"the composition is inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s unbeatable formula of flavoured yoghurt base + roasted aubergines + vibrant toppings."
I know - Ottolenghi again but I was a bit struck by that comment above in an item in the latest Guardian newsletter in which Ixta Belfrage - one of Ottolenghi's team, and co-author of Flavour - presented this dish with the title Aubergines with lime yoghurt and tomato, cinnamon and chilli oil And yes, indeed it is roasted aubergines on top of yoghurt with various spicy things scattered over the top. And when I read that comment I did indeed remember a few dishes that had followed that formula which made me wonder whether anybody else does it? But I did expand the three elements to something gooey on the bottom, your main ingredient on top of that, and then on top again - bits of this and that.
The other question to ask is whether this is simply a food stylist's technique, in which case you would expect to find heaps of other examples out there, or is it a really significant way of presenting food?
So first of all I tackled my Ottolenghi library. I don't quite have all of his books - I am missing Ottolenghi the Cookbook, which I think may have been his first, Plenty More and Sweet. Nevertheless I think have most of his career covered - because the other thing I wondered was whether it was something that had developed over the years or was it always there?
The earliest book I have of his is Plenty, which dates back to 2010 - 12 years ago! In this I found three examples which have morphed over the years into other forms but which demonstrate the evolution, or maybe I should just say later variations.
Let's take Marinated buffalo mozzarella and tomato. There's no recipe online, but this is fundamentally just what it's title says - you could make it up. The point here is that it is sort of the beginning of the way of presenting a simple dish like this. In this case the tomatoes are not actually sitting on the cheese - well a tiny bit, but the colours contrast stunningly and the scattered basil leaves on top are sort of the icing on the cake.
He has a couple of later versions using tomatoes as the star ingredient, because it has to be said, that Ixta Belfrage's comment about eggplant being the featured item and yoghurt being the base is not always the case. It's the three layers that count. And here are two examples with tomatoes - Cheesy polenta with tomato sauce from his latest book Shelf Love, and possibly the ultimate simple but entirely original and I'm told by my gourmet friend absolutely sensational - Hot charred cherry tomatoes with cold yoghurt. So this is in fact a dish where the assembly is crucial to the taste. A perfect marriage I am told.
The trick is to have really hot tomatoes on cold yoghurt.
Polenta, of course, is another very suitable base for this technique - it hold its shape somewhat, provides a flavour contrast which is a little blander than the topping and is a colour contrast too.
In Plenty it first appears with the famous eggplant and is called Sweetcorn polenta and seems to be a hugely popular dish on the net. However I have to say that in spite of Ixta Belfrage's assertion that he is fond of yoghurt and eggplant as a combo I have not found another version. But Plenty does have another polenta dish - Mushroom and herb polenta which seems to have led to various other mushroom iterations - although not so much to the polenta.
The two mushroom dishes I found are both from Flavour - Portobello steaks and butter bean mash and Confit garlic hummus with grilled mushrooms. Actually Flavour had the most examples of this technique and since Ixta Belfrage is the co-author on this particular book one has to wonder whether it was she who thought of it.
Then we move into the dip thing - the use of what would otherwise be used as a dip into a base for something else. I suspect this styling technique evolved from two different sources.
The first one is something I found in Nopi, his restaurant book - - Chargrilled asparagus with romesco sauce and apple balsamic. The recipe is not online but this is not really about the recipes anyway. Ask me if you really want to try it. Here there is only a smudge of the sauce but the asparagus is placed on top of it and the whole is topped with almonds and your apple balsamic vinegar mix. A primitive version, if you like of the more sophisticated ones to come - a bit like the evolution with tomatoes - which look so stunning against pale colours - here it's almost the other way round.
Dips have been around for a while now - the evidence is in the long shelves of commercial ready-made dips in your local supermarket. And every day somebody comes up with something new, or newly discovered from ancient peasant cuisines. At first you just got a scoop of the dip with some things to dip into it. Then they started putting a little bit of olive oil on top, which morphed into flavoured olive oil and then a few things like toasted nuts were added to that. And pretty soon you had a whole lot of stuff on top to make a salad or a main dish. Below are some Ottolenghi examples. From Nopi - my earliest example Celeriac purée with spiced cauliflower and quail's eggs; from Simple - Butterbean mash with muhammara; from Flavour a few more basic versions - the early stages when a few more things were thrown on to those dips - White bean mash with garlic aioli; Curried carrot mash with brown butter and quick pickled chillies; and Hummus with lemon, fried garlic and chilli - for which there is no recipe online, but which is just one of many. Shelf Love too has a couple of this type - Yellow split pea purée with buttered onions and caper salsa - another early manifestation and the rather flashy looking Broad bean and herb salad with toum
I'll end with some more substantial dishes perhaps Roasted potatoes with aïoli and buttered pine nuts; Grilled courgettes with warm yoghurt and saffron butter - and just to show that you can apply the same principle to dessert as well - Berry platter with sheep's labneh and orange oil
I did try to find if this basic principle is a food styling trend but could find nothing to say that it was - no articles, no examples. I checked out my last Greg Malouf book and also Donna Hay in Google, but really I could find nothing. Which is curious because it's such a simple technique and open to so many variations. I'm sure you can think of heaps.
I hope I haven't bored you with what is really just a list, and I know that I am a bit obsessed with (a) Ottolenghi and (b) how food looks, but I promise I'll leave Ottolenghi alone for a while. But next time you want to impress someone with how your food looks see if you can apply the principle - something soft but not too soft, your main thing - preferably oozing a little into the bottom layer, and something crunchy, green or spicy on top - plus the inevitable drizzle of something as well.
As we are on the look of things here is my yesterday's desk diary painting - A basket of bananas by Pierre Bonnard. I rather liked the combination of colours. It could have inspired a post on bananas if I hadn't been there before.