If you regularly find yourself standing in front of your open refrigerator wondering what you should cook, the chefs behind Ottolenghi Test Kitchen have some advice: use what you have and what you know — because culinary greatness is about flexibility and taking chances.
British chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi and head of Ottolenghi Test Kitchen Noor Murad have created a new cookbook, Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Lovewhich is all about breaking the rules when it comes to cooking: taking a well-honed recipe and making it your own.
The pair recently spoke with The Sunday Magazine‘s Piya Chattopadhyay about cooking creatively and the evolution of food culture. Here’s part of their conversation.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Shelf Love reads like a love letter to home cooking, which many of us, whether we wanted to or not, have spent a ton of time doing during the pandemic. Yotam, how has your relationship with cooking changed over this past year and a half plus?
I: The pandemic was a shock to the system for me, for Noor, for everyone else around us, for our business. And in so many ways, it made us look differently at food… the way we cook and the recipes we publish. In some ways, that early 2020 moment where we were running out of, you know, stocks and supermarkets and we couldn’t go out shopping because of various lockdowns, have really made a mark on the way we cook and the way we think about food.
And we all resorted to using our panties much more and ingredients that were at hand. And also, the notion that you can’t rely on certain ingredients being always available. So you need to be flexible and you need to be much more open-minded when you cook. And all those things really affected the way I cook, we cook. And that’s the kind of message that we’re trying to convey through the pages of this book.
And Noor, what about for you? When you were cooking during the pandemic and cooking at home — I mean, you have cooked a lot in your home and in test kitchens for years — but what changed for you?
SL: Well, I mean, just as Yotam said, like, we were all kind of dispersed around the world. I was in Bahrain at the time and it was about cooking with what was accessible and what was in our cupboards and using up what we had, and being a lot more resourceful. And, I think, a lot more intuitive as well.
I think in a time where, you know… a lot we couldn’t control, the one place that we could or the one place that we felt we could find some comfort was in the kitchen. And I think just kind of going through the shelves, reaching for what’s in the fridge and combining it, it kind of, it became quite natural to a lot of people and to us as well. And that’s kind of how we’ve adapted our recipes in ways that you can kind of mix and match and substitute and make swaps where needed.
And to that point, Noor, one of the goals of your book is to explain the rules of recipes, but then teach us how to bend or even break them altogether. Why is it important to break the rules?
SL: I think for a number of reasons. I think the first one is, you know, this book, if you’ve seen it, it looks like a notebook, it feels like a notebook. And we encourage people on every single page to make a recipe of your own. And I think that is such an important thing because it’s resourceful. It’s using up what you have rather than going out and spending more money and going to the shops.
And also, it gives you the sense of ownership over the recipe. You feel like, oh, I changed this and you kind of feel very proud about it. And it’s almost like a way for us to kind of include people who are reading this book and kind of include them in the test kitchen to kind of get that, that feel from what we do.
I think for a lot of home cooks, they could find that idea of leaning on experimentation in their own kitchens more intimidating than being told how to make a meal. How do you see the difference between those two approaches?
I: So, I think in this book, we actually do both. So, we give very clear instructions detailing how to make a meal. All that is in the book, and every recipe is unequivocally a recipe to cook something very specific. But in between the lines, there is also all these messages about what you could do to own, as Noor said, to make it your own, to flex your muscle, your cooking muscle, a little bit further. And there is no contradiction there, really. It’s about gaining confidence through experience, through cooking.
There’s… [a] wonderful recipe in the book for Confit Tandoori Chickpeas, which is a whole big pot full of cooked chickpeas, and it’s got tons of flavor in it… through adding spices and ginger and chili and tomatoes and tomato paste… . These chickpeas could easily be substituted for other beans if you don’t have chickpeas. That message is the message of the book. You can cook the recipe as it is, but you can also manipulate the changes to be playful with it and get something a little bit different.
You know, I’m a kid of Indians, and when my mom over the years has been teaching me how to cook Indian food, I’ve always been like, “How much do I put in?” And I want to hear her say things like, “two tablespoons” or “half a cup” or whatever. And she’s like, “I don’t know, like just, you know, put some in your hand!” And it’s always sort of thrown me. But I’ve gotten used to sort of being OK with taking a bit of risk. Other people aren’t. So, motivate them to take a few chances while they’re cooking.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think what this book does. It’s designed and written in a way that’s quite conversational. And in turn, we hope that that’s kind of quite inviting and not so intimidating. I think it’s very heavy on photos as well. Like anything that has quite a few processes, we put quite a few photos because sometimes photos can really kind of help people who are more visual learners see how to do things.
