The world and the way we approach it through food has changed considerably since August 2019. That was the last time we were saving the date to hear Yotam Ottolenghi at Minneapolis' Temple Israel.
The international bestselling author, restaurateur and television host will now be in town on May 5 (see below for details). And in between those two dates, there has been a global pandemic, historic food shortages, trade interruptions and new versions of Old World conflicts delivered directly onto our screens.
Difficult conversations about tensions and clashing viewpoints are nothing new to Ottolenghi. A Jew raised in Jerusalem, he grew up surrounded by the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was the child of parents who lived through World War II, and one who roamed the streets of the city enjoying the food and global flavors found around every corner.
Those experiences have found their way into his numerous cookbooks and television programs. His latest book, "Shelf Love," is a team effort from the other chefs at the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. It was born from the pandemic, when we were all stuck at home and shopping the back of our pantries for ingredients to stretch cooking creativity during an unprecedented time of fear and isolation with ample time to cook new things.
While speaking from his London home, Ottolenghi discussed family, food traditions and finding new connections in the face of historic hardships and conflict. We also did what food lovers always do: trade tips.
"This is my first visit to Minneapolis. I'm looking forward to it. I've actually never been to Minnesota," he said. "Where should I eat?"
Q: Food is so personal, and our connections to it are, as well. Going back to early memories of your childhood kitchen, what are the smells that bring you back to that time and place?
A: I grew in up in a Jewish household in Jerusalem and the food we had was a mix of different cultures. I have a German-Jewish mother and an Italian-Jewish father. We had a collection of cultures. There were North Italian foods like soft polenta, fried zucchini, lots of beef in various forms. On my mother's side it was Central and Eastern European food: cabbages and potatoes, ox tails. I think most of the stronger influences on me were what I had in the street. Either Jewish immigrant from the Middle East or Palestinian food. We had Jews immigrating from East Africa and they had food typical to North Africa with all of the spices, tagine and quite a lot of fish. The Palestinian foods like mezzes, falafel and hummus.
I was lucky enough to grow up with so much.
Q: What aromas do you think your children are experiencing that will one day remind them of home? [Ottolenghi and his husband share two children, both under 10.]
A: My partner is from Northern Ireland so he has British food, but is also an adventurous cook. I do less cooking at home. I cook hummus once in a while; I cook shakshuka and Middle Eastern-style meats.
It's a combination of things. I cook a lot of things outside of my culture. Asian soups, stir-fries. They eat food from around the world, but even more than I had. Kids these days know of so many cultures because of how much smaller the world is.
Q: What food traditions and skills do you hope to pass on to them?
A: We bake a lot. I trained as a pastry chef to start with; we spend a lot of time baking cakes — of course kids love sugar. It's a good point of entrance to the kitchen. Baking is a lovely ceremony. That's one thing I love to pass on to them.
For Christmas we do those traditions: roast duck; turkey. We also have Jewish traditions of cooking, like Hanukkah traditions. We make latkes.
Q: Your newest book, "Shelf Love," was written with a larger collaborative team and co-authors than your previous books. With the influence of different people with different life experiences and food memories, how do you determine what is an "Ottolenghi" recipe?
A: When I started the test kitchen, it was just me and now it's grown into a team from different parts of the world and from different backgrounds. It's really from [my previous book] "Flavors," we would ask, "Is this 'true to form?' "
We often talk about a generosity of ingredients, boldness of flavors and [adding] something different — something unexpected in flavor or the way ingredients are put together.
We spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a dish our dish — we know it when we see it.
Q: My first experience with your recipes was a charred eggplant dish that had me burning aubergines. Until then, I thought burning was a bad thing for food. And since then, I've seen that more. In the new book there's a recipe for burnt honey and more aubergine burning. Talk about the power of burning your food.
A: Aubergines, or eggplants, are something that people maybe didn't grow up with. One of the things they do so well is absorb other flavors, especially smoke. When you take an aubergine and burn it over fire or in the oven, it will char and the smoke will really flavor the flesh. It's an age-old technique.
