Monday, March 28, 2011

Cookbooks: Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

It’s possible that the reason Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty (Chronicle Books) was such a huge and instant hit when it was published in the UK last year is because, in many ways, it is the sort of book that can define an age. Chef and food writer, Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi, seems absolutely of his moment.

More than a decade ago Donna Hay introduced food so minimalist it seemed almost to prepare itself. By comparison, Ottolenghi seems the anti-Hay. It’s not that his food is complicated, exactly, as much as it is involved. Many recipes include multiple processes and long lists of ingredients. The food is healthful, flavorful and beautiful, but even just reading the book, you don’t get the idea that any of this will make itself.

That said, don’t think you need to be an expert level chef in order to take a run at Plenty. It would be helpful to know your way around a kitchen and to not be intimidated by semi-exotic ingredients. And if you are a vegetarian, so much the better because Plenty is a vegetarian cookbook, even if the chef himself is not.

The book comes partly from “The New Vegetarian” column Ottolenghi has been writing for the Guardian since 2006. Ottolenghi says the newspaper asked him because his London restaurant, Ottolenghi, had “become famous for what we did with vegetables and grains, for the freshness and originality of our salads, and it only made sense to ask me to share this with vegetarian readers.”

The 120 recipes in Plenty are organized by ingredients: Roots, Funny Onions, Mushrooms, Brassicas and so on. This makes for a surprisingly coherent cookbook. And it seems especially sensible in a book based on vegetable matter.

In the growing season, I find myself regularly faced with a surplus of wonderful things from my friends who garden and who know I enjoy the challenge of doing something interesting with the things they produce. Boxes of organic chard, zucchinis, beans and other things too lovely to consider wasting. At those times, Ottolenghi’s organization will make the most sense. With an armload of leeks and Ottolenghi’s book, I might make Leek Fritters, or Fried Leeks or I might even be inspired to toss some into a stunning Caramelized Garlic Tart.

Eggplant gets a complete examination and tomatoes have probably never had it so good, especially in Ottolenghi’s Tomato Party, a stunning salad designed to “make use of as many as possible of the infinite types of tomatoes that are available now.” Some are cooked a little, some a lot and some are raw and all are tossed with fregola and couscous. It’s actually quite a simple dish but mind-blowingly good.

Plenty is just as good as everyone has been saying it is. This is vegetarian food as you always dreamed you’d find it. But do prepare to roll up your sleeves. ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.



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