An evening with Yotam Ottolenghi

So far, all I have blogged about is places I have eaten and things I have made myself. Nice, but I do get up to a bit more than that.

Last night, I attended a cookery demonstration in town to celebrate Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book, Plenty. I already have his first book (the self-titled Ottolenghi), which contains a wonderful array of dishes inspired by European and Middle Eastern culinary tradition. He is also the chef/patron of the rather great restaurant of the same name on Upper Street in Islington. The talk was just £6 for a glass of wine and a chance to see the expert at work – what’s not to like?

My very own copy!

The format was very informal – Waterstone’s bookshop on Piccadilly have a great little setup with a kitchen, and ample seating from which we were able to throw questions at the expert about what he was making, his business and his food philosophy. He ran through four dishes in total (roasted cauliflower with saffron, burnt aubergine salad, herb cous cous and beetroot salad), and at the end, we got to taste each of them. They were all great, and I will be trying the aubergine salad and the cous cous as soon as I can. They flavours were fresh, bright, light and rich.

I love his style of cooking. The focus is not about exact measurements and scientific methods, but rather about balance and getting flavours to shine and work with each other. More of an art than a science. He seems quite happy to work with “some” of this, and “a bit” of that, as long as you are checking the dish and can develop a feel for how things are working together. I liked his emphasis on how food tastes, encouraging the audience not to be scared of adding seasoning. We all seem to have a collective phobia of salt, but the truth is that you can’t cook well without it. But in any event, if you are cooking yourself, you are more aware of how much you are adding, and you probably on balance consume less of the stuff than if you just buy processed food. Anyway, the point is that he likes to think in terms of taste and flavours, and encouraged us to do the same. He also spoke at some length about presentation and his liking for colourful food. To demonstrate, the aubergine salad was transformed with the addition of chopped coriander and jewel-like pomegranate seeds. I also loved what he called his “million dollar cous cous” – stirring a herb paste through the cooked grains to make a bright green dish. He thought that colour matters not just in the food, but how it is presented. Perhaps this means it is time to get in a new set of dishes? It seems my penchant for picking up eclectic (i.e. mis-matched) bowls and dishes is finally, finally trendy!

Having sat through an inspirational talk and tried some truly wonderful food, I duly picked up a copy of Ottolenghi’s new book and got it signed. I have to admit, I was just a touch excited and came across like an over-excited schoolchild, gushing about my favourite recipe. Anyway, no harm done, better to come across as enthusiastic than to stand there and brood. I have to say, it is a beautiful publication in its own right – the cover is slightly padded and thus feels luxurious. In terms of recipes, it only covers savoury, which is probably a good thing for me, so I can steer this blog towards a better balance of sweet and savoury. The recipes are arranged by ingredient, making it easy to pick up items when you are out and about, then come home and pick out what you want to make. It also looks wonderful – lovely photography of bright, vibrant dishes, accented with outline art of various key ingredients. It all looks very stylish, and the book is currently enjoying well-deserved pride of place on my coffee table.

So, time to hit the kitchen and honour the dedication – keep on cooking!

(Postscript – I also have to add that I feel very privileged that I am able to attend these sort of events. It was my resolution at New Year to start doing more of these foodie things rather than just cooking and posting pictures of my food, and I am so glad I went. Looking forward to the next one!)

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