That vegetable and zucchini burning is when you get the steam and smoky flavor. Sometimes people are scared to cook their food too long. I love to get that color because color is flavor. You can actually cook for quite a while and everything will be fine — often people cook less than they should.
When we talk about burning honey, we're turning honey into caramel, not fully black burned, but a deep color. We get the most incredible luscious sweetness — I really, really recommend trying.
Q: Your discussion at Temple Israel will focus on the connections made through food. Tell me about a meal that brought you an unexpected connection.
A: Quite a few years ago I made a TV show for the BBC on the food of Jerusalem. We took the crew to different restaurants. We stumbled onto this bakery where we spent time talking to the family who owned it. They had this pastry drenched in syrup. I asked if she would tell me more and, as we were talking, I asked if she would invite me for a meal at her house. It was completely spontaneous. I'd never been to a Palestinian home before. She stopped for a moment and said she had to consult with her husband. She discussed it with her husband and decided that I could come share a meal.
A Jew coming to a Palestinian home. I knew deep down there was a fear. I had fear — I knew it was irrational, but it was still there.
She invited me to her house and it was a beautiful meal. Her husband, her children and her extended family were there. She made poached lamb and the stock was used to cook bulgur wheat which was served with the shredded lamb. It was beautifully done. She told me about her life and the difficulty of her life. If the food wasn't there she wouldn't have opened up the way she did.
It was really uplifting. There isn't a lot of good news that comes out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She opened her house to me and we had a lot to talk about. It was an experience that was humanizing for us both. She'd never had an Israeli Jewish man in her house and I had never eaten in a Palestinian home this way. It was a very special experience.
If you go
What: Voices 2022, featuring Yotam Ottolenghi and hosted by chef David Fhima of Fhima's, is a fundraiser for Temple Israel in Minneapolis.
When: May 5 at 7 p.m.
Where: At Temple Israel, 2323 Fremont Av. S., Mpls.
Cost: $50; get them at templeisrael.com/voices. Ottolenghi will be on hand for book signings, and copies of his book will be available for purchase.
More about the program: "Voices has always been a program to bring the Temple Israel community — and beyond — to bring our community to our larger space," said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman. "Reconnecting and connecting with people over food has been an absence and longing that people have had — a longing to feed more than just our bodies."
Charred Zucchini with Warm Yogurt and Saffron Butter
Serves 2 to 4.
Note: This recipe is inspired by kousa b'laban, a Levantine dish of stuffed baby zucchini cooked in yogurt. In this simplified version, the yogurt sauce and broiled zucchini are cooked separately, then served with a quick saffron butter to spoon on top. There's a bit of an art to cooking yogurt without having it curdle; stabilizers such as cornstarch and egg yolk tend to do the trick, as does cooking the yogurt on moderate heat, stirring continuously and gently warming through without boiling. The result: a silky-smooth and tangy sauce that's great for these zucchini but also with other grilled veggies, fatty meats or even as a sauce for pasta. No saffron? Use a pinch of turmeric instead. From "Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love" (Clarkson Potter, 2021).
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1/4 tsp. saffron threads, roughly crumbled (see Note)
• 4 small, pale green or regular zucchini, tops trimmed slightly and zucchini halved lengthwise (about 1 1/2 lb.)
• 2 1/2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
• Salt and black pepper
• 1 tsp. cornstarch
• 1 c. plus 1 tbsp. plain Greek yogurt
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1/2 tsp. dried mint
• 3/4 tsp. coriander seeds, toasted and roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
• 1 1/2 tbsp. mint leaves
• 1/2 lemon
Preheat the oven broiler to high.
Put the butter and saffron into a small saucepan on medium heat. When the butter has melted, set aside to infuse.
Place the zucchini on a parchment-lined baking sheet and toss with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1/3 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Arrange them cut side up and broil for 15 to 20 minutes, until nicely charred and softened.
Toward the last 10 minutes of broiling time, make the sauce. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water until smooth, then add the yogurt, garlic, dried mint, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Whisk to combine, then transfer to a large, nonstick sauté pan on medium heat. Cook, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes, or until thickened slightly and warmed through. Do not let the sauce boil, or it will split.
