Call me a little obsessive if you will, but I find great benefit in focusing on one aspect of food for a few months – even longer. There is a chef who often spoke of her time training, and how her teacher spent 3 months with them, just on potatoes. It is only through this relentless investigation and persistence that the inner subtle secrets of the ingredient, the cuisine, the dish, the approach, are revealed. The most recent of my projects have included Okra, Meenakshi Ammal, Parsnips, Barley, and Bittman Salads. Many of the dishes in these projects are yet to be published on Life Time Cooking; many are scheduled to appear over future months. A few projects are ongoing; several will continue for a long time before they are replaced. Some have inner parts – for example, there has been a Sambar project and a Rasam project within Meenakshi Ammal. There was a Sundal Project one Navratri Festival time.
I have a great deal of respect for Ottolenghi, as he has changed the way of British food – along with Jamie Oliver. He has introduced new flavours, new ingredients and new combinations of food. Just as Nigel Slater and Jamie have lifted the lid on the possibilities of British home cooked food, Yotham has expanded it beyond the borders of Britain and Europe. And the echoes of the impacts of these three reverberate around the world. When I first returned from London with Ottolenghi nobody in Adelaide had heard of him. Now no self respecting kitchen bookshelf is complete without one or two of his books.
Many people will say that Ottolenghi recipes are complex, and yes, MOST (but not all) have more ingredients than other recipes, and more than likely a step or two more in the method. Toast the nuts. Simmer the edamame. Roast the chilli. Make the dressing. Initially it does take a little more focus, and sometimes a long search for ingredients that are new to one’s kitchen, but once you are in the swing of cooking ottolenghi, and your pantry has adopted new ingredients as normal fare, there is an ease to making most of his dishes.
My project this January has been to make the recipes in the Tossed chapter, in Plenty More. It is part of an overall push to use the vast kitchen library more than it has been in the past. It might be part of cooking a path through the cookbook, let’s see. Right now, I am 2 salads off completing this project. Just for clarification, there are many more salads in Plenty More, hiding in other chapters, but my focus has been on the chapter labelled Tossed.
Every salad in the chapter has been filling, complex in flavour, and perfectly composed with ingredients, textures and flavours. Most could be a meal in themselves, a luncheon with friends perhaps, under the grapevines in the warm Summery weather.
insights from Plenty More salads, by Ottolenghi
The extraordinary benefit of culinary projects are the thoughts and insights that come from the focusing in and in and in.
There is a careful philosophy behind his books. Which new ingredients to introduce, would be a major consideration when composing each book. Most of the ingredients that might be new to readers and cooks are used multiple times, so that they can become a pantry staple. Barberries, Pomelo, Green Mangoes, Dried Limes, Curry Leaves would be new to many people. And he single handedly must be responsible for introducing pomegranate kernels as an ingredient to adorn any salad and many other dishes. At least in Australia.
Because he repeats the use of these ingredients throughout the book, they quickly become pantry staples.
He might know Middle Eastern Cuisine quite well, but he has a way to go with Indian ingredients. This is not so evident in the Salads section, but is evident across the collection of his books, for example, with his treatments of urad dal, curry leaves, vindaloo, and others. I find myself saying “if only you had done…. with …., the flavours/texture would be more exciting!”.
In salads, best is fresh as fresh can be. Although we know this instinctively, his salads scream it. The beautiful plates of shredded, sliced, chopped, torn, colourful ingredients remind us how beautiful really fresh can be. No more limp radishes or celery sticks.
Herbs make a salad, so use them with abandon. I adore the herby salads in this chapter. In a very Middle Eastern way he pooh-poohs our notion of the inclusion of a tablespoon of a single herb in a salad being far too much. He has you dropping beautiful, fresh herbs, one by one, and handful by handful, into salads, so that they become major ingredients.
I ate my first herb salad with a Lebanese friend many years ago, and it was simply called A Bowl of Herbs. How appropriate, how ubiquitous this salad is in that part of the world, and how outstandingly simple and delicious is it. Fresh, green, crisp, and lightly dressed. Ottolenghi has reignited that love, and now one crisper drawer in the fridge is mainly herbs, and the herb garden is now filled and well tended.
