If there's one chef in England whose name keeps springing up on food blogs, it's Yoram Ottolenghi. A Jew who was born and raised in Jerusalem to a German mother and an Italian father, his food bears a decidedly middle Eastern influence, and a broader Mediterranean one as well. He moved to London in 1997, ostensibly to study for a doctorate degree, but got sidelined along the way to study at Le Cordon Bleu instead. A business partnership with Sami Tamini, a Palestinian also raised in Jerusalem, led to the opening of four shops in London, one of which I had to check out on my recent visit. My friend Mariana and I went to the Islington location, the only one of the Ottolenghi shops that has an area where diners can actually be seated.
Still, we decided to choose take-out from the bountiful offerings available and transport our booty home to eat in the comfort of Mariana and Carlo's living room -- much easier than keeping four little ones happy in hard plastic chairs in a cramped seating area.
We got something to please all appetites - the children's less adventuresome palates were happy with the tender beef filet and potatoes, while the adults marveled at the range of flavors in the vegetarian dishes - winter slaw, eggplants with turmeric yogurt, cauliflower and lentil salads, and a melange of snow peas, asparagus and water cress -- oh and foccaccia too, plus a delicious selection of desserts I forgot to photograph in the frenzy of eating.
Having flipped through his two cookbooks, Ottolenghi and Plenty, and now eaten his food, it's apparent that Ottolenghi loves to give herbs and spices a starring role, including ones that may be unfamiliar to most Americans, like zatar and sumac. Back at home, I knew I had to try to cook some of the bold and flavorful dishes I had eaten. Italian food is my first love, but I do step out to other cuisines too. I chose to recreate a hybrid version between the eggplant dish I had eaten from the restaurant, and an eggplant recipe in one of his cookbooks. Although I tucked a small jar of that sumac in my suitcase, you won't need any esoteric spices for this recipe, but what you'll still achieve is a new and fresh flavor sensation that's a far cry (at least for me) from the food I've been eating all my life.
2 medium to large eggplants
olive oil to brush on the eggplant
1 small container (6 oz) Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. mustard seeds
1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
salt, pepper to taste
toasted pine nuts
I peel eggplant "stripes" leaving on some of the skin. Cut into 1/4 inch slices and grill, brushing each slice of eggplant with some olive oil. If you don't have a grill, place the eggplant slices on a cookie sheet that's been greased with olive oil. Brush the top side of the eggplant slices with oil. Roast in a 400 degree oven until cooked through and golden, flipping once.
Let the eggplant slices cool, and arrange on a platter. To make the sauce, grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle - or if you have a small electric coffee grinder, use that. Mix all ingredients together except the last three. Spread the sauce over the eggplant, then sprinkle on pine nuts that you've toasted a little to give some color, and some pomegranate seeds. Top with some cilantro leaves. Serve at room temperature.