Speaking to Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad on a sunny autumnal morning is as delightful as it sounds. When the pair sign on to our Zoom call, I immediately spot that the Simple chef has come dressed for the occasion, with a pink and red top that perfectly matches the cover art for Shelf Love, the cookbook we’re here to talk about. Rather than launching into a discussion about his excellent fashion choices, though (that’s a conversation for another time) we delve into all things cooking, comfort food, and – of course – chickpeas.
Born from the Willy Wonka factory for foodies that is the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (or OTK for short), Shelf Love is co-authored by Ottolenghi, an award winning chef and writer of several bestselling cookbooks, and Murad, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and head of the Ottolenghi team. It’s the first in a new series of books from the OTK, designed for passionate, busy home cooks who are looking for flavour-packed but accessible recipes.
Shelf Love marks a clear shift in style for Ottolenghi. Gone are the days of prescriptive recipes and oh-my-god-it’s-two-pages-long ingredient lists. In this book, readers are offered a regular ingredients list plus a rundown of simple, tried-and-tested substitutions direct from the OTK. Whichever you go for, the recipe still promises Ottolenghi’s signature bright colours and rich tastes. It's "modesty doing fireworks," he explains.
That is not an overstatement. Some recipes have already garnered huge Instagram fame despite their humble origins, most notably the confit tandoori chickpeas. “It was very much ‘grab a couple of tins of chickpeas, add spices, stick it in the oven’ and it became a real wow dish,” says Murad.
Published in September, Shelf Love couldn’t have come at a better time. With cold, dark months stretching ahead, the new book is filled with clever twists on cosy dishes. Take the sweet spiced mushroom and rice pilaf, which Ottolenghi says is “the signature dish for the whole book.” This recipe is a combination of all that’s good in winter, with warming spices, earthy mushrooms, hot chillies, and plump apricots. Take it from me, you’ll want to cook this in the coming months.
And what are the other go-to dishes Ottolenghi and Murad turn to when they’re in need of a bit of a pick-me-up, I ask? What defines comfort food for them?
“When I think about comfort food, I think about the baked pasta dishes we used to have growing up,” Ottolenghi says. “To this day, I feel at home – and like I create a little piece of home wherever I am – whenever I cook dishes like that.”
As for Murad, comfort food “is anything warming.” She goes on to explain, “I like broths, sauces and rice dishes that taste like home. Coming from Bahrain, I draw a lot of inspiration from Persian, Indian, and Middle Eastern flavours, but thanks to my English mum, I also grew up eating spag bol and shepherd’s pie.”
Going back to Shelf Love, though, I ask the two chefs what the inspiration was behind a store-cupboard-led recipe book. Unsurprisingly, the answer is all to do with lockdown.
“It was a time – the first time, for many of us – when getting ingredients was a challenge and we had to think creatively and adapt,” Ottoleghi says.
With the OTK team dispersed around the world during lockdown, they found solace in cooking virtually together and connecting with their Instagram community, too. “People were making our recipes and asking about substitute ingredients, and we realised we had to make them a lot more flexible,” Murad says. “We wanted to make people feel confident about making their own swaps and we realised it gave people ownership over the recipes.”
What began on Instagram soon moved to Youtube, however, and the OTK team now post regularly on their own, dedicated channel.
With 2022 just around the corner, the OTK team shows no signs of slowing down. Shelf Love will be followed by Stock It Up next year, a book dedicated to reinventing familiar dishes and building cupboard, fridge, and freezer staples to help you get ahead in the kitchen. I just can’t wait to see the shirt that’ll match it.