The day I'm meant to interview Yotam Ottolenghi, my delicious. magazine arrives and there's his potato and spinach pie on the cover. It's a glorious looking dish, crust golden, thin circles of potato with spinach and feta peeking through. I plan to cook it for dinner that night.
But it calls for 350g of frozen spinach and I don't have any. I do have a garden bed full of the real stuff but I'm unsure how to convert it.
So while I've got him on the phone I ask. He laughs. I think he likes my chutzpah. Nothing like going straight to the source. Sure you might have changed the way the world eats, the way we look at food, but I need to cook this pie tonight.
But the whole question goes back to the idea behind the latest book from the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. Shelf Love, which he's written in conjunction with colleague Noor Murad, is all about making the most of what we have.
About loving what's on the pantry shelf, and in the fridge and the freezer or in the garden, and turning it into something special. In many ways, as we continue to deal with the pandemic and how it's changed our everyday lives, this book couldn't be more timely.
"It's exactly why this book was conceived," says Ottolenghi.
"People do think and cook a little differently now, the notion that you can get what you want, when you want, has kind of been thrown out of the window in a way.
"People are looking at food in a different way. In the book we tried to really focus on those simple ingredients that we have at the back of our cupboards and in our freezers and turn them into incredible meals."
It's how the team in the test kitchen eat, he says. The Ottolenghi empire reaches far - with seven venues across London, several best-selling cookbooks, columns in magazines and newspapers, regular television appearances - but it's in the test kitchen where it all starts.
"A lot of things happen in the test kitchen, it's where the magic happens," he says.
But it's not just about him. This book is very much about the whole team, and how it works.
Co-author Noor Murad leads the crew; Ixta Belfrage, who he co-wrote Flavour with; Verena Lochmuller is the baker; Tara Wigley, Gitai Fisher, Chaya, Claudine Boulstridge (who tests all the recipes in her family kitchen in Wales before they get approved, and yes, I did ask how one might apply for that job).
"This book really exposes the whole team, our different approaches and influences, and how it all comes together with a perspective of our love from using all those forgotten ingredients."
Do they all have something in common?
"That's a good question. If I think about it, our journeys to food have all been a little unusual. Noor has spent time in traditional restaurants but she grew up with lots of food influences at home, she's half Bahraini, half English, which gives her a particular perspective. Most of the team have a similar story and everyone contributes to the Ottolenghi story."
Is it strange to hear people use his name in that sense?
"Like as an adjective?" he laughs. "It's not as strange as it used to be, sometimes I even talk like that, I have to pick myself up on it, I'll go 'That's not very Ottolenghi', it's just funny when it comes out of my mouth."
For all his success, Ottolenghi comes across as a regular guy. He loves Australia and was meant to be touring here in 2021. MasterChef Australia is one of the few cooking shows he has agreed to be a judge on because he likes its approach.
"I think I'm kind of Australian by nature," he says. "I've got the same kind of sensibilities and I feel very at home there. Australia has managed to create this mixture of world cuisines where there is kind of an inherent happiness, a mixture of flavours and places, colourful, light and abundant. My food is the same, a mix of this and that, not too heavy, not rooted in one tradition. It's very playful and I think Australians do love playful."
So the spinach. Two options. I can saute it or blanch it, and then wrap it in a tea towel and squeeze out the water. I'll need to start with a lot more than 350g but that's ok, chop it up when I'm done and I'm good to go.
"It sounds like a lot of work but actually it's pretty easy," he reassures me.
And that about sums up the Ottolenghi approach, the adjective and the man.
- Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad. Ebury Press. $49.99.
Curried cauliflower cheese filo pie
Cauliflower cheese, but make it pie. This dish was once described as "molten-hot-cheese-lava" and we think that's pretty fitting for the ultimate comfort of comfort foods.
- 1 large cauliflower, trimmed and cut into bite-size florets (700g)
- 2 tsp mild curry powder
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 100g unsalted butter, 50g cut into roughly 3cm cubes and 50g melted
- 75g plain flour
- 675ml whole milk
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 1/2 tbsp English mustard
- 150g mature cheddar, roughly grated
- 6 sheets of good-quality filo pastry
- salt and black pepper
- 1 tbsp roughly chopped parsley, to serve
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180C fan. Line the bottom and sides of a 23cm springform cake tin with baking parchment.
2. Put the cauliflower on a large, parchment-lined baking tray and toss with the curry powder, half the oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until cooked through and lightly coloured. Set aside, and turn the oven temperature down to 170C fan.
3. Meanwhile, make the béchamel. Put the cubed butter into a medium saucepan on a medium-high heat and, once melted, whisk in the flour and cook for one to two minutes - it should start to smell nutty (like popcorn). Turn the heat down to medium and slowly add the milk a little at a time, whisking continuously to prevent any lumps, until incorporated and the sauce is smooth. Cook, whisking often, for about seven minutes, until thickened slightly. Off the heat, stir in the garlic, mustard, cheese and 1/4 teaspoon of salt until the cheese has melted.
