Dancing on the Plate: Yotam Ottolenghi's 'Plenty More'

Here's a man who's creating food that is entirely new, spontaneous, fresh, even wild, yet without any of the difficulty or pretension surrounding that other new food, Modernist Cuisine.

Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi

Publisher: Ten Speed
Length: 339 pages
Author: Yotam Ottolenghi
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10

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.

Ottolenghi’s wild popularity is easily understood once you’ve paged through his books or ready any of his Guardian columns. Here's a man creating food that is entirely new, spontaneous, fresh, even wild, yet without any of the difficulty or pretension surrounding that other new food, Modernist Cuisine. I’ve yet to see anyone criticize Ottolenghi for "male" cooking, a censure regularly leveled at Modernist practitioners (who, admittedly, are all male).

That Ottolenghi loves a beautiful plate of food is amply evident in Plenty More; any dish that appears less than edible tie-dye merits head noted apology. Even more important is "drama in the mouth". He’ll go to great ends to achieve that, searching out new herbs, spices, vegetables, but most of all: "Every single time I try an old recipe, I want to change it. I have no idea why that is; all I know is what tasted perfect two years ago seems 'slightly unbalanced' this year, or 'too savory', 'missing an oomph', 'a little stodgy', or 'a bit predictable.' This is why recipes evolve."

Ottolenghi’s drive bespeaks a restlessness separating skilled home cooks from superstar chefs. Recently I read Shauna and Danny Ahern’s Gluten Free Girl and the Chef. Danny Ahern is a classically trained French chef. The book is filled with kitchen lessons, from basic knife skills to menu planning. Especially fascinating was the way Danny Ahern planned monthly menus at the small restaurant where he was head chef. A perfectionist, he consulted restaurant websites, cookbooks, farmer’s markets. He scrawled notes in the middle of the night. Shauna Ahern observed: "He wants to create a dance on the plate, thinking about texture, smell, and color as much as taste."

A dance on the plate. That sentence returned to me as I read Plenty More’s recipes. Most dishes are multistep affairs, others throw n’ go. Few require specialized cookery chops. None have fewer than ten ingredients, mostly of the loud variety: citrus, chile, blue cheese, sesame, alliums. Yogurt, grains, and herbs appear in profusion.

Indeed, the recipes are busy enough to require appointment books, some appointment books for their appointment books, but Ottolenghi is such a mensch, so self-effacing and humble, that you can’t help falling for him and, by extension, his food. A cookbook author who apologizes for dirty dishes? Who trips over himself thanking others? Who wants you to buy other people’s cookbooks? So you’ll have to get dried Iranian limes and barberries through a purchase on the internet. Hell, aren’t you shopping there already?

Ottolenghi largely ignores seasonal eating, calling for eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes year round. He mounts a strong defense for this stance in Ottolenghi, adding he supports local, sustainable eating whenever possible. It is difficult, even impossible, to eat well in the United Kingdom without reaching for imports. I live in Northern California, where seasonal eating is a joy. I have no excuse. You? Your call. Seasonality should never make cooking, in Ottolenghi’s words, "a chore and a bore", and to curb his wildly creative instincts in its name would be dour, indeed.

Plenty More’s recipes reflect a larger Indian influence, broadly utilizing the turmeric/cumin/coriander triumvirate. Sri Lankan, Dutch, and Persian dishes also feature, here. There’s a lot more curry, a lot more coconut, unusual citrus like pomelo and yuzu. Laska leaves may puzzle some readers, while Manuka honey will bankrupt others (alternatives are offered for both).

Once in the kitchen, I found myself quailing. I’d made Thai Red Lentil Soup with Aromatic Chile Oil. The recipe is not difficult, but I was rushed. In The Whole Beast, Fergus Henderson warns cooks about kitchen nerves. "Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know and misbehave." I forced myself to slow down.

