MY MOTHER’S COPY of Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty” has 11 bookmarks sandwiched throughout it, with the corners of many more of the pages carefully turned down. (She’s a particular fan of his tarts laden with fresh herbs and vegetables, often put together with the packaged puff pastry that he maintains no freezer should be without.)
With his cookbooks translated into 12 languages, the recipes of the Israeli-born, London-based chef have found their way around the world, filling countless homes with smells and tastes of what he calls the “very complex set of cuisines” of the Mediterranean Middle East. He also deserves quite a bit of credit for the redemption of vegetables in places where they were often dreary, to be swallowed grudgingly or quietly pushed aside — cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and more done in the Ottolenghi way get warmed and brightened with spices and condiments like za’atar and preserved lemon. And thanks go to him, in no small part, for the presence of such ingredients in more and more grocery stores, from Seattle to the U.K., nowadays (not to mention online).
Cultural considerations accompany Ottolenghi almost everywhere — for prime example, in the sensitive, evocative essays found in “Jerusalem,” a cookbook co-written with his friend and business partner, Palestinian-born Sami Tamimi (co-author of several others as well). “It’s tricky — it’s painful,” Ottolenghi said by phone recently of the geopolitical conflicts that divide regions and peoples who are otherwise naturally joined by foodways, as in the Middle East or, now, in Russia and Ukraine. “But the other side of the equation is, of course, that food has potential to heal and to cross barriers … I’ve been in events in my life where people from opposite sides cook together and get to know one another, through cooking and through food.”
To pursue his passion for cooking, Ottolenghi abandoned what promised to be a brilliant academic career in philosophy (his mother supported the decision). In so doing, he has had a ripple effect of bringing excitement and joy, sizzling and scented, to kitchens and tables worldwide. This, he has said, gives him an immense sense of happiness.
This article comes out right at Easter and Passover time; then, three weeks later, Ottolenghi visits Seattle for an appearance at Benaroya Hall on Sunday, May 8, which is Mother’s Day. That’ll be hosted, with extreme honor, by yours truly, with my very thrilled mom in attendance. In advance of that, Ottolenghi was kind enough to talk by phone about food and family, and to provide us with a recipe appropriate for any holiday. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Ottolenghi on his mother’s cooking:
“My mom is an extraordinarily good cook. She cooked the food of her German Jewish background — so deliciously roasted potatoes and butter, or slow-cooked cabbage, and things that are traditionally, essentially Eastern European. But she was also very adventurous, so she used to cook really good curries. She had a really good Malaysian curry she used to make often. And then she cooks Middle Eastern stuff, like eggplants — so, a whole variety of things. And I loved her cooking. I still do. We have a lot of good tomatoes in Israel, so she makes really delicious gazpacho.”
On the family Passover table growing up:
“I’ve grown up in kind of a not very traditional household, so we picked and chose when we wanted to be traditional and eat traditional food. There wasn’t a religious element. But Passover was the one time where we really did do it properly. Normally, we would go to my paternal grandmother and grandfather, who lived about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, and there was a really, really delicious spread [in the] Jewish Italian tradition for Passover, which was quite different from what others may have had. There was always beef or chicken soup with matzo balls, or knaidlach — that was always there. But my grandmother, who was from Rome, used to make fried zucchini in olive oil with marjoram, or oregano, or something like that, which was really delicious. It was always there on the table. And she used to make a big joint of meat, roasted.
“And another thing that she used to make a lot — and my father later on also did — is a kind of Italian version of a meatloaf. It’s called a polpettone. It’s a meatloaf filled with delicious things, like egg and pistachios and olives, and it’s braised in stock, and then allowed to cool down and sliced into cold cuts — so you can see all the wonderful things in it — thin slices, [with a] kind of mayonnaise-y sauce, a béarnaise, or salsa verde, or something like that. And this would be one of the starters on the Passover table, and I absolutely love that dish and have written about it in the past.”
On the holiday food traditions his own family has chosen now:
“At home here in London, we have celebrated Passover a few times, but Christmas features a bit more heavily in our house. My husband, Paul, is from Northern Ireland, so he had quite a British notion of a Christmas meal that he grew up with and really wants our children to experience, with a turkey, and roasted potatoes in goose fat, and we have roasted Brussels sprouts — those, I kind of Middle Eastern-ize a little bit by adding hard herbs and pomegranate seeds, etc. We have roasted carrots and parsnips, with stuffing, and sauces, and gravy — all those kinds of things. So our Christmas table is actually quite traditionally a kind of British one. And then we kind of do occasionally [celebrate] also for the Jewish holidays, so for Hanukkah, I make latkes, and the kids love those — normally, I serve them with sour cream and a squeeze of lemon.”
On choosing his favorite vegetable (if that’s not too much like choosing a favorite child):
Oh, this changes quite a bit. I really love cauliflowers — impressively versatile. I love the fact that you can eat them raw or cooked, fried, grilled and braised. It’s a very meaty vegetable, and it’s got so much to offer. Yeah, that would be one of my favorites, but this would change — so, eggplants as well, I absolutely love. And celery root. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to choose one [laughs]; I’ll give you that.
On this recipe for salmon:
“It’s a wonderful dish. It’s very colorful, it’s full of contrast, and it’s nice eating [either] room temperature or hot. It’s a good choice. Salmon is quite good like that, because of the fattiness of the fish — it works really well with all that acidity and sweetness.”
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Pan-Fried Salmon With Pine Nut Salsa
Originally in “Ottolenghi Simple,” this recipe is actually a retroactive creation of a fictional salmon mentioned in a Bridget Jones movie (“From Ottolenghi — delicious and healthy!”). To source ingredients such as saffron while supporting local (and getting high quality), try ChefShop or Villa Jerada.
¾ cup/100g currants
4 salmon fillets, skin on and pin bones removed (1 lb., 2 oz./500g)
7 Tbsp./100ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper
4 medium celery stalks, cut into ½-inch/1-cm dice (1¾ cups/180g), leaves removed but kept for garnish
¼ cup/30g pine nuts, roughly chopped
¼ cup/40g capers, plus 2 Tbsp. of their brine
⅓ cup/40g large green olives (about 8), pitted and cut into ½-inch/1-cm dice
1 good pinch (¼ tsp.) saffron threads, mixed with 1 Tbsp. hot water
1 cup/20g parsley, roughly chopped
1 lemon: Finely zest to get 1 tsp., then juice to get 1 tsp.
1. Cover the currants with boiling water, and set aside to soak for 20 minutes while you prep the salmon and make the salsa.
2. Mix the salmon with 1 Tbsp. of the oil, a rounded ¼ tsp. salt and a good grind of pepper. Set aside while you make the salsa.
3. Put 5 Tbsp./75ml of the olive oil into a large sauté pan, and place on a high heat. Add the celery and pine nuts and fry for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the nuts begin to brown (don’t take your eyes off them, as they easily can burn). Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the capers and their brine, the olives, saffron and its water, and a pinch of salt. Drain the currants, and add these, along with the parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice. Set aside.
4. Put the remaining 1 Tbsp. oil into a large frying pan, and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the salmon fillets, skin side down, and fry for 3 minutes, until the skin is crisp. Decrease the heat to medium, then flip the fillets over and continue to fry for 2-4 minutes (depending on how much you like the salmon cooked). Remove from the pan, and set aside.
5. Arrange the salmon on four plates, and spoon on the salsa. Scatter the celery leaves on top.
Reprinted with permission from “Ottolenghi Simple: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi, copyright © 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.