emily Kudd. Prop styling: Jennifer Kay. Food assistant: Valeria Russo."


So there for starters are four people who have nothing to do with cooking, but whose contribution is vital in this day and age. You only have to think of the power of TikTok and Instagram when it comes to viral recipes to realise that. I tried to find photos to give them their spot in the limelight, but could only find two - the photographer, Louise Hagger and the prop stylist, Jennifer Kay. Which is odd, especially with respect to the food stylist - wouldn't she have something online? Surely she's touting for work all the time. These people are usually free-lance.

Maybe the Food assistant does have something to do with the food itself, although that's a suitably vague title that could mean anything from actually cooking the whole thing, putting it on the plate and doing the washing up. The other three are talented artists whose aim is fundamentally to make it look good, however awful it might actually be.


The tarte tatin though. Well I do like the upside down concept although it's always, almost frightening turning it out - will you get burnt in the process, will it all end up on the floor, will it get stuck in the bottom of the pan, will it collapse on the plate, is the plate big deep enough, will it be burnt on the bottom? But then I guess when it does work you get such a high from having got it out of the pan and it doesn't look too bad, that there is an enormous high. Plus for this particular recipe - grapes are so cheap at the moment and we always have too many in the fridge so it's a good way of using them. And I do love fennel too although I would have to overcome the price thing at the moment. He suggests serving it with a zingy salad and good quality tinned sardines - also interesting.


He actually had an earlier version of a Fennel tarte tatin, and, let's be fair, he is not alone in proposing one. This version is a bit simpler in terms of ingredients, but just as tasty looking. It might be interesting to compare the two. Has he got better or worse? Do the extras - the saffron and the grapes really make it wow or is it just too much? Somewhere in one of his books he does admit to sometimes being tempted to pile too many ingredients into his dishes.


Moving on to the Spicy yoghurt-crusted lamb with black-eyed beans. There are lots of spices in this one. And to tell the truth this one was particularly tempting to me because I was thinking along similar lines for one of my weekend dinners. Looking at the recipe I think I might go for the marinade but then change the sauce because it's hot and it's coconut - neither of which appeal to David. I was definitely aiming for beans though. It's actually one of those recipes that looks too hard because of the long list of ingredients, but when you look it's not really hard. Half of them just get chucked into a blender, and the other half are only briefly fried before putting in a pot with the lamb. The beans get added later. So yes, I might make it one day as is, but what I found so great about this was that it affirmed that I was sort of on the right track with a one pot slow roast with lamb and beans.


And the last? For the increasing number of vegetarians amongst us - Roast cabbage with lemony peas and feta. I don't know who started the whole roasting of green things like cabbage, lettuce and Brussels sprouts - maybe Ottolenghi himself - but it's now well entrenched in the vegetarian sphere. And this version does look tempting. I could go for that too, although perhaps not as a dish on its own. It lacks something. As one in a mix of such dishes though it could be good. Whereas the Herby cabbage and potato gratin with Gruyère and ricotta from Shelf Love is somehow a bit more like a main meal dish.

For the initial three recipes one has to assume that this is all Ottolenghi himself, but increasingly - for his cookbooks - it's almost as if he is taking a back seat and just providing his name and a bit of guidance/approval to his team (shown here) in his test kitchen.

Some of that team have been around for a while, but some, I have to say, come and go. Is this because it's no fun working for Ottolenghi, or is it just that it's a terrific boost to a career of one's own? And you have to say that most of his cookbooks have always given credit to a co-author and to a writer. The team shown above is the team responsible for the latest cookbook - Shelf Love - and possibly his greatest. The next is apparently due out in September. After all he has quite an empire now. There are several restaurants, products, books, newspaper columns, guest appearances and a whole lot more, so maybe he doesn't have much time to actually cook and devise recipes these days.


He - or whoever wrote the words for Shelf Love - describes the team as:


"a collection of voices and personalities, the comings and goings of chefs and writers, of food stylists and photographers, of sommeliers and every other talent in the trade."


So what is it that makes a recipe 'Ottolenghi'? Because, 'Ottolenghi' is now almost an adjective in itself. A bit like Delia, and also Jamie used to be - no that's unkind. Jamie is still Jamie and still doing really good stuff - in a way he is doing what Ottolenghi does - a twist on something more basic, and Delia did too, but she has retired from the cooking world these days. Well she's older than me! Ottolenghi though has a definite style - vaguely Middle-Eastern, but nowadays if you forget the love of tahini and chick peas, more fusion and original.


"any recipe - any food, any dish - can be made unequivocally 'Ottolenghi' with the right knowhow, the right willingness to work with what you have."


Maybe COVID boosted this improvisational genius. And to a lesser degree maybe it made all of us braver and more experimental in the kitchen.


"unstable ground had us grabbing for what was true and familiar and, to no surprise, all steps led to our kitchens. We did what we all do best, and began creating recipes based on what we had in our store cupboards and fridges, our freezers and pantries. ... the understanding that, in this new world, the need to improvise, to roll with the punches, is more crucial than ever before."


He's an original. I guess that's what he is. Or maybe he's just good at picking the right people to work with. People who inspire him to lift his own game as well as letting them blossom and flourish.


"We go in with the mindset that the only limitations in food are the ones we set for ourselves, that rules are meant to be broken and that everything works unless proven otherwise. ... If there's one thing our very interconnected world has taught us it's this: whatever it is, its' probably already been done - the key is to find new ways to speak with food, while still paying tribute to the culture (or cultures) the recipe was inspired by"


Looking for a photograph of the man himself to end with I found an article in GQ by one Michael Paterniti entitled How Chef Yotam Ottolenghi reset the table, which although now rather old really does a much better job than I on describing what it is about Ottolenghi that is so unique:


"So it might follow that the great recipe writer—our guide and lodestar—lends our lives more interest and glamour. When the home cook accepts the quest laid out by the recipe maker, and succeeds, there's something that's hard to explain, a molecular liftoff. There's discovery and kinship, and ever more often, as we strive to break the routine, to conjure something more than steak on the grill—even on a Tuesday night cooking for kids—we lionize the recipe bards." Michael Paterniti - GQ


Let me just say that even your most reliable and wonderful 'recipe bards' fail every now and then. I wrote about my pita disaster recently and I also recently tried a 'magical chicken soup', which was a lot of fuss and less than magical. Pretty ordinary in fact, although when I ate the leftovers a few days later it had improved somewhat. It still wasn't better than anything I might have made any old time though. So even the great fail sometimes. But then you cook something like this Curried cauliflower cheese pie and all is forgiven.



Anyway - here he is with his current team - most of them looking a bit doubtful I have to say. And these are definitely his words.


"Cooking, for me, has always been about abundance, bounty, freshness and surprise."


Happily the surprise is often amazing. I look forward to the next one.

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