Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More resumes the culinary hijinks begun in Plenty, offering more of the layered, complex compositions we’ve come to expect from this beloved Israeli/English cook. In Plenty More, Ottolenghi optimizes the Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean flavor palette defining his cooking, even as he reaches further eastward. He brings along the skilled cadre of personnel fans are coming to recognize: Scully Ramael, Helen Goh, Claudine Boulstridge, Alex and Tamara Meitlis, and of course, Sami Tamimi.
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Readers demand far more from modern cookbooks than just useful recipe collections. Authors must be Personalities, expertly ushering readers through a dish’s every possible nuance. We turn to cookbooks for lifestyle advice on diet, decor, and entertaining. Increasingly, cookbooks are art objects, brimming with gorgeous photography. Authors like Naomi Duguid, Claudia Roden, and Paula Wolfert publish meticulously researched cookbooks delving deeply into various cultures through food.
Atop this sits the world of social media. It’s no longer possible to publish a cookbook without a website, a blog, a twitter feed, a Facebook page.
What, then, defines a good cookbook?
With Jewish Soul Food, Israeli food editor and cookbook author Janna Gur hoped to create “a kind of greatest hits from our Jewish grandmothers.” Yet a book about Jewish soul food was problematic, for the very people who produced these iconic dishes—the bubbes (plural Yiddish for grandmother) were no longer available for consultation. Theirs was a generation that cooked by hand and eye, writing nothing down. Their grandchildren, now adults, want to recreate the meals of their childhoods but cannot. Nobody knows how. The recipes, sadly, died with the grandmothers.
Gur’s exact words are: “the grandmother is gone.” In the case of Jewish Soul Food, this is a mixed blessing. Good because no Ashkenazi grandmothers are around to shri (shriek) at the liberties Gur takes with classic recipes. Bad because they aren’t around to set her straight.
Sometimes I can’t wait to get home before opening my mail. Instead, after stopping at my Post Office box, I tear into my packages indelicately on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, trying not to appear overly animated. As all public transit regulars know, it’s essential to maintain “train face” at all times, lest you attract the attention of transit crazies. But I must have failed to keep my blasé BART face when I brought the Ovenly cookbook home.
When I looked up from its pages, I noticed people starting. This should tell you how excited I was about the book.
At least, how excited I was at first.
It took three tries to figure out what all the excitement was about. An ardent lover of Chinese food, I drooled my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s three cookbooks on the subject. Two of them are devoted to Sichuan cookery, a cuisine famous for its extensive use of chili and Sichuan peppercorns.
Dunlop’s rapturous descriptions of the Sichuan peppercorn’s mysterious tingling and numbing effects piqued my curiosity. My quest took me to the local 99 Ranch, the West Coast chain of Chinese supermarkets. No Sichuan peppercorns. I did, however, find a dusty canister at my local American market. When I opened it, I found what looked and tasted like brown woodchips. I tossed them, rooted around in another market, bought another packet. More woodchips. On my third attempt I ripped open the tiny bag and popped a couple into my mouth while unloading groceries.