For her first report as our new London correspondent, Irene Kopitov files on one of the city’s new culinary landmarks: the multicultural, Mediterranean flavors coming from wonder chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
After nearly four months of living in London, one of the things that continues to amaze me is that in spite of being a massive global metropolis, there is a distinct, local feel to each of the city’s neighborhoods. A huge part of that is the incredible weekend markets everywhere you turn. Waking up early, tote bags and grocery lists in hand, hangover or no hangover, has become a highly anticipated Sunday ritual.
In the same vein, Yotam Ottolenghi’s low-key cafés that pop up throughout London celebrate the city’s market culture and have become a huge favorite. The Israeli-born and London-based chef focuses on simple, fresh, uncomplicated food infused with Mediterranean flavors. Sounds simple and run of the mill, but it’s anything but.
I live closest to the Islington location, a lovely, bright space teeming with gorgeous pastries, their signature oversized meringues, and endless platters of salads, all nearly overflowing with root veggies, grains, herbs, and spices of every kind. It’s hard not to be struck immediately with all the senses. Rustic, messy, and abundant, the food is beautifully presented and the whole environment so inviting.
But as wonderful as the café as, whether you’re grabbing brunch with the morning paper or a dinner of shared small plates capped off by a soothing mint tea, it’s the chef’s latest cookbook, Plenty, that has got me totally obsessed. Along with essentials like a bank card, cell phone, and Ottolenghi’s scarily overpriced but absolutely addictive housemade granola, I’m pretty sure the cookbook was one of my first purchases as soon as I arrived to London and it has been like a bible ever since.
First of all, I have it to thank for imparting me with the essential London farmers market glossary. Aubergine = eggplant; courgette = zucchini; coriander = cilantro and the list goes on…. I know, I’m still reeling from all this culture shock, but very grateful to have these pillars of Ottolenghi cooking now firmly planted in my culinary repertoire.
The book is filled with luscious full-page photographs and recipes that spotlight and celebrate a particular ingredient. I love that vegetables take center stage—these are not just side dishes, and many are hearty and complex enough to make up a main course on their own. This is not because Ottolenghi seeks to cater to vegetarians, but more because much of his cooking is market-driven and so original in its treatment of veggies.
One of my favorites is a caramelized fennel with goat’s curd (sometimes tough to find and can be substituted with a creamy, young, and fresh goat cheese). I used to despise the licorice flavor of fennel but over the years, it’s become one of my go-to ingredients. Delicately fresh in paper-thin slices over arugula and Parmesan salad, it’s also incredible when roasted, mellowing out and taking on a sweeter, milder flavor.
Caramelized Fennel with Goat Cheese
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 4 fennel bulbs
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (superfine sugar if available)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
- 1/2 cup goat cheese, coarsely crumbled
- 1 lemon, zested
Remove the leafy fronds and root ends from each fennel bulb, reserving 1 tablespoon’s worth of minced fronds for garnish. Cut the bulb into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick slices.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add half the sliced fennel in a single layer—don’t crowd every piece into the pan or the vegetables will steam instead of caramelizing.
Cook for about 2 minutes per side or until just browned. Remove and reserve on a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining butter, oil, and fennel slices.
Add the sugar, fennel seeds, and a pinch each of salt and pepper to the skillet. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, then add the fennel back to the pan and cook undisturbed for another 1-2 minutes to caramelize. Return to the plate to cool.
Gently mix the cooled fennel, garlic, and dill together. Pour onto a serving plate and top with the goat cheese, lemon zest, reserved fennel fronds, and an extra drizzle of your best olive oil.