Can we learn a new skill in a week? For our MasterClass challenge, Marjie decided to learn how to play the ukulele and I took Yotam Ottolenghi Teaches Modern Middle Eastern Cooking. How’d we do?
If you’ve been to London in the last decade and enjoyed a meal that wasn’t at all stodgy, but was filled with the fresh flavors of the Middle East, then you owe Yotam Ottolenghi a thanks. His influence on the London eating scene has been profound, with four Ottolenghi restaurants, a slightly more formal place called Nopi, plus nine cookbooks and a regular column in The Guardian.
I own four of his cookbooks, but the joke in our house is that I’d rather fly to London and to eat at one of his restaurants instead of tackling one of his intricate recipes. (And I’m someone who loves to cook!) Flying to London isn’t an option right now (sigh!), so I decided to give the MasterClass with Ottolenghi a whirl and see if I could overcome my hesitation to cook food I love to eat. The multiple lessons focus on producing spreads—mezze, brunch and vegetable—plus a few entrees, sauces and homemade condiments.
To get the most out of the classes, I followed the videos closely and took notes on the supplemental PDFs with the complete recipes. Seeing how Ottolenghi toasts spices until there are wisps of smoke made me realize that I under toast my spices. He also liberally uses olive oil (unmeasured!) to get hummus and muhammara to the correct consistency.
His technique is important, but so is his attitude. Ottolenghi strongly advocates making dishes again and again before trying them out for company, which was a ‘duh’ moment for me, since I’ve often worked myself into a knot trying something for the first time and hitting a problem minutes before guests arrive. “Forget the anxiety of trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says, talking about a dinner party. “It’s totally OK to do something you’ve done before.
I’m currently in Bermuda in a rental house that we chose for its ocean view, but not for its stocked kitchen. Two problems: no food processor, which Ottolenghi uses frequently, and limited ingredients between the two walkable stores: Wadson’s farm market (fresh produce and meats) and MaxiMart, which is like a neighborhood bodega. There’s no chance I’m getting cumin, coriander or sumac, so I chose a recipe Ottolenghi published in The Guardian: Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemons and New Potatoes with Peas and Cilantro. The preserved lemons were not available, but in his MasterClass, he makes a lemon paste that is an excellent substitute. It requires a food processor, but I figured I could fudge it with a blender.
I cooked the Ottolenghi dinner for my husband and his parents on their next-to-last night with us. (Before flying back to New York for their vaccines!) My mother-in-law loves chicken and these recipes weren’t at all spicy, so it was right in their wheelhouse. I got the chicken from Wadson’s (you can see the chickens running around in the fields as you walk up to the farm stand) as well as the new potatoes. The peas, I figured I could get at MaxiMart, which ended up being a problem as the freezers were broken, but the store’s manager hunted in the back and found a bag for me.
Everything was delish! The lemon paste was a little lumpy since I didn’t have a microplane to grate the lemon zest (just a paring knife) and the blender was only so-so as a food processor substitute. But ignoring those small issues, I’d say it was a success. Once home, I’ll definitely make some of his spicier menus with the correct ingredients and equipment.
MasterClass is worth it if you find multiple classes you’re interested in taking (and look for a two-for-one special and split the $180 fee with a friend). Will you be ready to jump on the line at Nopi after one go-round with Ottolenghi’s MasterClass? Not quite, but the combination of technique, tips and positive attitude will make you feel like it’s in the realm of possibility. I’m going to take Dominique Ansel’s French Pastry Fundamentals once I get back to my home kitchen. Cronuts, anyone?