Sunday, January 06, 2013

"Plenty: Recipes from London's Ottolenghi" - Cookbook Review

I like to check out cookbooks from the library, in part because I recognize my tendency to buy cookbooks, cook three recipes out of them, then forget about them forever. I have a big, reproachful stash of cookbooks staring at me for my neglect. Usually the library solution enables me to continue this habit of sample/neglect without spending any money, although occasionally I'll buy a copy if I like the recipes enough and want to cook more. But a recent cookbook, Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi, affected me so profoundly I had to order it immediately.

After I check out said library cookbooks, I then go online to find other reviews of the cookbooks and see which recipes people have made that they thought were delicious. Often there's not a whole lot of information. But with this one, I was surprised at how much was out there - in fact, on the foodie website Chowhound, the month of May 2011 was dedicated to having members cook their way through the cookbook (and post results).

I was originally intrigued by a post on Chowhound where people were talking about their favorite vegetarian cookbooks, and this book kept coming up. I am always looking for new vegetarian recipes, trying to move away from the idea that meat has to be front and center of any meal with vegetables as afterthoughts. What makes this cookbook unique is not that it claims to be a compendium of vegetarian recipes, but that it offers fresh and original ideas for food using a lot of vegetables. Most of the recipes I've tried have been impressive. Some will definitely become staples. The cookbook is also beautiful to look at, with some amazing photography that in itself is a work of art. Almost all the recipes are photographed. And the cover is hard to describe - it's puffy and almost hug-able. The whole thing is basically a fetish object.

At top, we have chickpea, tomato and bread soup with a dollop of pesto. Next, caramelized garlic tart. The soup was almost like a flavorful minestrone, minus the pasta. The tart, with loads of caramelized garlic and two types of goat cheese, I thought, was delicious, but other recipe testers in my life found it a bit on the rich side.

Green bean salad with mustard seeds and tarragon was good but seemed like it needed something tart in it (there is no lemon juice or vinegar, just lemon zest).
Grape leaf, herb, and yogurt pie is decent - crispy roasted grape leaves and breadcrumbs as a "crust," a filling of yogurt, herbs, flour, etc. that cooks into solid form and is tasty.

The definite keepers in the book so far:

I made the Parsnips and sweet potatoes, roasted, with caper vinaigrette, to serve along with Zuni cafe roast chicken and bread salad. It was delicious - who knew? Parsnips were not in my repertoire. The vegetables become sweet, almost caramelized, the tomatoes are thrown in at the last few minutes, and the entire dish comes together as roasted vegetables kicked up a notch - sweet, savory, and just the slightest bit sour from the vinaigrette, which doesn't overwhelm anything.

Baked eggs with yogurt and chile are also a recipe I will make again. They are cooked in a bed of arugula, which I didn't have, so I used kale and baby spinach. They are nicely spiced with a bit of a Turkish pepper mixture called kirmizi biber, which he offers a substitution for - paprika and cayenne pepper. This is definitely a good way to get some vegetables in first thing in the morning, while still having the taste of a decadent brunch dish. The eggs, in my opinion, should be enjoyed communally, with good bread for dipping.

My two top favorites so far are mee goreng and sweet potato cakes. Mee goreng is a Malaysian street food, basically a fried noodle dish with tofu, green beans, sambal oelek chile paste, and bok choy. I will definitely be making this again very soon.

**Side rant: I love living in a big city with ethnic markets where I can find everything I need for great prices - just a plug for Dong A supermarket in downtown Orlando (Asian) and Abu Maher International Foods (anything Middle Eastern, Turkish, or Indian) near Winter Park. Try 5 lbs of jasmine rice at Dong A for less than $5. Fresh egg noodles in the refrigerator case. A huge bag of shallots for less than $2, when Publix charges the same amount for a pathetic little bag with two shallots in it.**

And this last picture doesn't do these sweet potato cakes justice. I made these for brunch this morning, and they are sooooo good - savory, a little crunchy on the outside, and savory-sweet inside - kind of like a latke but not exactly. The recipe is here, if you want to make it for your next brunch - it's pretty easy yet unusual, but I don't see how anyone could not like this. But the cookbook is probably at your local library. So at the very least, check it out there, read the links to the Chowhound raves and test drives, and like me, you may find yourself ordering a copy of your own.

Sweet Potato Cakes

Serves 4

2 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes

2 tsp. soy sauce
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
3 Tblsp chopped green onion
1/2 tsp. finely chopped red chile (optional)

3 T Greek yogurt
3 T sour cream
2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 T chopped cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

Microwave the sweet potatoes until done (he steams them but I think microwaving does not sacrifice their ultimate purpose, and it's faster). Peel and mash, cool off.

Mix sauce ingredients.

Once sweet potatoes are slightly cooled, add soy sauce, flour, salt, sugar, onion, and chile. Do not over-mix. It should be sticky.

Melt a bit of butter in a non-stick frying pan on medium heat. Drop a spoonful onto the pan when hot, flatten with the back of the spoon. Cakes should be about 2 inches wide, 3/8 of an inch thick. Fry 6 minutes on a side until crust is nicely browned. Dry on paper towels. Serve hot or warm with sauce on the side.

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