Ottolenghi The Cookbook
by Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi
Publisher: Ebury Press, Country: UK
ISBN: 978091922344, Year: 2008
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

In Ottolenghi The Cookbook Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini share recipes for the sort of dishes which have made their London Ottolenghi food stores popular. Their food is based on the generous use of fresh ingredients and bold flavour combinations, drawing heavily on a wide range of culinary traditions not least those of their homeland, Israel. The recipes here cover a range of ideas for vegetables, through meat and fish to cakes and meringues and offer a modern and imaginative approach which will appeal to the adventurous and curious home cook.

Full review

There are three Ottolenghi: first is Yotam Ottolenghi, student of literature and philosophy, journalist and now confirmed chef. After coming to London from his home in Israel he trained at Le Cordon Bleu and worked his way through a number of pastry chef positions before setting up the business called Ottolenghi in 2002.

Ottolenghi the business consists of four food shops in London which are all in part patisserie/bakery, part deli and part restaurant. The emphasis is on food-to-go, to be consumed at home or at work, and of the four shops only the Islington branch offers lunch and dinner table service.

Finally, there’s Ottolenghi The Cookbook. Co-authored by Yotam Ottolenghi and his business partner Sami Tamimi, it aims to sum up the Ottolenghi experience and philosophy by providing recipes for the home cook. In addition, Yotam writes a weekly column called ‘The New Vegetarian’ for the Guardian.

So what is the Ottolenghi experience? Both Yotam and Sami grew up in Jerusalem, Yotam with a Jewish background and German and Italian influences from his grandmothers, Sami with Palestinian parents and strong Arab cultural traditions. Not surprisingly then their food has a strong Middle Eastern edge – think lots of garlic, lemon, olive oil, yoghurt and tahini, with generous use of spices and fresh herbs. The food in their shops and the recipes in the book rely on bold flavours and striking combinations of both flavour and colour. Yotam and Sami believe dishes should be as unfussy, simple and fresh as possible, and cooking should be an enjoyable process. According to them the Ottolenghi experience is about generosity and sharing; about food which is both straightforward and innovative.

Ottolenghi The Cookbook does go a long way towards creating a feel for both the Ottolenghi philosophy and Ottolenghi the place. The introductions to many of the recipes acknowledge the staff who work at the various branches and their role in the business, and the photographs also give you a clear idea of the style of the food and the atmosphere in which it is served. This is all very well, but what does Ottolenghi the book have to offer those who may never have sampled the Ottolenghi experience for themselves?

The content

The recipes are divided into four sections. ‘Vegetables, pulses and grains’ covers salads and other hot and cold vegetable dishes as well as soups. ‘Meat and fish’ deals with all the usual suspects with an emphasis on poultry. The third and biggest section deals with baking – bread and pastries, cakes (large, small, muffins and cup cakes), bars and biscuits, macaroons and meringues and tarts. The last chapter, ‘Larder’, provides basic pastry recipes and recipes for some of the staples used throughout the book such as labneh (yoghurt cheese) and preserved lemons.

The majority of the recipes in the first two sections are simple and accessible in that, on the whole, these are dishes you could prepare for dinner on a week night, not creations which require an excess of preparation time, advanced cooking skills or fancy kitchen equipment. That said, these are not recipes to let you put dinner on the table in less than half an hour, and they do require a bit of forethought and/or a fairly well stocked pantry. To use the book effectively you need to have ready access to supplies of fresh herbs, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sumac, za’atar and so on, as well as other traditional Middle Eastern flavourings such as pomegranate molasses in addition to the tahini, yoghurt, lemons and lots of garlic. There are also a few recipes which call for ingredients which may be more difficult to source if not entirely beyond the reach of some readers: gooseberries, sorrel and samphire for example.

The need for ingredients which are perhaps new and unfamiliar is not a negative. On the contrary, the recipes here are all about being willing to experiment and add a bit of excitement to familiar food. None of the dishes I tried were disappointing. Most recipes rely on good basic ingredients enlivened with imaginative flavour and texture combinations like char-grilled broccoli with chilli and garlic; roasted pumpkin with toasted pumpkin, sunflower, black sesame and nigella seeds; roasted beetroot dressed with maple syrup, sherry vinegar, chervil and sunflower seeds; chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey or sumac, za’atar and lemon and tuna with pistachio crust; and papaya salsa or salmon with red pepper and hazelnut salsa.

What appeals to me most about this book is that the recipes aim to create something new and original rather than simply updated versions of more traditional ideas. The results are sophisticated, stylish and modern without being pretentious or faddish. These are dishes with enough ‘wow’ factor to impress but simple enough to prepare, well within the range of cooks with minimal experience. They could easily become family staples.

Not much of a baker myself, I haven’t attempted many of the recipes in the ‘Baking and patisserie’ chapter although I can vouch for the Orange and polenta cake and the Chocolate fudge cake. The number of pages in this section is no doubt justified given that Ottolenghi is renowned for patisserie, but to me the ideas here didn’t seem as exciting or original as those in the earlier sections. Again, the recipes are reasonably straightforward although time, patience and the right equipment may be required, and to my mind Swiss meringue, macaroons and brioche are not for the inexperienced.

In all the sections the recipes are well set out and many have an introductory paragraph with useful hints and suggestions. Ingredients are listed separately (quantities are all metric) and the directions are clear and concise. Finished dishes usually serve four or six but in most cases the recipes readily lend themselves to being scaled up or down. This well illustrated book also fulfils two of my criteria for a really useful recipe book – the index is reliable and the book opens out flat and stays open at the relevant page. In addition, each section begins with a list of recipes and page numbers which is very convenient if you need a bit of inspiration.

As the authors intended, this is certainly a book which would please anyone who has had the good fortune to enjoy the Ottolenghi experience first hand and wants to reproduce the dishes at home. For those unlikely to visit any of the establishments in London the text and the vibrant photographs convey the exuberance and generosity Yotam and Sami espouse and build into their recipes. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the baking section, I think the adventurous home cook would find enough that is fresh and interesting in the rest of the book to justify adding it to their collection.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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