Two of our favorite words. Clearly, we’re serious fans of this Israeli-born, London-based chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. The man, his food, and his books are (both here at Fine Cooking and pretty much everywhere else on the planet) unrivaled in their power to inspire adulation—and not without reason.
Oft described as “sunny,” Ottolenghi’s food is rich with harmonious contradictions. Vibrant and bold while familiar and comforting. Beautiful to behold yet authentic. Dramatic yet modest. Noisy yet at peace.
Ottolenghi’s cuisine delights those who eat it as much as it makes the chef a proud and merry man. A Mediterranean influence underscores everything he makes, but these days, he’s as likely to reach for mirin and miso as pomegranate molasses and preserved lemons. Like all adventurous cooks, he embraces new ingredients. At his restaurants and in his own home, the menu is ever-changing and the experiments ongoing.
Ottolenghi’s life revolves around testing, tasting, and tweaking. Like us, he’s serious about making people happy through food, so we are thrilled to offer you this very special sample of a new book by a kindred spirit—and matchless talent. Here are highlights from our recent conversation with Ottolenghi about his books, his cooking philosophy, and life in general, along with a few favorite recipes from the new collection.
FC: Simple cooking. What does that mean, and how do the recipes in your new book exemplify that?
YO: Simple means different things to different people. For some, simple cooking is all about being able to make a meal from beginning to end in 20 or 30 minutes. For others, though, it’s more about being able to make something well in advance of serving, if you have friends coming over or want to eat as soon as you get home.
The title of my new book, Simple, refers to both the feel of the recipes in general—these are not complicated to make, I promise— but also the letters in the word itself, which break down into six categories: the six ways in which I think cooking can be made simple.
S is “short-on-time” recipes.
I is all about the number of ingredients: “10 or less.”
M is for “make-ahead” recipes.
P stands for “pantry-led,” meaning you can look in your cupboard and use what’s there.
L are “lazy” recipes, the ones you can put on the stove or in the oven and forget about
E recipes are “easier than you think,” things like confit tomatoes in a rice dish, which perhaps intimidates cooks by virtue of being a French term but actually is so effortless.
FC: As you point out, every cook has their own idea of what’s simple and what’s not. What does simple cooking mean to you?
YO: It depends on the occasion and the day of the week, but for everyday cooking at home, I tend to be an S (“short-on-time”) cook. So I like to stop at my grocer’s on the way home from work, pick up some vegetables, and start from there. I don’t get thrown off by kids or friends being in the kitchen when I’m cooking. I just want to be able to prepare something in the evening in the amount of time it takes to have a glass of wine. My husband, Karl, tends to be a bit more organized than I, so when we have friends over, he’s the one who thinks ahead and does loads of prep before everyone arrives, when he has time to spare and has the kitchen to himself. But it’s important to be flexible. Keeping your cool and keeping things simple totally depends on all sorts of things: the occasion, the season, even the weather outside. If it’s pouring rain and no one is going anywhere, then it’s time to cook from the pantry, to bake, to stew, to pull from or to stock up the freezer.
FC: Any words of wisdom on simplicity for the Fine Cooking tribe?
YO: At the end of the day, I have found that the two best ways to keep things simple in the kitchen are to cook something that you would love to eat and to be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else in the kitchen. If you are super organized and like to be in control, then don’t think you can turn into a “spontaneous-cook-whilst-you-chat” kind of host just because you’ve seen someone else cooking like that and you like the vibe. And vice versa, if you’re happy chopping and stirring and tasting whilst chatting with friends, then don’t think this is any less special or “proper” than having it all ready and waiting when everyone comes. Be who you are. Enjoy your own food. And trust that if you think something tastes lovely and you’d love to eat it, then chances are everyone else will, too. Also, perhaps the key to it all: Shop well. It makes all the difference. If you start with good ingredients, you really are so far on your way to a delicious meal, especially when preparing great, simple food.
FC: Why are you excited about the book Simple? What unique goals did you hope to achieve here that you perhaps didn’t consider in your other titles?
YO: My aim with Simple was to produce an Ottolenghi cookbook for everyday use. Ottolenghi food has a reputation for being associated with special occasions or weekend cooking. Although I am super happy with this association—I love that my food is synonymous with celebration—I wanted to create a book that people were going to reach for on a Monday night when home alone. I am so excited by the extent to which I think I’ve pulled this off. Every recipe in the book is simple in one or more ways without any compromise on the delivery of flavor, surprise, and delight.
FC: What surprised you as you created the book?
YO: I thought imposing these various “simple” limitations on my recipes—the number of ingredients or the time spent cooking, for example—was going to feel restrictive, but actually, it was really liberating. That was the biggest surprise. Less, it turns out, really can be more.
FC: How can a cook get ahead on a meal without compromising deliciousness?
YO: Sauces, stews, soups. These can be made two or three days ahead without any compromise to flavor. In fact, sauces and stews very often taste even better a day or two after making. Always hold back on the fresh herbs, though; add these at the last minute to preserve their freshness. Squeezes of lemon and lemon zest also should be held back until just before serving. And never underestimate the benefit of a final drizzle of olive oil. If a dish is uncooked—a chopped or leafy salad, for example— I always do as much chopping and slicing as I can beforehand
and just hold off on assembly until ready to serve.
FC: Can a cook limit the number of ingredients without inviting blandness?
YO: Absolutely! If the aim is to avoid blandness, there are some real flavor bombs that can inject a huge amount into all sorts of dishes: The finely chopped skin of a preserved lemon, for example, is an ingredient that can be added to all sorts of things, from yogurt sauce to green salad to pasta, and the result will be the very opposite of bland. Rose harissa (used in this pappardelle with black olives and capers) is another ingredient like this. There are many more: miso, tamarind, black olives, tahini. Any one of these really packs a punch.
FC: Briefly remind us of the importance of a well-stocked pantry. And also of the value of popping in at the market on the way home to buy just what you need or crave.
YO: This is the yin and yang of simple cooking. It’s really useful to make sure your cupboards are all stocked up with olive oil, pasta, cans of tomatoes, tins of anchovies and tuna, chickpeas, tahini, spices, and so forth. Then, armed with some fresh fish or a couple of eggplants that you grabbed on the way home from work, you’re never far from an easy, comforting, and delicious meal.