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Plenty by Yottam Ottolenghi - delicious vegetarian abundance
Israeli-born Yottam Ottolenghi is passionate about food - its flavor and quality of ingredients. This passion shines through on every page of Plenty, the food is the star, with the chef almost taking a back seat - a refreshing change from the ego so often apparent from many 'celeb' chefs, the tone in his descriptions is respectful and almost reverential, when he talks about delicious fresh ingredients.
The book is even arranged in sections around specific ingredients, designed to celebrate the unique characteristics and tastes of each food - instead of the typical separations into courses or meal types. He dedicates a chapter to 'tomatoes' or 'mushrooms', which is unusual, but it's actually quite sensible and intuitive when you are planning vegetarian meals and shopping. His recipes combine quality fresh ingredients with evocative and intense seasonings, in surprising but effective combinations, often with a Middle Eastern touch... it's quite inspirational, when you are faced with a glut of seasonal produce from the market or the garden, to consider so many ways of preparing and using the same vegetable. He is insistent about the quality of the starting product, to the point of advising readers not to bother with certain recipes unless fine seasonal products are available. Ingredient lists are often very lengthy and involved, but once you acquire and get familiar with his typical range of spices you will have a lot to hand already, and substitutes and variations are often suggested - things that complement and enhance, rather than overwhelm, the fresh food tastes. Some ingredients are harder to find, such as curious Mediterranean cheeses with specific melting-point qualities, but again you can experiment and substitute if your deli cannot provide.
One criticism of the book I do have is that these are restaurant recipes rather than family meals, and as such it would often be helpful to have a small army of professional sous-chefs to hand. The broad bean burgers for example are truly delicious, but require the hand-shelling of half a kilo of baby broad beans (blanching then peeling the individual beans, which literally adds half an hour to your meal preparation). We also love the caramelised garlic tart, which tastes just incredible despite containing astonishing qualities of garlic - again you have to peel clove after clove of garlic before you can start, so it's best done ahead of time. It does make the most amazing tart though, delicately flavored with two kinds of goats cheese, balsamic vinegar and thyme - and you can save a bit of time by buying a pre-formed pastry case. The grilled aubergines with lentils is delicious, as is another aubergine dish made into croquettes with feta cheese, although both require flame grilling of whole aubergines, which is messy on the stovetop (a fading barbeque is best and can be done days before).
There are lots of delicious grains recipes, including some unusual ones, and again paired with interesting flavors - such as a pearl barley and pomegranate salad that goes with so many things. He is also unafraid to fuse unusual combinations, such as using cilantro in Italian based dishes - risking Mafia revolt, but that actually works brilliantly. He uses citrus flavors a lot as well, in forms ranging from fresh juice to less familiar ingredients, worth tracking down, such as dried lime powder.
All the recipes in the book are vegetarian, but it's worth noting that Ottolenghi himself is not... he writes the New Vegetarian column in the UK Guardian newspaper, and has provoked a number of angry letters for his serving suggestions, and indeed in the book he suggests that one of the salads goes excellently with fried fish! He also makes extensive use of dairy products, including many that even vegetarian versions of are not widely available - however vegans will find lots to love in this book, particularly as the dairy aspects are often in sauces or other enhancements that can be avoided, and heaven knows vegans are good at creative substitution and adaptation of recipes.
Visually the book is stunning - glorious photography by Jonathan Lovekin makes Plenty as suited to the coffee table as the kitchen worktop, and it is a weighty, large format book that is a pleasure to simply look through. The photography tends to be full-page close-ups of ingredients of finished dishes, beautifully lit and capturing the vivid colorfulness of the stunning food... forever exploding the persistent myth that vegetarian food is brown or boring! The gorgeous images complement the passionate descriptions perfectly. All in all this book would make a fantastic gift for any foodie friend, especially anyone who loves vegetarian food or wants new ideas for vegetarian entertaining. I have now tried at least 12 recipes from this book, and whilst some have frustrated in time and preparation, all have tasted incredible and brought nothing but praise and admiration from guests. I highly recommend this book if you love to cook.