Ottolenghi's New Vegetarian Cookbook Packs Plenty More Mideast Punch

With a fourth bestseller in the stores, London-based chef tells Haaretz: Israeli cuisine inspires my recipes and my presentation.

After much anticipation, Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi (Ten Speed Press) finally came out last month. It’s a sequel to Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2011) which was crowned “vegetarian cookbook of the decade” by the Washington Post and is the London-based Israeli chef’s fourth best-seller, judging by its ranking on Amazon.com.

As with all his former books, Plenty More has a strong Middle Eastern and Mediterranean emphasis, with recipes such as crushed puy lentils with tahini and cumin; fennel with capers and olives; zucchini babaganoush and eggplants with crushed chickpeas and herb yogurt, to name just a few. But this time Ottolenghi draws inspiration from other cuisines - namely Iranian, Asians and Indian - and by doing so, he masterfully broadens his readers’ palate.

Still, there is something very Israeli in anything Ottolenghi does.

“It’s a huge influence on the way I cook: everything I do is book-ended by my background,” Ottolenghi told me in a recent email interview. “It’s also a big influence on the way I like to eat and the way I like to present food. I always prefer a table full of lots of different dishes to try and share, rather than one main dish with just one or two little sides, and this is very much in line with the typical Israeli and Palestinian mezze style.” The Israeli influence, he added, goes beyond the dishes themselves.

“Presentation-wise as well, there is something about the presentation of food in the markets in Israel which is always behind Sami [Sami Tamimi, who co-author two of Ottolenghi previous books] and my presentation of food in the Ottolenghi shops: Platters piled high with food, a sense of bounty yet precision both at the same time.”

For me, Ottolenghi (who, BTW, used to work at Haaretz’s news desk before moving to London in 1997. Respect!) is an Israeli chef in the good sense of the term. First and foremost, there’s his use of fresh produce, and plenty of it. Giving vegetables and fruit the center stage, not limiting them to side dishes. Coming from a region where fresh produce is, well, plenty, not to mention flavorful and cheap, and where meat is expensive, this is natural.

Then there’s the Israeli style of breaking with traditions and not sticking to any rules determining what goes with what. This style may or may not be a product of a small country trying to break free from traditions in many other aspects of life, but in any case, it definitely creates an exciting culinary attitude. You do not see much of that attitude in other Mediterranean countries, European or Arab, that tend to be more traditionalist when it comes to their food.

Like Ottolenghi’s previous books, Plenty More provides a tempting collection of colorful, fresh and inventive vegetarian recipes. The book is categorized by cooking methods such as tossed, braised, grilled, fried, mashed and cracked (with eggs), all used to differently highlight the flavors of the fresh produce Ottolenghi uses. The new emphasis on Asian cuisine may be the most unexpected aspect of his new book, but this is for sure not the only one playing a role in the recipes.

“I love Asian food and I’m cooking with huge amounts of Asian ingredients these days,” he said. “Miso paste, pandan leaves, tamarind pulp, kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, but I’m also wedded to lots of other cuisines as well: North African, Iranian, Vietnamese. I take inspiration from so many places: my latest favorite thing in the test kitchen was some Polish pierogis!”

Asian influence is woven throughout the book, whether by light strokes of Asian touches, as in the lemon tempura over butternut squash and buckwheat polenta recipe, or in a whole Asian recipe such as the curry Laksa. But I especially like the casual additions of unexpected exotic or ethnic ingredients to Mediterranean recipes, which is what Ottolenghi does best.

I asked him what are some of the new ingredients he used in Plenty More. “Cretan Dakos, a nutty crisp bread that I love, black garlic, black glutinous rice, tamarind pulp, urfa and allepo chilli flakes, pot barley, black sesame seeds, sea spaghetti, ground Iranian lime.”

Sounds too complicated? Most recipes suggest a substitute for those hard-to-find ingredients, but they are actually easily available in America. Between Asian and Middle Eastern supermarkets, specialty stores (black garlic is available at Whole Foods) and online, it’s pretty easy to get them all. And well worth it.


