There is something fundamentally satisfying about exploring the foods of other cultures, searching out ingredients, talking to strangers in the grocery shops of other nations to understand ingredients better, researching foods and recipes and trying to recreate something akin to the original intent of the dish in your own kitchen. Friends are made in the process, kitchen mentors are discovered to guide your process and answer all sorts of questions, and the secret tricks and techniques of their home cooks are discovered.
It is like any skill – the only way to master a skill is to immerse yourself in it, for days, weeks, months or years, whatever it takes. One friend, a great and accomplished person, emphatically states that it takes 12 years to master a skill. This goes against the grain of our modern society, where everything is fast paced and change is rapid. But, well, I agree with him and I love the luxury and dedication that a multi year process brings.
I have loved Ottolenghi food from the moment I walked into his High St shop all those years ago, just as he was becoming a name in the food scene and his first book was hot off the press. A short walk from my daughter’s place, it became a regular stop on my visits to London. Indeed, my fussy eater granddaughter would sometimes only eat his salads which we bought in huge take-away boxes.
Throwing myself into his 6 books has been revealing. The project began simply from a love of his food and a regret that I didn’t cook more of his dishes. Also from a desire to understand Yotham and his food at a different level. Like it or not, there are many opinions and assumptions about his recipes, and some of those are shared by people who do not own his books and/or have not cooked more than a handful of his recipes!
This chapter of Plenty More has revealed perhaps more than I wanted to know. After a time of working on learning a new topic or mastering a new skill, one becomes very analytical, teasing out the smallest details for comment. But that is the way, part of the process, isn’t it? This is the chapter containing recipes with ingredients that are simmered – noodles, lentils, rice, vegetables and soups. Vivid, glorious, generous, challenging, and pleasing (for the most part). The complexity of the recipes ramps up a notch from the first chapters, sometimes a dish will have 5 or 6 processes and one also asks for 7 vegetables!
It has to be said that some of these recipes are hard work, involving that large number of cooking processes with associated pots, pans and utensils. Are the results worth the time and effort? Not on a weeknight. Leave them for the weekend, long weekends or holidays.
For a home cook, the complexity can be challenging and I did find that I procrastinated about several recipes. They sounded wonderful, yet the time commitment was a definite factor. There is a sense that some of the recipes never made it out of the commercial kitchen where time is not so critical, many hands are at work, heat levels on cooking equipment can go higher and lower than home kitchen stoves (thus cooking times differ from a home kitchen), and portions must be enormous judging by the serving recommendations. Don’t be afraid to adjust the recipes, cooking half quantities if there were just a few for dinner, and quarter quantities if there are only 2.
Of course, it is best to think of Ottolenghi recipes as comprising a meal, without the need for elaborate accompaniments. This helps manage the time, flavour combinations between dishes, and the portion control. Also, it is generally worth searching out a recipe’s version on Ottolenghi’s Guardian column – they are often simplified, perhaps in response to user feedback.
The magic of Ottolenghi works its way through most of the recipes in this section as expected – layers upon layers of flavours. The exquisite use of sour, salt, sweet, astringent, pungent, bitter in his recipes is evident, a balance that is behind the magic and love of his dishes. The textural elements from soft to crisp to crunchy make his dishes a delight to eat, and meal time feels almost indulgent. The absolute freshness of his dishes is consistent through all his books, making them healthy options (perhaps cut back on the oil in some) as well as extra ordinary dishes.
At this stage in the project I began to have more insights into the recipes in this book, things that were not evident before. There were some surprises.
For example, outside of England, there is an underlying sense that Ottolenghi’s identity is more about his roots (as evidenced in his recipes) than his adopted home. But as you get deeper into his books and his comments online and in the books, the sense of Britishness grows – and it comes as a surprise. Terms used – “vinegary” rather than “sour” of an ingredient that is nothing like vinegar. “Ratatouille” for a dish of curried mixed vegetables. “Vindaloo” for a hot spicy dish rather than the original Goan specialty. It takes a while to work with this rather than being confused and later discovering that it is a common British use or expression. Then, sensitivity to culturally-restricted meanings when editing contributes to the quality of a book for a global market. Cookbook authors, in a food sense, have to become global citizens.
