Sunday, 16 October 2011

Yotam Ottolenghi cooking course at Leith’s cookery school

Six months ago, with an alarm set, following a sleepless night, I sat with my phone to my ear, waiting on hold, hoping my call would be answered.  I was hopeful, at least I was in the queue this time; last time, many months earlier, I couldn’t get past the engaged tone. With such a small window of opportunity for this very popular course, I was over-the-moon when my call was answered and I was allotted a place on the Ottolenghi cooking course at Leith’s cookery school in West London.
Me and Yotam Ottolenghi!
Yotam Ottolenghi is one of my favourite chefs and a revolutionary in vegetarian cooking (although he does not just cook for vegetarians). I could go as far as to say that he was the inspiration for my re-found love of food. Ottolenghi helped me be more creative in the kitchen, using ingredients I hadn’t considered before and, finally, The Vegetarian was getting exciting meals full of unusual food combinations.

At last the day of the course arrived. Saturday morning was full of excitement as we 35 students sat in the canteen, eagerly awaiting the man himself. We all had questions for him, as he talked through the day’s menu. Time was passing quickly so Ottolenghi recommended we move into the classroom, start cooking and continue our questioning there.

Once in the large classroom, on tables of four and in teams of two, we started cooking our multiple dishes. We began by preparing the dessert – poached quince with star anise, blackberries and vanilla ice cream. 
Poached Quince
My cooking partner Peter and I then moved on to making the Baked Okra with Tomato and Preserved Lemon. Tomatoes are no longer in season so Ottolenghi recommended we add a touch of tomato puree and sugar to thicken and sweeten the sauce. He also advised us to avoid using the larger okra as these have more stimuli (chewy strands). 
Baked Okra with Tomato and Preserved Lemon
Next we filled a baking tray with chunks of aubergine for the Aubergine and Herbs dish; then we started frying the fennel for the Quinoa and Fennel Salad. 
Quinoa and Fennel Salad
Finally, we used a rolling pin to bash out the pomegranate seeds from their skin and gently fried the haloumi for the Warm Haloumi and Chicory with Pomegranate and Walnut dish.
Our Delicious Feast

At the end, we plated up the food and had a glass of wine to celebrate the delicious feast we had in front of us. At that moment, Ottolenghi walked past and he was so impressed with our styling he took a photo and tweeted it with the note: Georgia and Peter should be proud. 
We Were Proud!

I learnt a few tricks along the way from the many Leith’s staff dotted around the classroom. I was taught a clever technique for dissecting lime segments that added a kick to the Quinoa and Fennel Salad: Use a sharp knife to trim the top and tail, cut down the side to remove the skin and white pith and, over a bowl, remove the segments from the lime by slicing between the membranes.

I was also taught the French method chiffonade – the way to stop soft herbs such as basil and mint from bruising: Gently roll the herb and delicately slice it as opposed to chopping it.

The Leith's Classroom

Yotam Ottolenghi did his best to walk around the class and talk to each table but some tables grasped his attention more than others. This was disappointing, as I know how to cook his dishes and, more than anything, wanted to hear about his experiences and inspirations, and have a good ol’ pick of his brain.

The course would have benefitted from being a bit more intimate, with half the number of students, and Ottolenghi at the front talking us through each dish, allowing everyone to ask questions and all to hear his responses. Perhaps this would help Ottolenghi, too, as I imagine that, as he walked around, many conversations were repetitive.

Nonetheless, my love for Yotam Ottolenghi will continue to grow. His cool, laid-back personality and outstanding approach to cooking is likely to keep me inspired for many more years to come. Having used his vegetarian book 'Plenty' to pieces, I am excited with my new signed purchase of his first book – Ottolenghi, The Cookbook. 
Signed, Ottolenghi - The Cookbook

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