As a recipe developer and Head of the Camden-based Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, Noor Murad knows how to make good food.
Her Instagram serves up endless #foodieinspo, and now Ottolenghi Test Kitchen’s latest cookbook, Shelf Love, is here to provide further cooking ideas and inspiration.
We caught up with Murad to raid her kitchen shelves, discuss her cooking philosophy, and learn how to whip up a wowing shakshuka (you can check out the recipe below).
How did you first get into cooking?
I come from a family of foodies and I’m pretty sure my first word must’ve been ‘food’. I got my first summer job working in a hotel kitchen when I was 16, and have been hooked on the kitchen hustle ever since.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
Sitting in the car with my dad, eating hot fried samosas out of oil-stained paper bags stuffed with spicy potatoes, mung beans, or melty cheese and burning our mouths in the process. Drinking sweet red tea (chai hamar, as we call it in Bahrain) out of a flask, on a family trip to the desert, our dog Max excited at his boundless freedom in the miles of sand ahead.
Who most influenced your cooking?
Not one particular person, but a number of individuals and the multiple environments I’ve lived in. I grew up in Bahrain and its cuisine is a unique mix of Arabic, Persian, and Indian flavours. Combine this with my mom’s Western cooking and having lived in New York and now London, there’s an inevitable East meets West flair to the foods that I cook.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
Food enjoyed in good company is what makes me the happiest. Beyond that, comforting foods that I grew up with, like brothy, lemony chickpeas and warm bread from the clay oven or my mom’s gratinated potatoes with buttery leeks.
Favourite cooking gadget?
The lemon squeezer!
Perhaps the first cookbook I ever really got stuck into was Anissa Helou’s Lebanese Cuisine. She has the best fattoush recipe ever and I think her books are like the bibles of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and culture. Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess is also one of my favourite baking books. And I’m slightly bias but I absolutely adore Jerusalem by Yotam and Sami (and that was the case well before I started working for the company!).
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
This is the hardest question! Maybe lemons? Or rice. Lemons because they lift every dish, and rice because it is my favourite carb.
Where are the best places to shop for produce in London?
I feel so lucky to live nearby the most amazing Turkish green grocer in North London called FAM. They have such a wonderful array of produce and the staff always greet you with the biggest smile.
How does travel influence your cooking?
I think it’s such a delight to discover another culture’s food when travelling, especially when you sometimes find it overlaps with your own culture. This in turn results in a deep dive into history and migration, and the forever evolving flavours of the world. Anytime I do get the opportunity to travel, I come away feeling super inspired and itching to get back into the kitchen.
Must-visit food cities include…
How do your surrounds influence the dining experience?
I think you have to be in an environment that makes you feel comfortable and at ease to truly enjoy a dining experience, be that the company you’re with, the music you might be vibing to or the cheerful crowd around you.
Where are your favourite places to dine in London?
We’re spoilt for choice in London but some of my favourites include Berenjak and Behesht for Iranian food, Barrafina for the most delicious pan con tomate, and Bocca di Lupo for the punchiest bagna cauda I’ve ever tasted.
What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
Tofu. Unfortunately, I love tofu but tofu doesn’t love me! When dining out I try to avoid it as much as possible.
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
I’m Middle Eastern, so, naturally, offering a buffet of foods to your guests is very much part of the culture – even if they’ve just popped by for coffee! But it’s also so much more than that; I truly believe that food shared with company tastes different (better), somehow. It slows you down, which in turn gives you a chance to truly appreciate what you’re eating and the whole experience elevates even the most simple of dishes. I think this can be reflected in my first book that I co-authored with Yotam, Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love as a lot of the dishes are ‘mezze’ style and are made to be scooped up with puffy pita breads (which there’s also a recipe for in the book!) and shared with loved ones.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
I always have jars of cooked butterbeans or chickpeas in my cupboards, and usually some sort of bread. I like to smoosh the beans with avocado, za’atar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil and then spoon it onto toasted bread. If I’ve got a tomato on hand I’ll grate it and spoon that on top, with some sort of hot sauce, more flaked salt and olive oil for good measure. Grating tomatoes is a technique so essential to my cooking, there’s even a whole write up about grating tomatoes in our new cookbook ‘Shelf Love’ and all the ways in which you incorporate it into your cooking!
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
It’s an odd one with cooking as it’s my job and, sometimes, when the pressure mounts it feels more stressful than therapeutic, especially when measuring every single thing and trying real hard not to mess up! It’s when I cook for loved ones, with no time frame and no measuring spoons or scales, with just some music in the background and that inherent knowledge that the dish needs a little stir, a tiny nudge, just a little more love: that’s when I fall back in love with cooking and it is indeed the most therapeutic thing to do.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
Stay true to you and that’s the best you that you can do! I feel as women we try so hard to meet these standards and expectations that we believe we should meet when in reality, we are enough. You, lovely lady, are enough.
Sweet Potato Shakshuka With Sriracha Butter And Pickled Onions
A far cry from a classic shakshuka, yes, but we’ve found that sweet potatoes provide just the right amount of moisture and heft to serve as a base for these eggs. Serve this vibrant dish as a weekend brunch; it sure looks the part.
1kg sweet potatoes (skin on and scrubbed clean)
1 small red onion (thinly sliced into rounds)
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp olive oil
150g mature cheddar (roughly grated)
3 garlic cloves (crushed)
1 tsp cumin seeds (roughly crushed with a pestle and mortar)
8 medium eggs
25g unsalted butter
¾ tbsp sriracha
2 tbsp picked fresh coriander leaves (with some stem attached)
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°C fan. Poke the sweet potatoes all over with a fork (about 8–10 times) and place them on a medium, parchment-lined baking tray. Bake for 45–50 minutes, or until cooked through and softened. Set aside to cool and turn the oven temperature down to 180°C fan.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together the onion, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and a pinch of salt and set aside to pickle.
Remove the cooked potato skins and tear them into roughly 4cm pieces. Transfer the potato flesh to a large bowl and set aside. Place the skins back on the baking tray and toss with 1 tablespoon of oil, 1⁄4 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Bake for 8 minutes, or until nicely coloured and starting to crisp up. Set aside to cool and crisp up further.
Use a fork to mash the potato flesh until smooth, then add the cheddar, garlic, cumin, another tablespoon of oil, the remaining tablespoon of lemon juice, one teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of pepper, and mix to combine.
Put the remaining tablespoon of oil into a large frying pan, for which you have a lid, and swirl around to coat the bottom. Spoon the mashed potato mixture into the pan, using your spoon to distribute it evenly. Place on a medium-high heat and leave to cook for about 7 minutes, for the bottom to start to colour. Turn the heat down to medium and use a spoon to make eight wells in the potato mixture, breaking an egg into each. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, cover with the lid and cook for 4–5 minutes, rotating the pan, or until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny.
While the eggs are cooking, put the butter and sriracha into a small saucepan on a medium heat and cook until the butter has melted, whisking constantly to emulsify. Remove the mixture from the heat before it starts to bubble – you don’t want it to split.
When ready, spoon the sriracha butter all over the eggs, then top with a good handful of the crispy potato skins, half the pickled onion and all the picked coriander leaves. Serve right away, with the rest of the potato skins and pickled onion to eat alongside.
Extracted from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury Press, £25). All photography by Elena Heatherwick.