You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, in Books We Love, we'll talk about our favorites. This article is brought to you by Ten Speed Press. Head here to pick up a copy of Plenty More.
When Yotam Ottolenghi releases a new cookbook, an entire world of food bloggers, home cooks, and vegetable fanatics waits with bated breath and frantic tweets, then celebrates with fanfare. It's a bit like the olden days, when we'd all buzz around the midnight release of a Harry Potter book, dressed up as Ron or Hermione or a broom (a good option for irreverent middle schoolers), waiting in line outside our local bookstore way past our bedtime.
If we did the same with Plenty More, Ottolenghi's latest, we'd all be dressed as eggplants, preserved lemons, and rice salads. I'd loudly call dibs on tahini.
The brightness of flavors, the ability to make vegetables feel new, the measured balance between the unknown and the familiar -- all of these make Yotam Ottolenghi's books a hit with home cooks. He is a smart chef and a diligent recipe writer, as we've seen in his already-classic Ottolenghi, Plenty, and Jerusalem. His recipes are specific and incredibly detailed: Slice your butternut squash into pieces 1/2 inch wide and 2 1/3 inches long; measure out a precise 1/3 cup of chopped parsley; be sure to have a 1/2 tablespoon measure on hand. These are cheffy cookbooks masquerading as home cook bibles. But somehow, it's totally okay.
Because if you follow Ottolenghi's very specific lead, and follow that old advice of always making a recipe as written the first time, you're sure to not just come out with a beautiful, impressive, vibrant, sexy dish -- you'll also take its components as a springboard for dinners when you can't be bothered with a recipe. Make the Squash with Chili Yogurt and Cilantro Sauce once, and you'll be topping all your roasted vegetables with Sriracha yogurt. The Red Onions with Walnut Salsa will remind you that alliums can -- and should -- be at the center of your plate. And his roasted sweet potatoes, which we're sharing below, will teach you to cook with bitters.
To better understand what makes one of the most beloved modern cookbook writers tick (and cook), we asked Ottolenghi a few questions about what makes his books so special, and what he likes to cook when he's not on the job. Read on:
The measurements in your recipes have always been very precise, down to the 1/4 inch and 1/4 teaspoon. For home cooks trying to recreate your recipes, how important is this exactitude to the success of the recipes?
A dish won’t fall apart if 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin is added when 1/4 teaspoon has been specified but, when a recipe leaves my test kitchen, I want it to be as perfect as I think it can be. Recipes are tested as many times as they need to be: This can be just once or it can be up to 4 or 5 times.
I love the thought of someone getting to know one of my recipes and then adjusting it at home to suit their own palate, but if something has 1/3 teaspoon of something in it, the chances are it has been tested with 1/4 teaspoon and 1/2 teaspoon before 1/3 was deemed correct. The recipe writer’s personality is, perhaps, often a rather contradictory one: very creative, free, and experimental on one hand, but very perfectionist and controlled on the other.
What is your recipe development process like?
I come up with the initial idea for a recipe. This can come from something I’ve read about -- I spend a lot of time pouring over recipe books, reading food magazines, following leads I get on Twitter, being directed towards blogs -- or it can be something I’ve tasted in a restaurant -- either from one of the Ottolenghi or NOPI chefs or in another restaurant in town. Or it can just be sparked by simply seeing a vegetable in my local grocer and being reminded that I haven’t played around with it for a while and then being inspired to experiment.
I’ll write my brief and discuss my vision with Esme and Sarah, my test kitchen cooks, who will then prep and take the recipe to a stage where it’s ready to be discussed and evaluated, tested and tweaked and changed for re-testing. We all work together very closely -- our test kitchen is on a mezzanine floor under a curved railway arch -- so there is not much that happens that everyone doesn’t know about and discuss as it's happening. When a recipe is considered done by us, we’ll send it to our outside tester in Wales who blind-tests the dish to both give us her opinion and, also, to make sure that the method write-up makes sense. It’s a rigorous process!
