Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: Plenty

I am always on the prowl for the latest and the greatest cookbook. Everyone has their preferences and I lean toward cookbooks that feature fresh ingredients, gourmet preparations and presentations, and an international flair.

I picked up Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi with these criteria in mind about a year ago when it was making the rounds as the hot new vegetarian cookbook. The author is originally from Israel and so of course middle eastern culture, ingredients, and technique heavily influence his repertoire. He owns a restaurant in London and for several years he wrote a column for The Guardian press on vegetarian cuisine. Pretty good for a chef who isn’t actually a vegetarian. He became well known for his creativity with fresh vegetables and the recipes laid out in Plenty are those that have appeared over the years in his Guardian column.

The cookbook itself is beautiful. The cover art (a shot of a row of roasted eggplants dressed with a yogurt pomegranate sauce) is appetizing and inviting and the book has a soft, thick, and durable cover. The recipes are organized according to main ingredient (a chapter on tomatoes for example) and there are many hand drawn illustrations throughout the book as well as full color photographs of prepared recipes.

Although the recipes are vegetarian, they are not vegan- eggs, yogurt, and cheese are featured frequently. For those who prefer not to exclude meat, I’m happy to advise that Ottolenghi’s recipes often provide an excellent base for meals to which meat can easily be included.

Things I have made from this cookbook:

  • Leek fritters

These were alright. Sautéed leeks and shallots, folded into an egg batter and fried. We dressed them with the suggested accompanying yogurt cilantro sauce and while I found them acceptable and would eat them again, I don’t get overly excited at the thought of them; they don’t make me drool with anticipation.

  • Chard and saffron omelets

This dish is a good way to get greens into your diet. A very thin omelet is prepared with a heavy handful of fresh herbs from the garden mixed in, then it’s stuff with cooked Swiss chard and sliced potatoes and drizzled with a light garlic yogurt sauce. It was pretty good, but the general audience I cooked it for asserted it would be even better with bacon crumbled into the filling.

  • Celeriac and lentils with hazelnut and mint

I thought this dish was very good, but again better suited as a side than a main entrée. You can’t really go wrong with hazelnuts! I’d definitely recommend this as a side to grilled lamb. That would be fabulous and the flavors would play off each other well.

  • Jerusalem artichokes with Manouri and basil oil

This recipe was difficult to source. I’ll save you some time and let you know than in most of the United States, Jerusalem artichokes (which don’t look like artichokes at all) are referred to as sunchokes and they’re actually a root vegetable. Finding them, and the Manouri cheese took trips to several different grocery stories before I lucked out (Wegman’s for the win!). As for the taste of the finished dish, again it was ok. It didn’t blow my socks off but it wasn’t terrible either.

Recommended with reservations

I guess I’m leading to a conclusion that, at least for me, the flavors expressed in Ottolenghi’s recipes are good (and good for you) but not strong enough to stand on their own. I plan to fall back on these recipes as side dishes for my non-vegetarian main entrees. I do have a number of other vegetarian cookbooks that feature recipes that are bold and spicy, or rich and deeply flavorful and those are the sorts of recipes that I can center a whole meal around. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book for vegetarians who won’t have meat to rely on to carry the meal. And of course this book is probably not for those who don’t a taste for middle eastern cuisine (lots and lots of yogurt, lemons, fresh herbs, olive oil).

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