Transfer the warm yogurt sauce to a plate with a lip and top with the zucchini, broiled side up. Spoon the saffron butter over the top, then sprinkle with the coriander seeds and mint leaves. Squeeze the lemon half over everything and serve right away.
Za'atar Salmon and Tahini
Note: If you haven't yet paired fish with tahini, you're in for a real treat. This version combines tahini with herbaceous za'atar and sour sumac. We strongly recommend using creamy, nutty tahini that's sourced from countries within the Levant. Eat this shortly after cooking, as cooked tahini doesn't sit or reheat very well. To make it your own, swap out the salmon for other sustainably caught fish, adjusting cooking times as needed. Or use other leafy greens in place of spinach, such as kale or chard. From "Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love" (Clarkson Potter, 2021).
• 4 salmon fillets (about 1 1/2 lb.), skin on and pin bones removed (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. za'atar
• 2 tsp. sumac, plus 1/2 tsp. for sprinkling
• 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
• 9 oz. baby spinach (see Note)
• 1/3 c. tahini
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 3 1/2 tbsp. lemon juice, divided
• 1 1/2 tbsp. roughly chopped cilantro leaves
• Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Pat the salmon dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine the za'atar and sumac, then sprinkle over the top of the salmon to create a crust.
Place a large, oven-safe sauté pan on medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Once hot, add the spinach and a pinch each of salt and pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until just wilted.
Top with the salmon, skin side down, and drizzle the top of the fish with 2 tablespoons of oil. Bake for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, garlic, 2 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, a good pinch of salt, and 7 tablespoons of water until smooth and quite runny.
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 5 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and the tahini is bubbling. Spoon the remaining 1 tablespoon each of lemon juice and olive oil over everything and top with the cilantro and extra sumac.
Sweet Potato Shakshuka
Note: A far cry from a classic shakshuka, yes, but we've found that sweet potatoes provide just the right amount of moisture and heft to serve as a base for these eggs. Serve this vibrant dish as a weekend brunch; it sure looks the part. To make it your own, you can save time by cooking the sweet potatoes in the microwave instead. Use any kind of oozy melty cheese and any spice you like for the base, and experiment with other hot sauces, too. From "Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love" (Clarkson Potter, 2021).
• 2 lb. 2 oz. sweet potatoes, skin on and scrubbed clean
• 1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rounds
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice, divided
• 3 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 1/3 c. coarsely grated mature cheddar
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tsp. cumin seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
• 8 large eggs
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 2 1/4 tsp. Sriracha
• 2 tbsp. cilantro leaves, with some stem attached
• Salt and black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Poke the sweet potatoes all over with a fork and place them on a medium, parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until cooked through and softened. Set aside to cool and turn the oven temperature down to 400 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the red onion, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and a pinch of salt; set aside to pickle.
Remove the cooked potato skins and tear them into roughly 1 1/2-inch pieces. Transfer the potato flesh to a large bowl and set aside. Place the skins back on the baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of oil, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and a good grind of pepper. Bake for 8 minutes, or until nicely colored and starting to crisp up. Set aside to cool and crisp up further.
Use a fork to mash the potato flesh until smooth, then add the cheddar, garlic, cumin, another 1 tablespoon of oil, the remaining 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a generous grind of pepper; mix to combine.
Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil into a large frying pan with a lid, and swirl around to coat the bottom. Spoon the mashed potato mixture into the pan, using your spoon to distribute it evenly. Place on medium-high heat and let cook for about 7 minutes; the bottom should start to color. Reduce the heat to medium and use a spoon to make eight wells in the potato mixture, breaking an egg into each. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, cover with the lid, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, rotating the pan, or until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny.
While the eggs are cooking, put the butter and Sriracha into a small saucepan on medium heat and cook until the butter has melted, whisking constantly to emulsify. Remove the mixture from the heat before it starts to bubble — you don't want it to split.
When ready, spoon the Sriracha butter all over the eggs, then top with a good handful of the crispy potato skins, half the pickled onion, and all the cilantro leaves. Serve right away, with the rest of the potato skins and pickled onion to eat alongside.