Ottolenghi Overview: What Makes Him So Popular?

It's been almost a year since Plenty was given to me as a souvenir of a posh wedding weekend in Healdsburg, California, so the memories would be good even if the book was so so. It had good buzz from friends who travel and covet reservations at any of Ottolenghi's London restaurants. I was told by a savvy business woman and entertainer that any of the recipes from Plenty make an excellent weeknight vegetarian dinner. That sold me before the book was put in my hands with its cover a "money" shot of roasted eggplant with yogurt cream and pomegranate seeds.

Plenty - Jerusalem - Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

Plenty - Jerusalem - Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

After a few months of trying many recipes from Plenty, I had to have more Ottolenghi. The first thing I learned about Ottolenghi from Plenty, before I received Plenty More and Jerusalem, is he can make vegetables you thought you were over exciting again. My love affairs with the eggplant took place in the 1970s with Italian and Indian flavors and again in the 1980s with Chinese cuisine. Japanese eggplants with trendy Asian hot, sweet and salty spices were merely a fling for me. Eggplant has my attention again. Trying to understand what alchemy Ottolenghi is practicing I came to the conclusion it's not just the seasonings that make his eggplant compelling, I think he creates different textures with ingredients effectively but also with high heat methods. I counted four recipes titled Burnt eggplant. 

I thought I knew about Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors from Paula Wolfert, Claudia Roden and Kitty Morse, but Ottolenghi creates a finished product that is not quite like any of those well known interpreters. They are well respected authors. He is a successful restauranteur, which led to being a columnist for the Guardian and lately a cookbook author and television host/star of a PBS show Mediterranean Feasts. His palate developed from growing up in Jerusalem, a crossroads for immigrants bringing their food with them and leaving behind a trail of tastes absorbed by the community. In clear prose he chronicles peoples from far away centuries and countries, such as Sephardic recipes from the Spanish Inquisition, 19th century Templars (Germanic protestants), Ethiopians, Russian Christians and Bukharan Uzbekistan Jews.  Ottolenghi's PR story always highlights his head chef and co-author of Jerusalem, Sami Tamimi, who also grew up in Jerusalem, but on the other side of town where the Palestinians lived. They met in London, became friends and business partners. The heft of that collaboration and probably others, elevates something familiar to a higher level. 

We want to eat, cook, and be inspired by the richness of a city with four thousand years of history, that has changed hands endlessly and that now stands as the center of three massive faiths and is occupied by residents of such utter diversity it puts the tower of Babylon to shame.
— Introduction to Jerusalem

The great things about all these books are the results are usually spectacular -- and they are easy to execute. He does not rely on salt, garlic or chili to provide zip. The tough part of an Ottolenghi obsession like mine is that the ingredient lists are daunting, often require a food dictionary and may be hard to find depending on where you live. In Seattle, it's no problem with Market Spice and the Souk at the Pike Place Market plus middle eastern shops in neighborhoods outside of the city. Mail order sources may be necessary in your town. Every dish seems to call for numerous fresh herbs -- in surprising quantities. Elaborate garnishes are a classic restaurant move that is hard for a frugal home cook to swallow. Sometimes the quantities (specified in UK and US and sometimes both measurement systems) and combinations of spices seem to be a proofreading error. I wish recipe writers everywhere would specify weight to simplify writing and reading recipes. Although most of the recipes specify four servings, I have found them to be generous enough for six, eight or more. Do your own math on the ingredients and if you don't want leftovers you may find half the recipe works better for you. Last but not least, recipes, such as the Tomato and pomegranate salad from Plenty More is so amazing on the plate and in the mouth, I have made it many times, while others I might like even more, go untried. Ottolenghi books are an investment in good food for years to come. Jerusalem features meats, fish and vegetables. Plenty and Plenty More are vegetarian.

Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice

Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice

For pure pleasure I reviewed all the recipes again and selected a few I hadn't tried to prepare a simple dinner for friends who were curious about Ottolenghi.  We would taste together each recipe for the first time to be fair, instead of choosing my favorites. 

Ottolenghi Overview Menu

Marinated mushrooms with walnut and tahini yogurt from Plenty.

Note: This appetizer or picnic salad calls for five cups of sliced mushrooms and three cups of peeled fava beans in a lemon vinaigrette with a rich sauce for garnish. The eight cups of vegetables for four people made me think very hungry people after work in one of his restaurants would inhale this with pita chips over cocktails while they waited for a table. The herbs and spices were minimal, which is so not like him. This is my first Ottolenghi experience where I doubted him and doubled the 1/2 teaspoon of cumin and 1 tablespoon of dill and worried about proofreading errors. I wished I had garnished the garnish with crushed Allepo chilis for the heat and the visual as I did the leftovers the next day. Everyone else thought it was splendid as written.

Chicken with caramelized onions and cardamom rice from Jerusalem.

Note: This is an easy one pot dish that everyone loved. (I made it the day before and reheated gently.) I used some of the delicious leftover rice to make a new dish the next day with leftover Orange and date salad. The fresh herb garnish obscuring the browned and braised chicken in the photo above was 1-1/2 tablespoons of parsley leaves, 1/2 cup dill leaves and 1/4 cup of cilantro leaves. The chicken fell off the bone and the rice featured cloves, cinnamon and currants supporting the cardamom, a killer combination by my palate. This dish got a thumbs up from all. It will be hard for me not to make this frequently.

Orange and date salad from Plenty More

Note: Five medium oranges (1 kg or 3 cups/500 g after slicing) seemed like a lot of oranges with the Medjool dates, radishes and red onion mixed with 3 cups/60 g arugula and a little Lollo Rosso. Two additional cups of three chopped herb leaves filled a big salad bowl. I worried that two teaspoons of crushed toasted fennel seeds might be too much, particularly with at least one person at the table who does not like the anise aroma, so I held some back, which we added back in at the table after deciding it would not unbalance this joyful combination. As before, leftovers!

Bitter frozen berries with white chocolate cream from Plenty More

Note: I think the genius of the man, can be found in this recipe.  It is inspired by a legendary and secret Scandinavian recipe, a miserable colleague back in his pastry chef days wouldn't let him read. Ottolenghi created his own version. It is so simple and easy. The flavors are intense. It is beautiful to look at. (He titles it bitter, but means sour, as in the pitted sour cherries I had in my freezer waiting for a pie crust.) The frozen berries can be served on the bottom or the top of the sauce or stirred into it. I served lots of berries on the bottom and a few on top. I also loved the technique of beating the bag of frozen berries with a rolling pin before mixing with bitters and sugar. After my guests oohed and aahed and ate a decent portion, I offered more as there was more. The standing stainless mixer bowl of whipped white chocolate ganache and the sour cherries were placed in the center of the table so everyone's spoon would reach. This is the perfect dessert recipe for a non-baker like me.

Bitter Frozen Berries with White Chocolate Cream

Bitter Frozen Berries with White Chocolate Cream

Coming next -- an even easier way to have an Ottolenghi Party: invite friends to bring a dish!