But just like Yotam said, it’s still very detailed… . So if someone wasn’t so confident and wanted to follow the recipe for it to achieve, they completely could, and it would work out wonderfully. But making those odd substitutions, I always say that once you cook something once and you feel good about it, that’s when you have a bit more confidence to make it again and make changes… . See how it is and then find inspiration in your panties and your shelves for ways that you could kind of make it your own.
The thing about a pantry, though, is that mine might look very different from yours. For example, some of the ingredients you feature include coriander seeds, tahini, turmeric, which are the things that I have, I’ve always had on hand, and grew up with. But they may be quite new and different to other people’s cupboards and cultures, which could mean shopping around before you shop your own pantry. How did you balance, Yotam, the needs of these different audiences when you were putting this book together?
I: Even within a more limited spectrum, like people who have a smaller cupboard, we have many recipes that call for a few spices and we mention the substitute. So… I kind of assume that many pantries will have a basic, you know, they will have their olive oils and garlic and often ginger. You will have cumin, a bunch of simple spices. That already covers quite a lot of ground in our book.
And then there’s all the changes that we allow you to make — and I’m not saying it in any kind of cheeky way, I’m saying it in an encouraging way, you know, we allow you to make this change — we want you to make these changes by omitting a spice or adding a spice, or substituting a spice… . And if you don’t have many of the rest of the ingredients in one particular recipe, then you just move on to the next one and you’re probably going to be a bit more lucky.
Yotam, there has been this reckoning lately around the cultural origins of food and the people who bring them to popularity — whether it’s food writers, some of whom have been criticized for appropriating cuisines of other cultures, or TV hosts, like, “discovering” dishes that have been well known to their originators for eons. What do you make of those conversations playing out right now?
I: So I take an approach that says that, you know, food has always been something that travels from one culture to the other. And there’s no such thing, really, as pure food, as food of one particular culture or one particular cuisine. It’s always very, it flows, it evolves, and the evolution of food… always has to do with cultural exchange. And I think it’s really important to remember that there is no purity in food.
But I think some of the conversations that we’ve had recently involve the fact that certain foods have been cooked by people who haven’t given enough recognition to this, to the origin. So, you know, when you cook something that is out of your culture — and I’ve cooked foods of various cultures, not just my own… I think the one thing that is really important to remember is to tell the story. And both in this book and in previous books, much of the preamble is about the context, is about the story, is about where this comes from and where it is going. And we shouldn’t really be losing sight of both sides — both the fact that we really want to allow everyone to cook everything because cooking shouldn’t be exclusive, but also the fact that it’s really important to tell the story because there’s nothing without the stories.
These are really, really crucial to the understanding and to the joy, real joy, of food.
CONFIT TANDOORI CHICKPEAS
extracted from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
These tandoori-spiced chickpeas have had their fair share of Insta fame for a multitude of reasons. The first being that the simplicity of the dish makes it really quite attractive: throw everything into a pan and pop it into the oven, leaving it to your own devices (and you to yours). The second being that slow-cooking the chickpeas in oil without liquid makes them super soft, allowing all the aromatics to break down into the oil. Lastly, this dish can easily be made ahead and served later; it only improves with time. Swap out Greek yogurt with a non-dairy alternative for a completely vegan meal, and serve with rice.
- 2 (15oz/425g) cans of chickpeas, drained (17oz/480g total)
- 11 garlic cloves, peeled, 10 left whole and 1 minced
- 1 oz/30g fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
- 14 oz/400g datterini or regular cherry tomatoes
- 3 small Fresno chilis, mild or spicy, a slit cut down their length
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp cumin seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
- 2 tsp coriander seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp chili flakes
- 2 tsp red Kashmiri chili powder
- 1 tsp sugar
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp/200ml olive oil
- 2/3 cup/180g Greek yogurt
- 3/4 cup/15g mint leaves
- 1 1/2 cups/30g coriander, roughly chopped
- 2–3 limes: juiced to get 1 tbsp and the rest cut into wedges to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Put the chickpeas, whole garlic cloves, ginger, tomatoes, chilis, tomato paste, spices, sugar, oil, and 1 teaspoon of salt into a large, oven-safe sauté pan, for which you have a lid, and mix everything together to combine. Cover with the lid, transfer to the oven and cook for 75 minutes, stirring halfway through, until the aromatics have softened and the tomatoes have nicely broken down.
3. Meanwhile, put the yogurt, mint, cilantro, lime juice, minced garlic, and ¼ teaspoon of salt into a food processor and blitz until smooth and the herbs are finely chopped.
4. Serve the chickpeas directly from the bread, with the yogurt and lime wedges alongside.
Make it your own:
- Jarred or canned butter beans (lima beans) would be great here!
- Not Kashmiri chili powder? Use an equal amount of paprika instead.