How are these recipes different from those in Plenty? What has changed in the way that you cook since Plenty published?
Like Plenty, the recipes here are all vegetarian but, unlike Plenty which was savory dishes only, Plenty More has sweet and savory recipes. There are some new ingredients on the pantry shelves for Plenty More -- mellow cloves of black garlic, a wider range of dried chili flakes, crunchy Cretan Dakos biscuits, my favorite dried Iranian lime, to name just a few. In more cases than not, though, it’s about using familiar ingredients in a new context -- drizzling tahini over grilled banana bread or ice cream, for example, or mixing it with soy sauce as a dressing for broccoli -- or cooking an ingredient a new way.
Plenty was organized around the type of food in a particular chapter -- mushrooms, tomatoes, green beans and so forth -- whereas Plenty More is organized around cooking method -- baked, braised, steamed, fried etc. This allowed me to alter the way I approach an ingredient and see it in a new light: rather than roasting eggplant and steaming zucchini, for example, what happens when we steam a whole peeled eggplant and make a baba ganoush out of zucchini which have been roasted as though they were eggplant, until their skin is blackened and falling apart?
What do you think makes for a well-written recipe?
For me, it has to be very precise, clear, and accurate. I’d far rather be given an exact measurement, which I can then either follow or adjust, depending on my palate, than be told to put a "bunch" of something or a "glug" of something else in a dish. That’s the way I write them -- the more detail there is, the more relaxed, paradoxically, I feel on behalf of people following the recipe -- but different styles suit different purposes.
Which recipes from your books do you find yourself cooking over and over again?
It depends on the occasion and the time of year. Jersualem is full of a lot of hearty and slow-cooked dishes, which I love to kick off autumn with. Plenty has lots of ideas for dishes which are great for quicker summer meals. The binding on my first book, Ottolenghi, is pretty broken around the poultry and large cakes chapters and Plenty More has a number of go-to recipes for mid-week meals: the pot barley and lentils with mushrooms and sweet spices, for example, or the miso vegetables and rice with black sesame dressing.
People go bonkers for your recipes -- what do you think makes them so appealing? How do you describe your food to people who have never eaten it?
I like to think of my food as something which surprises, delights, and comforts all at once. The heart of a dish is often incredibly simple and soothing -- a bowl or rice, roasted root vegetables, an eggy frittata or quiche, for example -- but there will be elements of surprise which make people happy: small dried Iranian barberries in the frittata, cubes of membrillo and Stilton in the quiche. Chopped preserved lemon skin, curry leaves, fried slivers of garlic and red chili, black sesame seeds: All of these little bursts of flavor are just some of the ingredients which bring an interesting texture or visual element to a dish that would be lacking otherwise
I hope that people like my recipes because they taste good! People tell me they also like making them because they work and that they are often (contrary to what can be said!) very simple and straightforward to follow. Just because the list of ingredients can be long, it doesn’t mean that the recipe is complicated. A lot of the preparation can also be done in advance, which also helps.
What's your version of comfort food?
The right food at the right time in the right place, whether this is sushi for breakfast or a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine at night. Anything with a poached egg on top is also generally a winner: fried upma, for example, or slow-cooked chickpeas on toast. If pushed to name one dish, though, it might have to be Mejadra, a dish popular in Jerusalem of sweetly spiced rice and lentils with caramelized onion strewn on top with some plain Greek yogurt alongside.
1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice (the juice of 4 to 5 oranges)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Angostura bitters
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 5 sweet potatoes, unpeeled, halved crosswise, each half cut into 1 inch-wide wedges
2 red chiles, split open along the center
3 sage sprigs
10 thyme sprigs
2 heads garlic, unpeeled and halved horizontally
3 ounces goat cheese log, broken into pieces
Book cover, Yotam Ottolenghi, and sweet potatoes photos by Jonathan Lovekin; all other photos by James Ransom. Excerpted from the book Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi. Reprinted by permission of Ten Speed Press. All rights reserved.