This time of year, our local farmers markets entice us to load up on sweet corn, new potatoes, tender green beans, heirloom tomatoes, juicy figs, peaches and plums. The thing is, once you’ve brought home all this bounty, you have to figure out what to do with it.
Not to worry, Yotam Ottolenghi has your back. This Israeli-born British chef and restaurant owner has authored a number of cookbooks that focus on recipes for veggies and fruits, but my favorite is “Plenty.”
Like a farmers market, “Plenty” is a feast for the eye as well as the palate. The cover, which is padded and oddly comforting to the touch, features a spectacular photograph of eggplants, whose purple-black rims frame a buttermilk-yoghurt sauce dotted with pomegranate seeds that look like rubies sprinkled on a field of snow. This image is only one of the many photographs by Jonathan Lovekin that illustrate Ottolenghi’s recipes.
I have to warn you: Lovekin’s pictures are so delectable you’ll want to rip out the pages and eat them. As if that weren’t enough, beautifully spare line drawings grace the title pages of each chapter.
Speaking of chapters, if you expect to find the usual cookbook organization, with chapters on starters, soups, salads, entrees, and the like, forget it. There’s no system at work here. Instead, the chapters reflect the author’s freewheeling imagination and his love of ingredients. As Ottolenghi explains in his introduction, the organization “reveals the way I think and work when writing a recipe. At the center of every dish…is one ingredient – not just any ingredient, but one of my favorites….”
While some chapters focus broadly on a general vegetable family, such as roots, pulses or brassicas, others zero in on a particular vegetable the author adores, like eggplants, tomatoes, onions and green beans. Some chapters, namely “Leaves, cooked and raw,” and “Green things,” fit neither category. The beauty of this unusual organization is that it encourages us to browse through the table of contents or page through the book until a certain recipe catches our interest.
The recipes themselves are mostly culled from “The New Vegetarian,” a column Ottolenghi wrote for “The Guardian” for several years, and many make use of ingredients and spices that reflect the author’s Middle Eastern and Mediterranean heritage. But you’ll also find Asian and English influences, so the recipes are like a United Nations for foodies.
An ironic note: Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian, and he laughingly recalls getting irate letters from his readers when he made the mistake of suggesting that a certain salad paired well with lamb chops. One of the things vegetarians and meat-eaters alike will enjoy about “Plenty” is that the author does not try to make his vegetable dishes “taste like meat,” but rather, he celebrates the ingredients’ unique flavors and personalities.
I have to give credit to my daughter and son-in-law for introducing me to “Plenty” when I visited them in Chicago, and for aiding and abetting me in making the first recipe from “Plenty” I ever tried, and which remains my favorite. One look at the illustration for “Green bean salad with mustard seeds and tarragon,” and I was smitten. We found the ingredients at the Oak Park Farmers Market and a nearby spice store, then rushed home to put together the green beans, snow peas, green peas, red onion, and tender baby chard leaves, all of which got tossed with warmed coriander and mustard seeds, olive oil, nigella seeds, garlic, lemon zest and chopped tarragon. This salad is so beautiful, so gloriously green, crisp and clean-tasting, it pleases me in every possible way. And yes, it went great with those grilled chops!
Despite my fulsome praise of “Plenty,” it’s only fair to warn you that some of the recipes can be a little fussy. For example, you have to blanch, chill and dry the beans and peas in the recipe above to make them both tender and crunchy, which is a bit of work, but worth it. Likewise, some of the spices may be hard to find locally. These small gripes are more than offset by the book’s beauty and delicious recipes.
Although “Plenty” has lots of hearty recipes that will be great in fall and winter, there are many that are perfect for summer eating, such as “Sweet corn polenta,” “Royal potato salad,” “Egg, spinach and pecorino pizza,” “Green gazpacho,” “Tomato party” and “Watermelon and feta.”
Just as this is a book for all seasons, it’s also a book for all eaters. Almost every recipe will make those on a gluten-free diet happy. Meat lovers will find the vegetable main dishes a nice change of pace, and many recipes are great compliments to meat and fish entrees. If you’re a strict vegetarian, you might be put off by Ottolenghi’s generous use of eggs, cheeses and butter, but unlike a lot of chefs, he encourages cooks to add or subtract ingredients to suit their own tastes, so feel free to leave out any offending component.
Ottolenghi’s whole point, the philosophy by which he lives and cooks, is to be yourself and cook what you like to eat. This sense of freedom opens the door to experimentation, just as a visit to a farmers market does.
So dig in. There’s plenty to please in “Plenty.”
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