RECIPES:

Butternut squash with buckwheat polenta and tempura Lemon

Reprinted with permission from Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

Butternut
1 large butternut squash (1.3 kg)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 12 tbsp/25 g unsalted butter, diced
114 cups/300 ml vegetable stock
3 oregano sprigs (1/3 oz/10 g)
15 black peppercorns 8 allspice berries 6 cardamom pods, crushed 6 bay leaves
6 thyme sprigs Rind of 1 large orange shaved inlong, narrow strips 8 cloves garlic, lightly cracked with the skin on
Salt

Polenta
3 tbsp/30 g roasted buckwheat (kasha) or buckwheat groats
2/3 cup/150 ml whole milk 334 cups/900 ml vegetable stock 1/3 cup/10 g oregano leaves, coarsely chopped 1 bay leaf 1 tbsp thyme leaves Shaved rind of 12 lemon
34 cup/120 g polenta 14 cup/60 g unsalted butter
Salt and white pepper

Tempura lemon
412 tbsp/35 g flour 3 tbsp plus 1 tsp/25 g cornstarch 5 tbsp/75 ml cold soda water Sunflower oil, for frying 1 lemon, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-/3-mm-thick slices
Salt

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C. Trim the top and bottom off the butternut and halve lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and cut each half into 3 long wedges, skin on. Place the wedges in a large roasting pan with all the remaining squash ingredients and34 teaspoon salt, coating the butternut well with the aromatics. Bake for 50 minutes, turning the butternut pieces every 10 minutes or so and spooning the juices over them, until the squash is cooked, golden brown, and starting to crisp on top. Add a little stock during cooking if the pan is drying out.

Meanwhile, to make the polenta, put the kasha in a small baking pan and toast in the oven at the same time as the squash for 5 minutes, or 10 minutes for plain groats. Remove and crush lightly with a pestle and mortar.

In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the milk, stock, herbs, lemon rind strips, 34 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of white pepper. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat to low and whisk in the polenta and buckwheat. Using a wooden spoon, stir every few minutes for 35 to 40 minutes, until the polenta is thick and cooked. If it is getting too thick, add a little water. At the end of the cooking, stir in the butter. The polenta should be thick but runny enough to fall off the spoon easily. Cover the top of the polenta with plastic wrap to stop a skin from forming and leave somewhere warm.

To make the tempura, mix together the flour and cornstarch, then whisk in the soda water until the mixture is smooth and runny. Sit the bowl over ice for 45 minutes.
Pour oil to a depth of 1 14 inches / 3 cm in to a sauce pan and heat to about 320 F/160C. Dip the lemon slices into the batter and fry for 2 to 3 minutes,until golden and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and sprinkle immediately with salt.

Place a spoonful of warm polenta on each plate and lay a squash wedge across it, adding a mix of the baked aromatics on top. Finish with a tempura lemon slice and serve at once.

Cauliflower Cake

Reprinted with permission from Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

Serve this cake as a light supper alongside a makeshift salad of sliced cucumber, dill, mint, a little sugar, cider vinegar, and canola oil. Wrapped well, this cake will taste even better the next day.

Serves 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS

1 small cauliflower, outer leaves removed,
broken into 1¼-inch/3-cm florets (1 lb/450 g)
1 medium red onion, peeled (6 oz/170 g)
5 tbsp/75 ml olive oil
½ tsp finely chopped rosemary
7 eggs (scant 1 lb/440 g)
½ cup/15 g basil leaves, chopped
1 cup/120 g all-purpose flour, sifted
1½ tsp baking powder
1/3 tsp g round turmeric
5 oz/150 g coarsely grated Parmesan or another mature cheese
Melted unsalted butter, for brushing
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds salt
and black pepper

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC.
Place the cauliflower florets in a saucepan and add 1 teaspoon salt. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes, until the florets are quite soft. They should break when pressed with a spoon. Drain and set aside in a colander to dry.

Cut 4 round slices, each ¼ inch/5 mm thick, off one end of the onion and set aside. Coarsely chop the rest of the onion and place in a small pan with the oil and rosemary. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Transfer the onion to a large bowl, add the eggs and basil, whisk well, and then add the flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper. Whisk until smooth before adding the cauliflower and stirring gently, trying not to break up the florets.

Line the base and sides of a 9½-inch/24-cm springform cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides with melted butter, then mix together the sesame and nigella seeds and toss them around the inside of the pan so that they stick to the sides. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the pan, spreading it evenly, and arrange the reserved onion rings on top. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and set; a knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Remove from the oven and leave for at least 20 minutes before serving. It needs to be served just warm, rather than hot, or at room temperature.