Food with a Slice of History

Cooking with Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi (Image by Penwhisk)

Complicated is my relationship with Yotam Ottolenghi, the eminent Israeli-British chef, owner of notable culinary establishments in London and author of award-winning cookbooks.  Ottolenghi and I have never met and we appear to be at very different stages in life.  Currently, I am a stay-at-home mom and house-wife, an occupation, which, going by the look on the faces of those with whom I share this piece of information, makes me neither capable nor accomplished.  I have won no awards as a stay-at-home mom.  (This is fortunate, for I associate such distinctions with the Mother’s Cross of Honor, given to women in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.)  Nonetheless, there are some things that Ottolenghi and I have in common.  Firstly, both of us hold advanced degrees in Comparative Literature — he a M.A. and I, a Ph.D.  Plenty More is the second thing we share.  He wrote it and I must have used it cooking at least 150 times in the past year. 

When my closest and much-cherished friend gave me Plenty More two Christmases ago, I had no clue that I would use the recipes from this cookbook on a routine basis to plan my family’s daily meals.  Neither did I suspect that the Slow Cooked Chickpeas on Toast would become a must-have dish on our holiday menu, which now we all crave and hold dear.  After unwrapping my friend’s gift, I looked through the resplendent photography and put the book away.  I already had Ottolenghi’s award-winning Jerusalem cookbook, which is as much of a visual feast as Plenty More, and had an inkling that such cookbooks were not for me to use.  While prior to becoming a mom I had enjoyed preparing complex dishes, such as vegetarian pâtés and breads that required multiple rising times and hours of kneading, now that I had little ones, my family’s diet consisted of frozen vegetables, rice, pasta and meatless sausages.  Jerusalem and Plenty More, much like my former life as an academic, belonged to a stage in my life that had quickly become a distant and somewhat foggy memory.  As a fairly new mother, I imagined that I could open these cookbooks on the rare occasions when I was not completely worn out in the evening to indulge in the beautiful photography and dream about what I could do should I miraculously have more energy and time.  Yet,  I ended up browsing through Plenty More way more often than I had expected.  Surprisingly, in the first year of owning it, Ottolenghi’s cookbook helped me cope with my growing sense of social isolation.

As a stay-at-home mom, I often found myself avoided and dropped out of conversations, despite my assumptions that I would be able to connect with other parents of little children. Whenever I opened my mouth to talk to another parent at the playground or the Children’s Museum, I would be met with mistrust.  Strangers were wary of my pronounced accent, even though they could easily understand what I was saying.   The sleepless nights we all endured, as well as the similar challenges we faced as new parents offered no shared ground for us to connect.  My accented English marked me as clueless, incapable, and ignorant: or, in other words, someone with whom strangers didn’t believe to have much in common.  After a while I realized that for many of the people I ran into my ability to speak multiple languages, with English clearly not being my first language, was a handicap rather than an asset.   The worst was when I would say that I had been in the US for twenty years and the response would be, “And you still have an accent? Really?!” Experiencing all of this was frustrating and very much at odds with my beliefs about open-mindedness and worldliness.

One night after my kids’ bedtime, I was mulling over the injustice of passing a negative judgment on someone based on their accent and simultaneously trying to distract myself by looking through Plenty More.  All of a sudden, it dawned on me that Ottolenghi was in a same-gender relationship.  I was struck by the idea that much like the strangers who couldn’t image what it was like to live with an accent in a mostly accent-free English speaking world, I myself hadn’t even tried to understand what it must be like to have a partner of the same gender in a world that was mostly built around opposite-gender relationships.

Not really sure what to do with my unexpected realization, I turned to the notes preceding each recipe to look for clues about Ottolenghi’s personality.  Reading through them I was quickly won over by his sense of humor.  Further, I let myself imagine someone who was accessible and humble.  Both Ottolenghi and I shared a common appreciation of good story-tellers (he liked Claudia Roden and Ruth Reichel, while I was a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro and Zadie Smith).  As children, we had craved the same comfort foods — corn and cauliflower (Ottolenghi liked his deep-fried, while I preferred mine pickled in vinegar).  On the one hand, Ottolenghi received his culinary training at Cordon Bleu.  However, his career as a chef has been shaped by his on-going efforts to work against the limits of his classical French education.  On the other hand, I see myself as someone who questions conventions and pushes against established limits (please don’t tell my children :).  That night, I went to bed with the sense of satisfaction I would normally have after spending time in congenial, like-minded company.

A few months later, when my birthday came around, I let myself believe that Ottolenghi had created his Apricot, Walnut, and Lavender Cake especially for me.  This recipe appeared to be perfect to celebrate my special day.  As a child, apricots were my favorite fruit and I often went to the market with my grandmother to buy some. (For more about my grandmother, you can read here.)  My academic mother, who didn’t appreciate cooking as much as my grandmother, made walnut cake for our birthdays.  I cherished the rare occasions on which I helped her bake walnut cake in our kitchen back home in Bulgaria (more about this here).  Lavender reminded me of my trip to the Provence, while I was working on my dissertation during a research stay in Paris.  Finally, Ottolenghi’s recipe was easy to adjust for my gluten-free diet at the time.  Once I made the apricot cake without the lavender (I forgot to put it on my shopping list and returned without it from the store), other dishes from Plenty More started appearing on our table.  I found out that the wide variety of beans and lentils Ottolenghi used in his dishes were an easy substitute for the vegetarian sausages, rice, and frozen vegetables that my family was sick of eating.  Whenever I was in a bind, he always seemed to have a solution for me.  How could the Israeli-British chef in a same-gender relationship so perfectly know what my opposite-gender family needed?  Some of his recipes required multiple steps but I was successful at saving time through modifying them.

However, when it came to the Slow Cooked Chickpeas on Toast I trusted Ottolenghi’s advice and let the beans simmer for the entire five hours he recommended.  I simply found it impossible not take his word for it.  By now he and I had become kindred spirits!  I have already cooked this dish more than a few times.  The delectable result along with the effort it requires makes it a perfect addition to our holiday menu.  Whenever I eat the Slow Cooked Chickpeas on Toast with my family, I feel at home, content and accepted.  When I travel back to Bulgaria where I was born, Bulgarians frown at my Bulgarian accent much like strangers in the USA do.  The way I sound both in English and Bulgarian is not a matter of an accent though.  It has to do with some minuscule physiological defect which makes me sound foreign in whatever language I speak.  Now when a stranger makes an unfriendly remark about my accent, I smile and think of Ottolenghi.  I consider the USA to be my home.  Here I completed my education by defending my dissertation.  Here I am raising my family, as well as cooking for them.




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1 Comment

  1. Carmetrus Parker

    I connected with this story so much as I too often feel isolated and overlooked. I’m intrigued by your description of Ottolenghi’s recipes and plan to peruse a copy of Plenty More. I’m thankful for connecting with you over our laptops at Treetops 🙂

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