Of course, Ottolenghi uses dill a lot. a LOT. It is not a herb that I loved because of the depressing quality of the drooping small sticks of dill leaves available in plastic containers in the supermarket. The key to great dill is to search out a green grocery that is owned by people from the Middle East (or grow your own of course). My lovely local green grocer gets his dill straight from a farm, he tells me, and it is bright, large, fresh, and in huge bunches that can be torn and scattered into salads with great joy. THIS is dill. Not that supermarket variety. I credit Ottolenghi with my new appreciation of dill.
Use nuts, seeds, and more nuts and seeds. Many of Ottolenghi’s salads in this chapter are crowned with toasted nuts and seeds, mainly flaked almonds, sesame seeds and kalonji seeds (available from Indian grocers, also called nigella seeds). He has you toasting them on a tray in the oven, and I admit that this is a great way to do it – they can toast for 10 or 15 mins while you clear the kitchen or get the other ingredients ready. BUT sometimes, time is short, and I use my Indian tadka pan to toast them on the stove top in about 2 minutes.
It’s not a good idea to avoid the seeds and nuts in Ottolenghi salads out of laziness – they add something essential to the dish. Not only are they visually appealing, the add crunch and thus texture to a salad. I don’t always stick to Ottolenghi’s mix (although it is a good one). It depends on what is handy in the kitchen. I adore hazelnuts, walnuts and flaked pistachios, and if I am out of almonds, I will use one of them. Sometimes I add coconut shavings as well.
Always add tang to your salads. It can be capers, sour grapes, barberries, olives, or other ingredient, and it livens a salad and balances the other flavours. (Ottolenghi does not use sour grapes, but I have just discovered them and they make a good sub for capers when needed.)
If you don’t eat eggs, there are alternatives. We don’t use eggs in our kitchen, and some of the recipes in this chapter use eggs either in dressings (eg mayonnaise) or soft cooked as an ingredient. I have two alternatives. For the mayonnaise, I will use my Mother’s Eggless and slightly sweet Mayonnaise, a Creamy Dressing, or a Yoghurt Dressing. (See below for recipes.)
For soft cooked eggs, I substitute the newly-fashionable Burrata – balls of soft mozzarella cheese with a creamy interior. It is perfect.
Substitutes are easy, if you know your flavours well. For dried cranberries use barberries or goji berries. Both are available from Middle Eastern groceries. No Umaboshi paste on hand? Use pomegranate molasses. No nuts in the house but have some left over dukkah? Use it. Use preserved lemon in place of sliced lemon if you are out of lemons. Mix up your vinegars in the dressings. I am playing with coconut vinegar at the moment and it works a treat.
No watercress? It is uncommon and expensive in Australia. Use baby spinach and/or rocket. Or use purslane if you have it growing or can forage some.
Some salads only work as written in Winter, as they contain kohlrabi. Never mind, leave it out in Summer. In Winter, sub Jicama or Yam Bean for kohlrabi if that is more available to you.
Pomelo – luckily my Asian green grocery has this almost year round, as it is rarely found in supermarkets here. First they have the yellow flesh variety and then, over Summer, the pink variety. If you can’t find it, substitute grapefruit, pink grapefruit or tart oranges.
Use edamame for broad beans, or vice versa. And buy your frozen broad beans from the Middle Eastern grocery – they are already individually peeled!
which Salads are magnificent, and which salad did I leave out?
Most of the salads in the chapter have the word Magnificent scribbled next to them, along with notes about substitutes, additions and other suggested or real alterations. For example, white pepper is coming into its own again, and I love it in dressings and salads. It isn’t used very much these days, but is excellent when you want that pepper flavour without the punch of black pepper.
There is one salad that I sadly omitted. The Caramelised Orange and Fig Salad, for no other reason than it requires Pernod or Ozo. As a past lover of these complexly aniseed-flavoured alcohols, I know there is no substitute that will work. And therefore, as I no longer drink alcohol (it does funny things to my body, although I can cook with it), I could not justify purchasing a large bottle to sit on the shelf forever more. Somebody, please make it and let me know how you enjoyed the salad.
Some of our write-ups on the recipes have not been published yet. The links will be added when they are published.
ottolenghi tossed salad recipes
Sprout Salad (2)
this is a living post and will be updated as more of the recipes are published. most of ottolenghi recipes are online, if you are looking for them. yotham’s column in the guardian is a good place to start.