Veggies For Carnivores
Reviewed by Elaine Luti
A vegetarian cookbook by a meat-eater – this should be interesting!
And it is.
I love meat. I’m not crazy about stews and complex meat dishes - I like my meat simply grilled or roasted and juicy, so I don’t generally look for meat recipes. But I’m always on the lookout for good, interesting and unusual vegetable dishes. Most cookbooks lack the kind of variety I crave. Meals are generally thought of as a “main course” (usually meat) and “side dishes” (usually vegetables) and sometimes will include a “first courses” like pasta or soup or “starters”, but in most cookbooks little attention is paid to the side dishes. But this cookbook promotes “side dishes” to main courses, and does it well.
The thing I most like about this cookbook is that it opens doors to thinking in new ways about cooking. I would never have thought of putting roast eggplant puree and sour cream on a pile of lentils with roasted vegetables in them – crunchy and bitey and smokey and creamy all in the same dish. Where does he get these ideas?
It also has some great recipes.
The author, Yotam Ottolenghi, is known in London for his restaurants which he runs with Sami Tamimi. Ottolenghi’s family is Italian Jewish and Tamimi is Palestinian. They both grew up in Jerusalem with a wild mix of cultural influences, particularly culinary. It’s not possible to categorize their recipes as regional (though obviously there is a strong Middle Eastern and Mediterranean thread that runs through them somewhat heavily) but the influence is broad, with ingredients ranging from European to Middle Eastern to Asian.
The book itself grew out of a request by The Guardian, the British newspaper, to write a vegetarian cooking column for their weekend magazine. The Ottolenghi restaurants in London were very popular (and having waited almost an hour to have lunch in one of them one day, I can say the popularity is not unmerited), which probably influenced the editor’s choice.
What I find most exceptional is that I constantly forget that this cookbook is vegetarian. There is nowhere any sense of deprivation or of “something missing”. The dishes can be very hearty and filling and the complexity of the flavors more than makes up for the “lack” of meat, even to a dedicated meat lover. I can make an entire meal out of these recipes and be fully satisfied. Nor is there the slightest hint of meat substitution. There are even only four recipes that contain tofu and two of them are Asian!
And Ottolenghi is not himself a vegetarian. He has another cookbook (called Ottolenghi) which has plenty of meat dishes. But his restaurants feature many complex and satisfying vegetable dishes.
The pictures are extremely enticing in all their natural, mouth-watering rusticity and there is a picture of almost every recipe. The recipes are well-described and can be followed by anyone with a little experience in cooking. Many have short but appealing introductions with reference to the aunt or grandmother or uncle who first made it, or to the little alleyway restaurant with its shabby tables in Jaffa where the author used to eat it.
Some of my favorites are leek fritters, sweet potato cakes, caramelized endive with gruyere, lentils with grilled aubergine (eggplant) with sour cream on top, aubergine with buttermilk sauce and pomegranate seeds, shakshuka (spicy sauteed peppers and tomatoes with eggs poached inside the sauce) and Baked eggs with yoghurt and chilli (cooked in a bed of sautéed rocket, with a sauce of garlic, chilli and sage butter over the yoghurt - recipe below).
What is more, however, these recipes inspired me to think in new ways about cooking. A recipe for quinoa salad with broad beans and avocado and another for lentils with small-diced carrot, celery and onion roasted with a little brown sugar mixed in, made me think to invent a quinoa salad with the same roasted mirepoix, peas and avocado. The milder but more flavorful fresh hot chili peppers added to dishes was a new discovery for me, and I got myself a chili pepper plant to be able to have fresh peppers all the time.
On the negative side, I find the glossy pages tend to stick together if you do a lot of cooking with the book in front of you, and that is pretty much essential since the recipes are, I have to say, a bit complicated, which is the second negative. I find some of them a bit fussy, and would prefer, first of all, more intuitive measurements (I’m not going to weigh 120 grams of flour, and I would like to know if it’s about a cup or about a couple of tablespoons. It might be important in baking to have the exact measure, but not in making a croquette when maybe I have fewer or more cauliflower anyway). Most of the recipes have clearly been conceived with a restaurant kitchen in mind, where there are plenty of people doing the prep work. Fair enough since one of the reasons he did this cookbook was to offer his customers the recipes for the dishes they’d eaten in his restaurants. But it might have been helpful to have a couple of simpler alternatives spelled out. The first few times I attempted a recipe I found that what I expected would be a half an hour job turned out to take two hours. I’ve had to streamline some of the recipes for a home kitchen where I’m the chief cook and bottlewasher, as well as chopper, peeler, washer and saucier.
But I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. None of these recipes are written in stone – they’re pretty much all very adaptable and can be simplified easily enough. Yes, it’s true that if you bother to “take the lemons and use a small sharp knife to slice off the top and tail” then if you “stand each on a chopping board and cut down the sides, following the natural curve” and then “cut in between the membranes to release the individual segments” the quinoa salad will be quite exceptional. But if you just slice or chop a peeled lemon into the salad, or even just squeeze it in, it will be extremely good anyway. And some recipes are quite simple to begin with.
Despite its negatives, however, I would give it full marks as a wonderful cookbook that does what a really outstanding cookbook should do – it gets the reader’s creativity moving in new and unexpected directions. And only secondarily is it really a vegetarian cookbook. “Plenty” is a perfect title for this book.
Pros: This is a very appealing book with appetizing pictures and excellent recipes, all of which are very well explained. It stimulates a new way of thinking about putting together ingredients and many of the parts of the recipes (types of sauce, seasoning, etc) are unusual and can be applied to other dishes.
Cons: The recipes are sometimes somewhat fussy and measures unintuitive. Some of them require too much preparation steps for everyday use. A simplified version of some of them would be very helpful for a busy cook.
Recipe: Baked eggs with yoghurt and chilli
300 g rocket
2 tbsp olive oil
4 free range eggs
150 g Greek yoghurt
1 garlic clove crushed
50 gm unsalted butter
½ tsp (more or less depending on variety) Kirmizi biber
6 sage leaves, shredded
Preheat the oven to 150C/gas mark 3. Place the rocket and oil in a large pan, add some salt and sauté on a medium heat for about 5 minutes or until the rocket wilts and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Transfer to a small ovenproof dish and make four deep indentations in the rocket. Carefully break an egg into each hollow, taking care not to break the yolk. Place in the oven to cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the egg whites are set. (Alternatively, divide the rocket into small pans and cook two eggs in each).
While the eggs are in the oven, mix the yoghurt with the garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir well and set aside; do not chill.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the kirmizi biber and a pinch of salt and fry for 1-2 minutes, or until the butter starts to foam and turns a nice golden red. Add the sage and cook for a few more seconds. Remove from the heat.
Once the eggs are cooked take them out of the oven. Spoon the yoghurt over the centre, and pour the hot chilli butter over the yoghurt and eggs. Serve immediately.
(reviewer’s note: this is an easy everyday recipe and you can get it on the table in no time, especially if you cook the eggs right in the frying pan, covering it, and putting it on low heat. In this case, make the sauce before putting in the eggs)