Faithful readers will remember my late summer restaurant outings in London.  One that stood out was Ottolenghi; in fact, I managed to squeeze in two more visits to the Islington branch of the restaurant before I left London.  On one of these visits I saw the man himself, though he was sort of catering to a group of douchy investors that I was sitting next to.  Anyway, the restaurant is probably my favorite white-people place in London (this is the linguistic inverse “non-ethnic”).  Rows and levels of delicious looking food, with side counters filled with cupcakes and pastries.  The restaurant had a sense of abundance without decadence, probably because of all the colorful and varied vegetable dishes.  The restaurant isn’t vegetarian, but has a californian sensibility where an array of fresh vegetables takes priority.

So it makes sense that Yotam Ottolenghi is also the author of the The Guardian’s column The New Vegetarian.  Not being as consummate a foodie as my friend T, I had not heard of this blog before I went to the restaurant (or, more accurately, before T mentioned it on her blog).  Plenty is a collection of these vegetarian recipes, and I’ve been cooking from it since I received it three months ago.

The book itself is beautiful, and the first cookbook I’ve had that elaborates a particular culinary viewpoint, as opposed to being more general, catch-all resources (like Deborah Madison’s excellent Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone).  So I thought I should cook through a few of the recipes before I pronounce judgement.  I was of course predisposed to liking this book because of the aforementioned experiences with the restaurant and because it’s a very pretty book (also aforementioned)

Full color photos for just about every recipe, minimalist line drawings, plus an easy to read layout all make the book very appealing.  In fact, as I was cooking from it I left it on a side table instead of bringing it over to the countertop, fearful that I would spill on it.  Plenty is organized by type of thing: roots, onions, tomatoes, green things, pulses, etc.  It’s charming.

The style is ‘Mediterranean’; Ottolenghi and the restaurant’s other chef, Sami Tamimi, are Israeli and Palestinian respectively, which brings a diversity to the approach beyond Italian food (though Ottolenghi’s dad is Italian). (I guess this makes the food ‘ethnic,’ then, technically.  But seriously, have you been to Islington?  It’s like Los Feliz but with fewer tribly hats and sun dresses).  Things they like: generous amounts of olive oil, greek yogurt, flat leaf parsley, basil, thyme, cilantro, mint, lemon (dried, fresh, juice, zest), and goat cheese.  Everything is bright and colorful, and fairly simple.  I say fairly because there usually seems to be a step or two that add to the cooking time or make what would ordinarily be a a one pan-dish into something that requires three burners and an oven.  For example the recipe for the chickpea, tomato and fennel soup that I have sitting in my fridge at the moment calls for a spoon of fresh pesto to be added at the last moment.  Or there might be a couple ingredients that you don’t have on hand all the time, endive or currants or alfalfa sprouts, for example.  Despite these touches, you can still get a sense of how Ottolenghi approaches food and use ideas from a given recipe in a different context.

I started with the roots section, in particular the “roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes with caper vinaigrette.”  This is basically roasted vegetables with a dijon mustard/caper/maple syrup vinaigrette.  It was, as you can imagine, tart and sweet, the mustard and lemon juice playing well off the sweet potato and surprisingly sweet parsnips.  He adds cherry tomato, for seasonally-confusing reasons, but they work well.

Next up was the “jerusalem artichokes with manouri and basil oil.”  Manouri, he explains, is a kind of sheep’s cheese, and if you can’t get it, he advises you simply pick up some “halloumi or another softish, young sheep’s cheese.”  You see what I mean about the ingredients (or perhaps you don’t, in which case thanks for reading Ms. Garten).  Again, roasting is key here, but the sunchokes are roasted or almost oven-braised (?) in a lemony solution.  The basil oil is pesto without the nuts or cheese, and the whole thing is meant to be served with endive and the fried cheese, like a kind of salad.

One thing to watch out for in this book: the recipes were originally written in Euro-British, with their metrics and celsiuses and all that, and I think in some cases the transition was not so perfect.  I ended up overcooking the roasted vegetables a bit by leaving them in for too long and at too high a temperature.  Also – and I’m not sure if this is because of the translation from British or because of his style, sometimes he uses more of an ingredient than you think might be necessary.  Specifically olive oil.  The below recipe is a case in point.

I had been seeing a lot of praise on the internet for Ottolenghi’s “leek fritters,” I decided I had to try them.  And, indeed, they are brilliant.  To make them, you actually caramelize the leeks and then mix them in a bowl with a host of herbs and spices (parsley, ground coriander, cumin, tumeric, cinnamon, sugar, salt) and chile (and you can up the amount of chile used in all of these recipes).  Batter ingredients (egg, flour, baking powder, milk) are then added to this to form a mixture ready for frying.  Here though, it is possible, if not better, to use about a third of the amount of olive oil that the recipe requires, easy especially if you are cooking in a cast iron or non-stick (ew) pan.  They are served with a sauce made of greek yogurt, sour cream, lemon, olive oil, and plenty of herbs which is sort of like the book’s whole cooking approach in sauce form – creamy, tart, tangy, and fresh.  You sit down to eat these while reading something online and find that you actually have to look at your plate and be all like, ‘damn, I made that?’  It’s like compulsory slow-food, except after this moment of recognition you tend to eat the rest of them fairly quickly.  By ‘you’ I mean you.

As mentioned, once you get the idea of what he is doing you can move things around and improvise.  The yogurt sauce would go well with any fried vegetables (or meat), or added into an already tart quinoa, or served with raw carrots and bell peppers.

What else?  The book facilitated a wonderfully happy cat-warming party.  This involved a caprese salad with a couple of innovations – fennel seeds and a bit of oregano – served with fresh bread a la Deborah Madison.  Also a puff pastry tart with garlic caramelized with balsamic vinegar and both hard and soft goat’s cheese (which I found at the Hollywood farmer’s market; good luck if you don’t live by one of those).  The kicker for me was the “shakshuka,” a north African dish of onions, peppers, and tomato in a broth of various spices and herbs, most notably cumin and saffron.  Into this loveliness, you crack a few eggs, and they get  semi-fried and semi-poached and you eat it with the bread and it’s awesome.

But what recipe will I include here, insisting that you make it as soon as you can?  The “surprise tatin.”  This potato tart is composed in the following manner: cake pan, oil oil, line with parchment paper, spread caramel, stick on plenty of fresh oregano, add sliced cooked potato (or sweet potato), cram in home-dried cherry tomatoes and onions (which will caramelize in the oven), throw a good amount of goat cheese on top, roll out a puff pastry disc to fit on top, large enough to tuck in on the sides, and stick into the oven.  When I took it out of the oven I quickly but carefully flipped it over onto a plate and…surprise!  I audibly gasped when I saw what I had made: a beautiful, glistening, red-orange tart with jammy onions that looked and smelled incredible.  I’ve always thought good cookbooks make you surprise yourself.  By ‘always’ I mean for at least two years now.

So in review: this book as well as the restaurant and the people involved are very much my style of being.  The food is luxurious while also being healthy, laid-back, friendly, and welcoming.  On the surface there seems to be nothing too complicated going on here, and yet there are tons of little modifications and ideas that work really really well.  Moreover, after you cook from it for a while you feel that you could take some of the ideas and incorporate them into your daily cooking.  Now, I am definitely sure to pick up any number of fresh herbs every week from the farmers market, and always try to have some greek yogurt on hand (I add lemon to everything already, but that too).

And?: Yotam has a masters in comparative literature!  Genius.  I’m in love.

Surprise Tatin

Eh, I’m lazy.  This recipe can be found here.  Thank you, as always, The Denver Post.

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