Notice the use of salt in Ottolenghi’s recipes. The great book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will change the way that you think about these elements of cooking Western food (it does not discuss in detail the different ways that flavour is extracted or enhanced by these elements in Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern foods). The chapter on Salt particularly challenges long held beliefs about the impact of salt on food and the scientific processes that enable salt to enhance flavours. One of the great truths from this book is that “1 tspn salt” has no real meaning, as the saltiness of different types of salts varies. Crystalline salt, sea salt, table salt, lava salt, kosher salt all have different levels of salt impact on the food, and thus food should be salted to taste at different stages of the cooking process. Ottolenghi is quite prescriptive about salt quantities, and he rarely pre-salts (ie he does not specify soaking lentils in salted water, cooking items in salted water etc). Knowing when to salt, how much to salt using your specific salt, and when to hold back on the salt, is essential for achieving different levels of blandness through to increased flavours as part of the impact of a dish.
Another mention about the use of Indian ingredients – sometimes overdone, sometimes not used in a way that would bring out the most flavours. This is a common comment through the chapters of this book. And curry powder, Yotham? Let me count the ways that curry powder can vary, especially in the level of chilli heat.
ingredients and substitutions…
Yotham often includes ingredients in his recipes that might be new to his readers, or, if not new, certainly not common pantry items. Freekeh, for example, curry leaves for many people, reshteh noodles from the Middle East.
As you cook through his books, confidence grows in making substitutions in his recipes. Once many recipes have been tried, the underlying philosophy of layers and layers of flavours become evident (sour, salt, sweet, astringent, pungent, bitter), the importance of visual impact, and of textural variation, means that reasonably good substitutions can be made if necessary. Let me share some of mine with you.
My philosophy has become – if it is a new but interesting ingredient, try to search it out; if it is an ingredient that we are familiar with but may not use again, consider a substitute; if it is an ingredient that isn’t at hand, but there is something in the garden, fridge or pantry that is a good substitution, then use it.
The greatest discovery had been how well Burrata and really good fresh Buffalo Mozzarella replace the poached or fried eggs that might top a salad or some slow cooked lentils. With their oozy soft interiors, it might even be suggested that they are superior to the traditional egg.
The garden contains a range of herbs and greens, so tart and bitter greens and herbs are replaced with tansy, nasturtium leaves, baby leaves of the various greens, a few tiny rocket leaves, tulsi leaves. I finally have some watercress growing successfully and that also is added to the mix. Sour grapes (from the Middle Eastern shop) replaces capers when I am out of them. My chilli paste, sitting in the fridge, is used instead of the recipe’s fresh-made one.
The cumquat tree, heavy with bright orange fruit, becomes the source of an alternative to citrus peel and lemon or lime juice. Cumquat peel is relatively sweet and the flesh and juice is tart, so they work well together in dishes.
And the courage to prepare artichokes from scratch has not made it into this house, so we use artichoke hearts from our local store, and make our own eggless mayo when required.
the best and the recipe that got away…
Ottolenghi recipes are always successful. Except. The stuffed courgettes recipe was unsuccessful in our home kitchen, leaving the courgettes over cooked and the rice stuffing under cooked. That recipe needs additional care in translating it for the home kitchen.
Standout dishes from this chapter are Fregola and Artichoke Pilaf, the broth in Hot and Sour Mushroom Soup, Thai Red Lentil Soup, Tomato and Watermelon Gazpacho, Beetroot with Lentils, and Quinoa Porridge with Grilled Tomatoes.
i would love…
How wonderful it would be to have, at the bottom of each recipe, ways in which the more unusual ingredients could be used, so that a whole packet does not go to waste. For example, links to other of Ottolenghi recipes in any of his books, using Reshteh noodles, or freekeh, or fregola, etc. In a hyper-linked world this would make his books more usable, and eliminate the need for frantic index searching across 6 books to find another recipe, for, say, dried limes.
Some of our write-ups on the recipes have not been published yet. The links will be added as they are published.
Spring Onion Soup
noodles, pasta and couscous
other grains, beans and lentil
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.