Yotam Ottolenghi is someone I admire greatly in the world of food, principally for two reasons. First, he is a “give up your day job to follow your dream” success story. Formerly an architect (not so bad in the first place), now a chef, it does take some guts to give up what I imagine must have been a fairly comfortable existence to plunge yourself into the unenviable world of 16 hour days on your feet in a hot kitchen in an industry that is relatively unremunerative at best, financially suicidal at worst. So hats off to him. Secondly, I am pretty much a card-carrying member of what I might call the “modern casual” style of food that he represents and has pretty much perfected. Less evangelical and more inspired than Jamie Oliver; as casual and likeable as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but with a bit more pizzazz to his food; as simple as Nigel Slater but not so, well, boring (sorry Nigel, I love you but some of your Simple Suppers live up to their description a bit too much); and as forward thinking as the Fergus Henderson/Mark Hix British food revival crowd, but less hardcore for the home chef who doesn’t have a dozen duck hearts or pig ears at his disposal.
I do feel a tad sorry for him though. Give up your day job to produce some of the tastiest casual dishes around, throw open your doors to the public and you might reasonably expect a crowd of like-minded foodie folk, or even just hungry people who like eating yummy things. But sadly if you were to queue up (and you will need to queue) to get into any of Ottolenghi’s 4 outlets in Islington, Notting Hill, Kensington or Belgravia (the locations alone serve as a warning) you would, sadly, be surrounded by the worst type of Guardian-reading pram-pushing media types who can barely break off their conversations about arts funding or Shoreditch House to write Tweets on their BlackBerries about how little Saskia has just spilt her babyccino all down her brand new Baby Gap overalls, the little scamp.
Surely he can do something that preserves his business whist deterring such a Champagne Socialist clientele. Perhaps he should only make the Telegraph available on the newspaper rack, or initiate a dress policy that forbids thick-framed glasses and turtle-neck sweaters.
So because of the crowd, I won’t eat there (again). But I love the food. So thank heavens for his cookbooks, the latest of which, Plenty, I have cooked so much from with such success that I simply had to sing its praises.
Plenty is a book of recipes none of which contain meat. I would say a “vegetarian” cook-book but Yotam Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian, and vegetarians of course do not have a monopoly on delicious food that happens to be meat-free so I don’t see why they should be able to claim this cook book as their own weapon in their quest for world domination. (At this point I am going to resist the urge to go on an anti-vegetarian rant; I’m sure there will be time on another occasion).
Anyway, most of the recipes I have tried so far have been very successful indeed. I started out making some of the more salady recipes for weekday lunches. Green couscous (with onion, cumin, pistachios, onion, chilli, rocket and a herb paste made from parsley, coriander, tarragon, dill and mint) is so fresh I can barely believe the ingredients aren’t alive. Tomato party (basically as many different types of tomato you can find, with loads of oregano, tarragon, mint, and giant couscous) I could happily eat all summer long.
I’ve also had cause to cook some of the more substantial dishes on account of the fact that I’ve recently started going out with a vegetarian (can you believe it? Of all the things I claimed I could never do…). He (and indeed I) virtually inhaled the aubergines with buttermilk sauce (which I can recommend is good hot, rather than cold as directed by the recipe). They’re soft and silky with a sharp sauce enhanced with pomegranate seeds. Stuffed portobellos with melting taleggio was equally successful. You wouldn’t even notice the dish was meat free, with its chunky filling, although a bit of bacon throughout would give it a bit of pep if you had some in the fridge that needed using up).
The recipes are easy too. It’s less cooking, more just assembling ingredients. My only criticisms are that occasionally the recipes are either ambiguous or somewhat out of balance flavour-wise. The recipe for Kısır (a “red” version of tabbouleh, if you like, with pomegranate, tomatoes and chilli) calls for “400g medium bulghar wheat” but we are never told if this is cooked or uncooked. If it is supposed to be uncooked (as I assumed when I made it), then it relies entirely for its moisture to absorb a relatively small amount of tomato juice/pulp, as the quantity of water in the recipe is nowhere near enough and the result is a rather “toothsome” product. On the other hand if one were to use cooked bulghar wheat I imaging the result would be too sloppy, since when using uncooked wheat the finished product is not too far off the correct moisture content. Some of the pasta recipes call for adjustment too. Saffron tagliatelle with spiced butter is the epitome of what Ottolenghi is all about – plenty of spices, with a nod to the Middle East, but lifted with an arsenal of fresh herbs (parsley and mint). It could do with a touch of acid though, I think, so a squeeze of lemon on the final product wouldn’t go astray. The lemon and goat’s cheese ravioli has the opposite problem. Goat’s cheese is very sharp and when paired with a lemony dressing (albeit optional) it has a bit too much tang, even for me. I would loosen the filling a bit by replacing about a quarter of the goats cheese with whipped cream, or perhaps a less intense cheese, like ricotta. Otherwise it was entirely successful (pictured here with lemon thyme rather than the tarragon called for in the recipe, because that’s what I had in the fridge. Just as delicious though).
And as for the rest of the book, I probably have more post-it notes sticking out of this cook book than any other. Leek fritters, caramelized garlic tart, courgette and cobnut salad, burnt aubergine with tahini, green pancakes with lime butter, green gazpacho, asparagus vichyssoise…at the moment it might be the one cook book I would save in a natural disaster (although query what use any cookbook would be under such circumstances). Anyway, the new bloke is coming round again on Tuesday. Mr Ottolenghi can take some credit for the fact that he’s prepared to return.