The soup was fooled. It was coming along nicely, in fact was almost done, when the instructions called for adding 1 ½ tablespoons of soy sauce. That much? There were other ingredients: coconut milk, lime juice, salt. But the soy sauce seemed like it would throw the entire soup horribly saltward. Still, he’s Ottolenghi. I’m not. I poured, stirred, tasted. It worked. The ingredients blended harmoniously. Nothing stood out. The chile oil, dotted on top, made the soup appear professionally chef-like.

I long to try the Globe Artichokes Salad with Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise, but my market has no artichokes. Never mind that Castroville, the largest grower/producer of artichokes in the United States, is only three hours away. When I asked the grocer why, he shrugged sadly. "The weather." This is not the arena to discuss global warming, but no artichokes in Northern California is like no onions anywhere else. It's not reason to pitch a snooty fit. It's reason to be frightened.

Bereft, I made the Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise, comforting myself by dipping everything I could in it. My spouse hates mayonnaise, a childish affectation leaving more for me and leading to this revelation: you can pull apart the recipes in Plenty More when necessary.

When you make Batata Harra, which you should, be careful about your roasting pan. Batata Harra is diced Yukon Gold potatoes, baked at high heat with garlic, a teaspoon of dried hot pepper, red peppers, and a shower of chopped cilantro. I followed Ottolenghi’s instructions, lining the roasting pan with foil. I added the copious amounts of olive and sunflower oil the recipe called for. My potatoes adhered steadfastly, anyway. Efforts to stir them at the halfway point met with heavy resistance and tearing.

Ottolenghi writes: "it is meant to be pretty spicy." Although I found Batata Harra fantastic, I didn’t find it particularly spicy. I consulted with my in-house recipe tester, then shoveling potatoes into his face. He accused me of insanity. So: those preferring milder tastes should modify the peppers, while the rest of us chow down. Careful of the foil. Regardless, please don’t overlook this dish.

Lemon and Curry Leaf Rice is lovely, light, and furthers my newfound love affair with Basmati rice. Here the rice is soaked, rinsed, cooked stovetop, poured into a baking dish, covered, cooked more in the oven. I served it with Naomi Duguid’s Lemongrass Sliders, using her recipe from Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

My husband, aka the in-house recipe taster, spied the Polenta Chips With Avocado and Yogurt, which calls for preparing a batch of quick-cook polenta, thinly slicing it, and frying it up. He’s also keen on the Coated Olives With Spicy Yogurt, courtesy of New York’s Balaboosta restaurant. Truly an act of love, this recipe calls for breading and frying green olives. But patient recipe testers deserve their rewards.

As for desserts, I haven’t made Halvah Ice Cream With Chocolate Sauce and Roasted Peanuts. Why not whip up a batch of crack and be done with it? Walnut and Halvah Cake? Also dangerous. After apologizing for including two halvah desserts, Ottolenghi excuses himself, adding that an entire book could be written on this Arab sesame delicacy. May he never write one. We’d all gain 200 pounds. Set Cheesecake With Plum Compote is less alarming: it’s a portion-controlled dessert.

The physical book features the unusual design hallmarks making the Ottolenghi series stand out. Designer Caz Hildebrand’s name will be familiar to Nigella Lawson fans. Photographer Jonathan Lovekin, who created the distinctive food shots in Jerusalem and Plenty -- vivid close-ups, arresting composition, lighting at times so bright it courts overexposure -- repeats his stunning work in Plenty More. The look is darker, unmessed, rough and ready. None of these photographs shout of arrangement with tweezers, glue or glycerine. Rather, it appears Ottolenghi and his chefs prepped the food, plunked it down for its photo, then everyone gobbled it up.

It's difficult to find fault with Ottolenghi the man or his burgeoning cookbook empire. Even those who don’t share his affinity for pairing sweet with savory cannot fail to be awed by his creativity, charisma, and affability. The diversity of recipes offered in Plenty More mean there is something for everyone, regardless of eating style. Plenty More is a cookbook certain to widen your culinary horizons, a critical addition to the serious cook’s bookshelf.

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