Pantry roll call! Cinnamon? Check. Ground ginger? Check. Cayenne? Check. Sumac? Za’atar? Barberries? No, nope and nopety-nope?
You probably have the basics, and maybe a little basics-plus, covered in your pantry. But if you’ve ever wondered how to add a certain cheffiness to your dishes, it doesn’t necessarily require a culinary degree or a ton of expensive equipment. Sometimes all a dish needs is a sprinkle or drizzle of an ingredient that costs only a few dollars.
When it comes to injecting that kind of flavor, there may be no better teacher than Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef-owner of a family of London restaurants (Ottolenghi, Nopi, Rovi). He also just published his seventh cookbook, “Ottolenghi Simple,” which follows on the success of others including “Plenty,” “Plenty More” and “Jerusalem.”
The new book takes a (you guessed it) simpler, approach to cooking. “I’m quite famous for using a lot of ingredients,” Ottolenghi admits, but in “Simple,” each recipe has no more than 10. With fewer ingredients, powerful flavors are all the more important. For the book, the chef put together a list of key items that he encourages home cooks to add to their pantry.
Here are those 10 “Ottolenghi ingredients” from “Simple” — plus one bonus — that the chef relies on in the kitchen.
Barberries. Reminiscent of cranberries or currants, these have an even bolder sharp and sweet flavor. In “Simple,” they are a featured player in recipes for Iranian herb fritters and a salsa with tomato and orange. Ottolenghi suggests using them in salads, stews, egg dishes, rice and even desserts. “You put those in, and you get these kind of little surprises, jewels of sweetness and sour flavor.”
Black garlic. This is white garlic that has been fermented. Its flavor strengthens, but with a sweeter, almost licorice-like dimension. Use it in a beef or chicken marinade, barbecue sauce, risotto or on pizza. Ottolenghi likes to blend black garlic with yogurt as a sauce for eggplant.
Ground cardamom. Popular in Middle Eastern, Indian and Scandinavian cuisines, cardamom is a pod with small seeds inside. It’s highly aromatic with a sweet spiciness that hints at licorice. You can buy ground, but the flavor is not as potent as the pods or what you can grind yourself starting with the pods. If a recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom seeds, Ottolenghi writes, use 1/4 teaspoon ground. Use pods smashed open with a knife to infuse curries, soups and sauces. Or incorporate ground into snickerdoodles and other baked goods.
Harissa. Ottolenghi specifically loves rose harissa, a version of the North African chile paste that includes rose petals. It can be harder to come by in the United States, but you can make your own. Or just stick with regular harissa. “If anyone loves chile paste, this is really the one you want to get,” Ottolenghi says. It’s popular and ubiquitous these days, partially because it’s so versatile. Try it in pasta, roasted vegetables, eggs or on a grilled cheese — really, anywhere you want some heat.
Nigella seeds. Here’s the bonus material! While not part of the book pantry, these black seeds are a typical Ottolenghi ingredient. Nigella seeds (you may see them referred to as kalonji or black onion seeds) are ideal for “injecting dishes with intense savory notes,” the chef says. “They’re a bit bitter, but they make everything taste really special.” Just don’t overdo it. They add pops of flavor and color to a bright green salad. Try them in soups or stews, too.
Pomegranate molasses. This is another ingredient that falls into the sharp-and-sweet camp (sensing a pattern?). It’s syrupy, so it’s perfect to drizzle over meat or vegetables. You can mix it into marinades or salad dressings. “Simple” employs it in two lamb dishes — as a glaze on meatballs and mixed into ground meat for a stuffed sandwich made with tortillas.
Preserved lemon. Popular in Moroccan cuisine, it’s made by immersing lemons in a salty brine, which might also include sugar and spices. Naturally, it’s right at home in a tagine. Preserved lemon is great for cutting through rich or earthy dishes, such as eggs and beets, as in “Simple.” Ottolenghi includes the peel in salad dressings, too.
Sumac. Ground sumac is a deep red spice made from the dried and crushed berries of the sumac shrub. Ottolenghi calls it “sharp and beautiful,” and says it lends a citrusy flavor that is a wonderful counterpoint to something like sweet potato fries or roasted strawberries, both of which are in “Simple.” It is versatile enough to go with meat, vegetables and salads, on its own or mixed with oil. Ottolenghi includes a recipe in “Simple” for a yogurt sauce with sumac, olive oil and lemon juice.
Tahini. Made of ground sesame seeds, this paste — creamy with a bitter edge — has achieved near universal recognition. Ottolenghi recommends using it in dressings, spreading it on toast and spooning it on top of vanilla ice cream. In “Simple,” it finds its way into a lamb meatloaf sauce, a green sauce served with roasted vegetables, and a thin sauce with lemon juice and water over top of fish.
Urfa chile flakes. These are less spicy than the crushed red pepper flakes that you’re used to. While they’re sometimes treated with salt, the flavor is predominantly smoky, “almost chocolate-like,” Ottolenghi writes. He encourages you to try them with scrambled eggs, avocado toast or grilled cheese, and recipes from “Simple” also call for them to be sprinkled over roasted cherry tomatoes and on a lentil-and-eggplant stew.
Za’atar. This is both an herb and a spice blend that uses the herb. The blend is what Ottolenghi recommends. His preferred blend is just dried and ground za’atar leaves, sesame seeds, sumac and salt, although you can find versions with thyme or marjoram. Add it to oil for an easy bread dip. With or without oil, you can put it on top of hummus and other dips. Ditto for roasted vegetables, soups and salads.
If you’re game to try some or all of these ingredients, Ottolenghi believes in first testing them in a dish designed with them in mind. Then, once you understand the flavor, you can start to experiment (use a little at a time, since it’s always easier to add than take back).
“They all work in so many contexts,” he says.
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