4. Keep your filo sheets under a damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out. In a bowl, combine the melted butter and the remaining 11/2 tablespoons of oil and keep to one side.
5. Working one sheet at a time, brush the exposed side of the filo with the butter mixture and drape it into your prepared tin (buttered side up), pushing it down gently to fit. Continue in this way with the next filo sheet, brushing it with butter and then laying it over the bottom sheet, rotating it slightly so the overhang drapes over the sides at a different angle. Do this with all six sheets.
6. Spoon half the béchamel into the base and top with the roasted cauliflower florets. Spoon over the remaining béchamel, then crimp up the overhang so that it creates a messy "scrunched-up" border around the edges, leaving the centre of the pie exposed.
7. Brush the top of the filo border with the remaining butter mixture, then transfer the tin to a baking tray and bake for 30 minutes.
8. Using a tea towel to help you, carefully release the outer circle of the springform tin and return the pie to the oven for another 20-25 minutes, or until the sides are nicely coloured and everything is golden and bubbling. Leave to settle for 15 minutes.
9. Top the pie with the parsley and lemon zest and serve warm.
Serves 4, generously.
Sticky miso bananas with lime and toasted rice
This dessert ticks all our flavour boxes - sweet, salty, tangy and umami - and all our texture boxes - sticky, crunchy and creamy. The bananas you use should have almost completely yellow skin, with only the tiniest bit of brown spotting.
- 40g unsalted butter
- 70g light soft brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground star anise
- 3 tbsp crème frache
- 1 1/2 tbsp white miso
- 4 medium bananas (medium ripe), peeled and halved lengthways
- 1 lime: finely grate the zest to get 1 tsp and then juice to get 11/2 tsp
Toasted rice topping:
- 1 tbsp Thai sticky rice (raw), or jasmine rice
- 2 tsp black sesame seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground star anise
1. Set the oven to its highest grill setting.
2. Make the topping. Toast the rice in a small frying pan on a medium heat for 12-15 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time, until deeply golden. Blitz in a spice or coffee grinder until fine, then transfer to a small bowl. Return the pan to a medium-high heat and add the sesame seeds. Toast for one minute, then stir into the rice bowl along with the star anise. Set aside.
3. Put the butter, sugar, star anise and half the crème frache into a large, ovenproof cast-iron pan (or a large sauté pan) on a medium heat. Stir the mixture frequently, until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved, then, off the heat, whisk in the miso until smooth. Add the bananas, cut side up, using a spoon to coat the tops with some of the caramel, then transfer to the oven and grill for about eight minutes (this will vary, depending on your grill, so check them at the seven-minute mark), or until the bananas have softened and are lightly browned.
4. While the bananas are grilling, mix the remaining crème frache with the lime juice. When ready, spoon this all over the bananas, then sprinkle with the lime zest and a tablespoon of the rice topping. Serve immediately and directly from the pan, with the extra rice topping alongside.
Make it your own: No spice grinder? No problem! Swap out the ground rice for nuts, seeds or coconut flakes.
Za'atar salmon and tahini
If you haven't yet paired fish with tahini, then you're in for a real treat. This version combines tahini with herbaceous za'atar and sour sumac, our ever familiar but much treasured test kitchen staples. Eat this shortly after cooking, as cooked tahini doesn't sit or reheat very well.
- 4 salmon fillets (600g), skin on and pin bones removed
- 2 tbsp za'atar
- 2 tsp sumac, plus 1/2 tsp extra for sprinkling
- 60ml olive oil
- 250g baby spinach
- 90g tahini
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp roughly chopped coriander leaves
- salt and black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 220C fan.
2. Pat dry the salmon and sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine the za'atar and sumac, then sprinkle this all over the top of the salmon to create a crust.
3. Place a large ovenproof sauté pan on a medium-high heat and add a tablespoon of oil. Once hot, add the spinach and a pinch each of salt and pepper and cook for two to three minutes, until just wilted.
4. Top with the salmon, skin side down, and drizzle the top of the fish with two tablespoons of oil. Bake for five minutes.
5. Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the tahini, garlic, 21/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, a good pinch of salt and 100ml of water until smooth and quite runny.
6. When ready, remove the pan from the oven and pour the tahini all around the salmon (but not on the fish at all). Bake for another five minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and the tahini is bubbling. Spoon over the remaining tablespoon each of lemon juice and oil and top with the coriander and extra sumac.
Make it your own: Swap out the salmon for other sustainably caught fish, adjusting cooking times where needed. Use other leafy greens such as kale or chard.
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