Last Christmas, I wanted to find the perfect cookbook. One that would engage a beginner with interesting recipes that weren’t too complicated but weren’t boring, either. The recipient was to be my boyfriend, who is an enthusiastic help in the kitchen but wanted to be able to try out things on his own.
I headed over to the Luxor book store on Wenceslas Square, where I’ve seen a big section of English-language cookbooks. It’s a nice mix, they’ve got books by cuisine, by dish and of course celebrity chef: Jaime Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and even Adrian Ferra.
I usually shy away from the big name books, I prefer ones that can offer a bit of context for a particular cuisine, so you get a sense of the traditions and learn something along the way. I really don’t care what Jaime Olivers’ wife thinks of a particular dish.
But then I saw “the book,” as it’s come to be known in our house. I picked it up first because of the name, although it’s not one I recognized: Yotam Ottolenghi. It still grabbed me, however, because it sounded exotic, a silly reason, I admit. But flipping through it, I saw an array of photos and recipes that were intriguing: Black pepper tofu, marinated mushrooms with walnut and tahini yogurt, soba noodles with aubergine and mango, saffron tagliatelle with spiced butter and coconut rice with sambal and okra.
‘Plenty’ is a fantastic mix of European, Arab and Asian cuisine, owing in no small part to Ottolenghi’s upbringing in Israel. Ottolenghi has gained renown in the UK with an eponymous chain of haute prepared food shops in the UK and a column in the Guardian called The New Vegetarian.
Ottolenghi himself is not a vegetarian, and his previous cookbook, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, has recipes with meat. But ‘Plenty’ is a nod to the creative takes on vegetables and grains that Ottolenghi is famous for. Whatever you think of vegetarianism, this cookbook would be a boon in your kitchen, either as inspiration for side dishes that would compliment lamb or fish dishes beautifully or for occasional meat-free meals. His use of spices and cooking techniques mean the dishes are well-rounded and satisfying. They are beautiful, in presentation and in taste, and the book has been a simple and fun way for my boyfriend to learn more moderately-easy cooking techniques and how to combine herbs and spices.
Ottolenghi has divided the book in an “unsystematic way,” he admits.
At the center of every dish, at the beginning of the thought process, in an ingredient, one ingredient–not just any ingredient but one of my favorite ingredients. I tend to set off with this cntral element and then try to elaborate on it, enhance it, bring it out in a new way, while still keeping it in the center, at the heart of the final dish.
The result is a book divided the following chapters: Roots; Funny Onions; Mushrooms; Courgettes and Other Squashes; Capsicums; Brassicas; The Mighty Aubergine; Tomatoes; Leaves Cooked and Raw; Green Things; Green Beans; Pulses; Cereals; Pasta, Polenta, Couscous and finally Fruit with Cheese.
The dishes turn out how they look in the book, as well, a plus especially if you’re hosting guests and presentation is important. And as a testament to how great this book has been, I can tell you we’ve made 28 out of 128 recipes from it in the six months we’ve had it, and many of those more than once. A couple of dishes I’ve been able to make:
The Royal Potato Salad, p. 20. This one uses new potatoes, mint, peas, pesto and quail eggs. It’s a springtime dish, through and through. You don’t have to use quail eggs, but since Tesco carries them, and they’re relatively inexpensive at around 70 crowns for 18, we tried them out. It was great. I’ve included the book photo after my dish, so you can see how they measure up in presentation, at least.
The leek fritters, p. 36. This sounds like a ho-hum, if homey, dish. But ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and chilis make the pancakes more than a starch bomb, and they taste even better the day after. Further elevating the dish is the side sauce which is simple to make from sour cream, greek yogurt, garlic, olive oil, parsley and cilantro. As Ottolenghi points out in the book, you don’t have to make the sauce, they’re that good on their own.
The book version:
I don’t have a photo of one of my favorite recipes, Black Pepper Tofu. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tried, but the ingredient list almost initially prevented me from making it because it just doesn’t SOUND right. The recipe calls for three kinds of soy sauce, 12 garlic cloves, 8 chilis, 12 shallots and a whopping 5 tablespoons of coarsely ground black pepper. It turned out amazing, however, a complex, salty sweet sauce that clung to the tofu and developed a unique, whalloping dose of heat. Here’s the photo from the book:
The New Vegetarian column includes many of the recipes in the book, in fact you can find the Black Pepper Tofu recipe here. The book cost a little over 700 crowns, and I would say it’s been worth it, considering the amount of use I’ve gotten out of it. I’m also planning on ordering Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, because I’m curious as to whether his meat recipes are as fantastic as his vegetarian ones.