It’s something quite different for me to review a cookbook on this blog, but I thought it’d make a nice change from standard literary novel reviews and it’s by a chef whose recipes I’m really enthusiastic about. Much like in Nigella Lawson’s books, Yotam Ottolenghi also writes engaging and intriguing text to accompany his recipes which convey his real passion for flavours and makes the story of food into a narrative you want to follow. Apart from reading and my massage work I’m quite a keen weekend cook and baker so I was thrilled to see Ottolenghi has a new cookbook titled “Plenty More.” From the need to find interesting new vegetarian recipes in order to produce a weekly column he does in the Guardian he “discover[ed] a whole range of cuisines, dishes and ingredients that make vegetables shine like any bright star.” Trips to foreign places like Lebanon, New Zealand and Japan have inspired many of the new recipes as has input from fellow dedicated colleagues who work in a series of arches which serve as the Ottolenghi bakery and testing kitchens. The book is divided into sections based on preparation methods (steamed, braised, grilled, fried, sweetened, etc.) These exclusively vegetarian recipes range from filling hearty meals to the lightest of soups and offer tempting new ways of wowing you with flavour.
I remember the first time I went to Ottolenghi’s restaurant in Islington for dinner. It’s such an inviting venue with meringues piled high and big bowls of delicious looking savoury dishes meeting you when you enter the door. It’s like entering the home of some generous Mamma who only wants to feed you. What could be more inviting?! The small dishes we shared, both hot and cold, were all excellent. Soon after this experience I bought Ottolenghi’s first cookbook and tried out some of his recipes myself. Both his first book which includes meat and veg recipes and his other book of vegetarian dishes “Plenty” have become firm favourites of mine. I’ve made many of his dishes multiple times with his ‘Couscous and Mograbiah with Oven-Dried Tomatoes’ being a particular favourite.
Since I mentioned this recipe, here comes a crucial point as I assume many US and UK home cooks don’t know what mograbiah is (as, indeed, I did not.) With some Ottolenghi recipes, you’ll find they include an unfamiliar ingredient. It’s important to note that many recipes are also centred around common ingredients like lemon and garlic where the more exotic ones can be often substituted with more standard ones. In the case of the above recipe, it calls for Labneh which I often just substitute with feta cheese. The internet has, of course, made many of these ingredients more accessible whereby you can order spices, pulses or kitchen gadgets from specialist or even mainstream shopping sites. Ottolenghi has his own online shop for special ingredients. Once you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses or a za’atar spice mix they keep in the cupboard for ages. I’ve made many excursions to Green Valley market near Marble Arch in London since cooking with this chef’s recipes, but I’m sure many home cooks don’t have as easy access to a Middle Eastern grocer. However, this is part of the fun for me: discovering new ingredients and making the act of cooking into a journey.
“Plenty More” does have plenty of new ingredients including pomelo, fregola, barberries, verjuice and black garlic. The influence of his time in Japan is evident in recipes which utilize ingredients such as soba noodles, edamame, enoki mushrooms, yuzu or Thai basil. In addition to some of the more exotic flavours he brings to his recipes, in this book Ottolenghi offers methods of preparing already familiar ingredients in a way that does the most justice to them. This includes blanching beets to keep their bite, frying brussels sprouts to maintain their texture, crushing carrots to make them into a hot spread, heating cooked pasta under the broiler to give it a crisp deliciousness, grilling lettuce to keep it’s colour, giving lemon a crisp tempura coating or okra a buttermilk crust, deep frying olives or baking French Toast before frying it to make it more warmingly flavourful. He extols how doing simple things like adding fresh lime or lemon to a salad makes it come more alive.
It’s interesting English ingredients are inveigling their way into many of Ottolenghi’s middle eastern style dishes. Cheddar stands prominently into a few dishes. Britain has come a long way from the days when Mr Fawlty looked incomprehensibly at his American dining patron who requested a Waldorf Salad. I love this kind of salad and Ottolenghi has created an updated version ‘Sort-of-Waldorf’ which combines the classic ingredients with cobnuts, dill, sour cherries and maple syrup. Many of us are now familiar with roasting root vegetables like carrots with maple syrup or honey, but Ottolenghi takes this a step further adding a welcoming tahini yogurt to this roast side dish. These flavour combinations are well known, but Ottolenghi’s ‘Pea and Mint Croquettes’ provide a refreshing change as they are packed with all the fresh vitamin goodness but also give you that decadently pleasurable fried crispness.
Colours are brought into fiery life in single-colour dishes like in his very red ‘Tomato and Pomegranate Salad,’ the gleaming yellow vibrancy of his ‘Alphonso Mango and Curried Chickpea Salad,’ the neon orange of his ‘Sweet Potatoes with Orange Bitters’ or the cool glory of his ‘Spring Salad’ which combines green vegetables with green leaves. Others stand out like a glorious rainbow in his simple and delicious recipe for ‘Tomato and Roast Lemon Salad.’ While some recipes have grown more complex with the addition of extra techniques or ingredients, it’s interesting how he offers some combinations in a pared down version to emphasize the star elements of the dish. This is true with his ‘Fig Salad’ which focuses on precision and simplicity. In another recipe he offers more complex flavours for a fig salad with the addition of oranges, cheese and a caramelising technique. Or he’ll show you how to take a simple ingredient like corn on the cob and brush it with miso mayonnaise. In another section, humble scrambled eggs are given a spicy kick. Some wild combinations of ingredients will make you do a double take like ‘Cauliflower, Grape, and Cheddar Salad,’ ‘Ricotta and Rosemary Bread Pudding,’ ‘Beet and Rhubarb Salad’ or ‘Halva Icecream.’ While these may prove stimulating for some greedy eaters, others may mark these mixtures as too experimental. But they may be worth the dare.
I have to admit that I haven’t come close to making most of the recipes in this book, but I feel that I’ve made enough to have an opinion about it and there are many I still want to make. I enjoyed trying out his ‘Dakos’ salad recipe which combines tomatoes, onions, herbs, spices and feta with crispy bread. This worked particularly well as an accompaniment to a barbeque I had. However, due to the nature of the rusk bread going soggy after being soaked overnight with the tomatoes I found this didn’t hold together as well for leftovers the next day. I made his ‘Stuffed Zucchini’ with its rich combination of spices and herbs. I think it makes an elegant and flavourful starter at a dinner party. On a weekday night I made his ‘Tagliatelle with Walnuts and Lemon’ which is utterly simple and stupendously delicious. When I was home alone it was excellent to make his ‘Eggplant with Black Garlic’ so I could enjoy the darkly rich flavour of the black garlic without worrying about assaulting anyone with my breath afterwards. As a bank holiday treat for breakfast I made his ‘Super French Toast’ which is luxuriously sweet. Last month I took a road trip around Spain and in Bilbao I had tomato and watermelon gazpacho. It’s a much more refreshing take on the normally thick soup which usually has a sharp kick of garlic. Ottolenghi is firmly on-trend with a recipe for this very combination in this book. I was thrilled to be able to reproduce it for the barbeque I had.
Ottolenghi’s recipes are so fresh and vibrant they make you excited to get back in the kitchen again. Whether it’s finding a new way to cook a familiar vegetable or experience the flavour sensation of a new ingredient, he’s created a range of dishes that have real style. I’m sure I’ll be returning to “Plenty More” frequently for inspiration.