Interview: Yotam Ottolenghi, Chef And Author Of 'Plenty More' Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi talks with Rachel Martin about the difference between supermarket hummus and Middle Eastern hummus and why he doesn't like to call his cookbooks "vegetarian."
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Chef Ottolenghi Makes The Case For 'Plenty More' Vegetables

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Chef Ottolenghi Makes The Case For 'Plenty More' Vegetables

Chef Ottolenghi Makes The Case For 'Plenty More' Vegetables

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When's the last time you cooked with sorrel leaves or nigella seeds? What about a marrow squash or verjuice, which I just learned is this special sauce common in Australia made from semi-ripe wine grapes. All these ingredients might sound exotic and complicated, and they are. But our next guest is here to convince you that you don't have to be a professional chef to use them. And in fact, they can turn your quotidian vegetable side dish into a thing of majesty. Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli chef and London restaurateur. His latest cookbook is called "Plenty More." He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Yotam.

YOTAM OTTOLENGHI: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this is the sequel to a previous book called "Plenty." This is called plenty more. What's new here?

OTTOLENGHI: There are many similarities between the two books. "Plenty" and "Plenty More" are both vegetable-based books. I don't like calling them vegetarian because for me, vegetarian rings of all sorts of things that I think these books are not.

MARTIN: Like what? Like, what's the baggage that comes with that term?

OTTOLENGHI: The difficulty with vegetarianism, I find, is that it's very exclusive. It means, like, I never look at meat or fish in my life. I grew up in Jerusalem in the Middle East. And in various parts of the Middle East and Asia, the diet is very plant-based and doesn't include lots of meat in it. Made is more special. You add a little bit of it or you don't use it at all. And that attitude, I think, is a very healthy attitude to eating. It's not about denying yourself of something completely. It's about celebrating the wonderful world of vegetables.

And another crucial thing that I think distinguishes "Plenty More" from "Plenty" is the fact that I'm trying to concentrate on the cooking techniques of vegetables. I think people's imaginations, when it comes to vegetables, focus often on one or two cooking techniques...

MARTIN: Yes.

OTTOLENGHI: ...More often than not, it's boiling. You know, you simmer your vegetables, and then maybe you dress them, and that's about it.

MARTIN: Or I've really gotten into roasting, which is - it's delicious, but limited.

OTTOLENGHI: Yes. You're already one step ahead of the game.

MARTIN: Oh, great.

OTTOLENGHI: Roasting is the next stop. But I think there's lots of other things you can do. You can eat them raw like cabbages and turnips and cauliflowers. You can eat them raw in slaws. You can fry them. You can chart grill them, which gives them a wonderful smoky aroma, or you can steam them. You can braise them, which is cooking with a little bit of liquid, but not a lot. So there's tons of ways of cooking vegetables. And each cooking technique has particular results.

MARTIN: Something else I really appreciate about your book - it is unapologetic in a way. This is not a cookbook that says here are five different things you can cook with the stuff that's in your pantry. You say there is value in going out and searching for that special ingredient to take your vegetables to the next level.

OTTOLENGHI: Yes. This has always been important to me. And now it's actually part of my brand - the word that I don't like to use. But I think people that see my name on a recipe book expect to be surprised and expect to be informed about the next big ingredient. And it doesn't need to be expensive, but they do require you to go - maybe go out of your way to an ethnic shop, to maybe a Middle Eastern supermarket or an Asian supermarket and go and buy them. But they do add a lot of extra interest to your food. And if you do want that little edge, that little flavor or taste that you haven't had before, then it is an effort worth taking. But having said that, don't stress out if you see a recipe that has an ingredient that you don't know. Often, I think you can leave it out or there's easy substitutes. And you'll be fine.

MARTIN: Let's get back into the book and walk through a couple more recipes. Peas with sorrel and mustard. This looks delicious, but this is actually a recipe that almost didn't make it in the book.

OTTOLENGHI: (Laughter). Yes, I mean, sorrel is literally a weed. It used to be much more common in French cookery. It's got a very, very, very sharp edge. It's like sharper than - almost than vinegar. But it also has a grassy note. So when you take the leaves and you pulverize them or blitz them together into a sauce, you get this wonderful, green pesto-like sauce that has an extreme acidity. And it's just wonderful. It's - I can't really explain how wonderful and delicious it is.

Then I add it to salad, to meat dishes, to fish. And in this particular case, I mix it with peas with a bit of mustard. And I can't remember if it's sour cream or yogurt; one of the two. And it just brings the peas to life. All of a sudden the sweetness of the peas has that acidity of the sorrel. And it is one of the most delicious recipes. And I only made it because we loved it so much. It was almost - it was late in the day where all the book was almost done and finalized when I was trying this recipe, and I thought it has to get into the book because it's so special.

MARTIN: There are all kind of Mediterranean flavors in this book. And a lot of the recipes are quite exotic. One that stood out to me is something that wasn't so much that it was something you could make up on a Tuesday night for no good reason - is the crushed - I never say this right - puy lentils.

OTTOLENGHI: Yeah. Puy lentils. Yeah. That's fine.

MARTIN: With tahini and cumin.

OTTOLENGHI: Yes.

MARTIN: Which are delicious ingredients. This just sounds like good comfort food.

OTTOLENGHI: Yes, it is great comfort food. It's inspired by hummus, but not the hummus that you buy in a tub in a supermarket. That's hummus as we eat it in Jerusalem.

MARTIN: Explain the difference.

OTTOLENGHI: And around the Middle East - well, it's a night and day kind of different. When you buy a tub of cold hummus from the supermarket, normally it's slightly cold, it could be a bit bland, and it's very uniform. The hummus that we have in Jerusalem is extremely popular around midday or late morning where it's a brunch dish served warm in a big plate with all kind of condiments - raw onion, lots of olive oil drizzled on top, some lemon juice, hard-boiled egg. And it's a whole meal. It's a luscious, wonderful, warm meal that really is, until you had it, you kind of don't know what you're missing. And in this particular dish, it's a kind of a lentil version where I add tahini paste. I also add a raw onion, some egg. And it's the antithesis to the old lentil image of something extremely healthy but pretty bland.

MARTIN: Do you think you'll ever go back to focusing on meat, or has the world of vegetable so captured your imagination that there's no returning?

OTTOLENGHI: I never quite know what my next step will be. So I mean, I love cooking meat. And I publish recipes for meat. But a whole book, I'm not sure I've got one in me. But I don't write vegetarian cookbooks out of ideology. I write vegetarian cookbooks just because I like vegetables so much. So I do what I feel very passionately about so I think maybe a pastry book is in offering - it's something that might happen. A meat book is not quite - I'm not quite ready for that yet.

MARTIN: It is a beautiful book. And they are some really lovely recipes. Yotam Ottolenghi, his newest cook book is called "Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking From London's Ottolenghi." Thanks so much for talking with us, Yotam.

OTTOLENGHI: Thank you very much, Rachel.

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