The cookbook is a lamentably underrated read. Curled up in bed languorously browsing recipes is a perfectly restful way to unwind following a hectic day. The choice of cookbook is paramount, however, to this exercise. One does not simply curl up with Leiths Cookery Bible, for the genuine Bible makes for more entertaining reading. Nor does one curl up with The Student’s Sausage, Eggs and Beans Cookbook, for reasons that should be more than apparent.
Rather, what we seek is something more luxurious; it must not only be a pleasure to read, but the recipes must be both possible and affordable. Not for everyday cooking, you understand, but for when we want to cook to impress we don’t want to have to survive on supermarket value digestive biscuits for the rest of the week. For these reasons Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi, is one of the better cookbooks one might acquire.
Yotam Ottolenghi hails from Israel, and his co-author Sami Tamimi is Palestinian, thus Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking heavily influences their recipes. What makes this book exciting is that they have not simply re-jigged some staple classics and published them, rather they have drawn upon the myriad ingredients of these regions to create some extraordinary recipes of their own.
These recipes create dishes with bold colours and marvellous flavours, dishes that subvert what we expect from certain ingredients. From ‘Grilled mackerel with green olive, celery and raisin salsa’ to ‘French beans and mangetout with hazelnut and orange,’ we find ourselves pairing ingredients that are not intuitive companions, only to discover that they make excellent bedfellows. Refreshingly, Ottolenghi expresses an awareness that not everyone has access to particularly obscure ingredients — there here is no need to find fresh chao kuo fruits from China, for instance.
An overlooked but nonetheless important feature of cookbooks is their layout. Ottolenghi’s layout is pleasantly simple: there is a section each for vegetable dishes (many of which are vegan friendly), meat and fish dishes, and baking. Each section composes one third of the book, and there is an enjoyable symmetry about this. The baking section contains the best collection of baked goods recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. From ‘Pistachio and ginger biscotti’ to ‘Pear and Amaretto crumble cake’, each recipe will have you cooing at the mere thought of it.
It is worth mentioning the photography at this stage. I’m a firm believer that cookbooks should be about food, but pictures can work wonders in bringing recipes to life. However, food is notoriously difficult to capture in a way that makes it look appealing. This is unequivocally not the case in Ottolenghi, where the photography is gorgeous. Like the food it is clean, bold and bright.
If I have one quibble with Ottolenghi, it is that some of the recipes do seem like innovation for innovation’s sake. This is minor, however, and the point of the book is to challenge conventional cooking in a ‘why don’t you try this yourself?’ kind of way – as opposed to a Heston Blumenthal ‘you need a professional laboratory to make this’ kind of way.
It isn’t just me who thinks Ottolenghi is a tour de force, Nigel Slater – my personal hero – describes it thus: “This is simply wonderful cooking…modern, smart and thoughtful. I love it.” As far as I’m concerned, there is no higher praise.
Ottolenghi's The Cookbook is available for £15 from Waterstones.