Does your food smile?
Superstar (and perfectionist) chef Yotam Ottolenghi has been known to empty shelves displaying food in his delis because of the smile factor (actually, the no smile factor).
In Ottolenghi’s food world, you have to be able to taste the food before you raise your fork, as New Yorker food writer Jane Kramer put it in her lengthy 2012 profile of Ottolenghi, The Philosopher Chef.
That means the food has to be as beautiful as it smells. The senses, he says, have to work together. The food has to “smile.” That’s his aesthetic.
Little wonder, then, that his cookbooks are a feast for the eyes with gorgeous photographs of colorful and beautifully-plated food. If you are in the mood to add another cookbook to your shelves, Ottolenghi’s cookbooks include Plenty, Plenty More, Jerusalem, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and Nopi. I own them all and I’ve spent many a happy hour thumbing through their beautiful pages for cooking inspiration.
So, who is Ottolenghi?
Simply put, Yotam Ottolenghi is hot stuff–a culinary phenomenon. He operates a number of restaurants and delis in Britain, and has won numerous accolades from, among others, the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. He writes a regular food column for The Guardian. He’s cooked for the Queen, too.
Jerusalem-born Ottolenghi, didn’t start out to be a cook. Far from it. He earned degrees in philosophy and comparative literature in “the genius program” at Tel Aviv University where his master’s thesis addressed “the ontological status of the photographic image in aesthetic and analytic philosophy.” What? (I’m going to ask my photography teacher, Al Nomura, to explain that topic at our next class.)
His cooking borrows liberally from the cuisines of the Middle East–his native Israel but also Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran as well. Some have characterized his bold cooking style as “noisy.”
Here is a recipe I’ve enjoyed from his cookbook Plenty More. Mixing fried eggplant, squash and peppers in a pungent, garlicky yogurt sauce and topping it with a chile herb oil, this dish is downright grinning.
Here is the New Yorker link:
Recipe: Mixed Vegetables and Yogurt with Green Chile Oil
3 large plum tomatoes (each cut into four wedges)
2 medium zucchinis or yellow squash (cut into 3/4 inch chunks)
1 large eggplant (cut into 3/4 inch chunks)
2 large red peppers (seeds removed and cut into 3/4 inch chunks)
3/4 C. Greek yogurt
1 large clove of garlic (peeled and crushed)
1 T. shredded fresh mint
1 1/2 t. dried mint
1 1/2 t. lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
Chile and herb oil
1 green chile (coarsely chopped)
2/3 oz. flat-leaf parsley
1 T. chopped mint
1 t. ground cumin
1/4 C. olive oil and salt to taste
In an oven that has been preheated to 325 degrees F., roast tomatoes that have been sprinkled with 1/4 t. salt for 40 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
Prepare herb oil by combining all ingredients in the bowl of your food processor with a pinch of salt. Process until you have a smooth, thick sauce. Add extra olive oil as necessary.
Pour 2 inches of a neutrally-flavored oil (canola, grape seed, sunflower) into a heavy pan. Heat until boiling. Turn heat down to medium high and fry eggplant, zucchini and red pepper in batches until the vegetables are a light brown. This will take about 12-15 minutes for each batch of vegetables. Remove from pan and place in a colander to drain. Sprinkle with salt.
Combine yogurt, garlic, fresh and dried mint, lemon juice and black pepper in a large bowl. Stir. Add vegetables and cooked tomatoes to this mixture and gently stir. Put this mixture on a platter and drizzle the herb oil on top. Serve at room temperature with fresh pita bread.
Cook’s Notes: I had trouble getting the chile oil thin enough using just 1/4 C. olive oil. I drizzled some extra olive oil on the dish before serving. I prepared this dish following the recipe from Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty. I have since found that a slightly different recipe has been posted online on Ottolenghi’s website. In that on-line recipe, he uses some dill in the chile oil. Sounds good. I’ll try that next time.