Rethinking vegetables — Eastern Mediterranean by way of London
Rarely have I put as many page markers in a cookbook as I have in “Plenty More – Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghi,” the latest book from chef-author Yotam Ottolenghi. Pink stickies bristle from the top of my well-thumbed book, each signifying a dish I want to make.
My fascination with this book rests on several levels beyond the brilliant photographs and enticing recipes. First are the inventive twists on familiar themes, such as Eggplant Cheesecake and quiche made with Stilton and Membrillo (Quince paste) and second is the rich current of Eastern Mediterranean flavors and ingredients that runs through the book. And finally, I love the unusual and useful way in which the book is organized.
Each of the chapters, twelve in all, serves as a sophisticated primer of vegetable cooking techniques — think steamed, grilled, mashed, braised, and so forth. Not surprisingly, the vast assortment of vegetables covered in the book make multiple appearances as they are presented in different ways. Beets appear in the early pages of “Tossed” where they are used raw in an herb salad. In another chapter, “Blanched,” they are sliced paper-thin and blanched before being marinated and then layered with avocado, cilantro, mint, peas shoots and peas. In ‘Simmered’, Chioggia striped beets are gently simmered, then peeled and cut into wedges to become part of a lentil and yuzo citrus salad. Most exotically, beets appear in the ‘Smoked’ chapter in a rice dish that includes yogurt, caramelized macadamia nuts, and chili flakes.
You begin to see the pattern — take a vegetable, any vegetable — and Yotam Ottolenghi will show you multiple ways to cook it and use it in often surprising combinations. Since many of the dishes reflect the Eastern Mediterranean influence of his Israeli heritage and Jerusalem upbringing (his first book, ‘Jerusalem- A Cookbook’, co-authored with Sami Tammie, won the 2013 Best Book of the Year award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals) you may find you will need to expand your pantry to include pomegranate syrup, a range of nuts, various kinds of mustards seeds plus Za’atar, a spice mixture that includes oregano, sumac, cumin, sesame seeds, and above all, be prepared to use vast amounts of fresh herbs of every kind.
It seems I am not alone in my fascination with Ottolenghi. Elaine Corn, Reporter-at-Large, Capitol Radio and cookbook author, became so enamored of his work, she reverently refers to him as Yotam. Ann recently went to a dinner party that featured a multi-course dinner, each comprised of a dish from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook. “Everything was gorgeously presented — each course was a work of art,” Ann said. This is not too surprising because the dinner party was at the home of local Davis artist and ceramicist Susan Shelton, who loves intense flavor, high contrasting bright colors and unique presentations of food on dishes she designed and created.
Leah Garchik, long-time columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle titled her December 27, 2014 column, “Top Home-cooking Trend of 2014: Ottolenghi”. In it she refers to the popular trend of dinner parties featuring dishes from his books, calling the recipes ‘aspirational’, which I take to mean challenging, but doable and ultimately highly successful. A quick glance on the internet pops up more than a few references to “Ottolenghi Potluck” parties, which seems like a good idea.
Ottolenghi’s dishes achieve much of their vibrant flavor from multiple ingredients and multiple steps, and while not difficult, they can be time consuming. It makes sense to have different people cook various dishes and then all come together for the meal. That way, everyone gets to savor, say, 12 different dishes, while only being responsible for cooking one. I see it as similar to the sort of experience one might have going to an Ottolenghi delicatessen/cafe in London (there are three) and choosing a dozen or so different dishes to take home and serve up in a party spread.
Gail Feenstra, Food Systems Analyst at UC Davis, an ardent cook and food enthusiast, participated in just such a potluck. When I asked her about it, she said, “We called it the Jerusalem Potluck after one of the cookbooks. The riot of colors with all those vegetables was so appealing. We all agreed it was the best potluck we had ever had. The combination of good food, lovingly made, and great discussions with people that all love to cook and try new things was a winner. I’m ready to try more new recipes now.”
It appears that Yotam Ottolenghi not only presents us with a way of rethinking vegetables and discovering new tastes, but has also inspired a new wave of home-cooking enthusiasm. Can we go so far as to say his inspirational, slightly exotic recipes might be responsible for reviving old-fashioned, convivial potluck parties where everyone comes together over home-cooked food, this time around with an Eastern Mediterranean-by-way- of London twist?
With our local radicchio season coming to a close, I think this Ottolenghi dish adapted from his book “Plenty More — Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghi,” 10-Speed Press, 2014, gives it a grand farewell. It is signature Ottolenghi, loaded with fresh herbs, a mix of favors, something exotic, in this case Australian Manuka honey, and served warmish or at room temperature.
Lentils, Radicchio, and Walnuts with Manuka Honey
1 cup Puy (green) lentils
2 bay leaves
Scant 5 tablespoons manuka (or other strong-flavored honey such as Buckwheat or Chestnut)
¼ teaspoon chile flakes
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup walnut meats
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
½ head medium radicchio or 2 heads red Belgian endive
2 ounces pecorino fiore sardo or another mature sheep or goat cheese, shaved
2/3 cup basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 ½ cups dill leaves, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Place the lentils in a saucepan, cover with plenty of water, add the bay leaves, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until tender, Drain well and return to the pan.
While the lentils are cooking, prepare the walnuts. Put half the honey, the chile flakes, the turmeric and ½ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Mix well, adding just enough water to create a thick paste – about 1 teaspoon. Add the walnuts and stir until well coated. Spread the walnuts out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, stirring once, until golden and crunchy but still a little sticky. Remove from the oven and set aside, removing them from the parchment paper as soon as they are cool enough to touch.
Whisk together the vinegar, half the oil, the remaining honey, ¾ teaspoon salt and some black pepper until the honey dissolves. Stir into the lentils while they are still hot, then leave to cool down a little, discarding the bay leaves.
To cook the radicchio, pour the remaining oil into a sauté pan and place over high heat. Cut the radicchio into 8 long wedges and place the wedges in the hot oil. Cook them for about one minute on each side and transfer to a large bowl. Add the lentils, walnuts, pecorino and herbs. Stir gently and serve warmish or at room temperature. Serves four.
Ann M. Evans writes and draws in Davis, and watches over her beehives, chickens and garden. www.annmevans.com.
Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes and oversees her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic – an on-line store with kitchen and garden products in the French style. www.lavierustic.com
Together they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) Or reach them at email@example.com.