I know, Plenty is hardly a new book, having been published last spring, but it looks as though its popularity isn’t due to run out of steam anytime soon. Still today, I continue to see Twitter, Facebook and blog posts written about it several times a week, and they are always positive, laudatory, even. It may be the best global PR campaign for vegetarianism ever.
Some may be surprised that the book’s author, chef Yotam Ottolenghi, is not himself a vegetarian, but nevertheless has become famous through his creative use of grains and vegetables at his London restaurant, Ottolenghi. It seemed a logical choice for the Guardian to recruit the chef in 2006 to write a new column called “The New Vegetarian”, but some readers were angry that “the new vegetarian wasn’t a vegetarian at all”. Over time, Ottolenghi’s creativity won readers over and the column’s popularity was channeled into this even more popular masterpiece of a cookbook, Plenty.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Leek Fritters (from Plenty, p. 36)
Although most of Plenty’s recipes were previously published in the Guardian, the book isn’t simply a reprint; Ottolenghi has created new dishes to add to the collection and revised existing recipes, adjusting and changing them according to the evolution of his taste. As he writes, “My style of cooking and writing has changed over the years and things that seemed to make sense then don’t make sense now. But more generally, every time you approach a dish (…) it feels slightly different. It seems to be asking for a little alteration, for the addition of this or the removal of that. I try to stay attentive to this. I guess this is what makes real food.” His philosophy, which feels very close to that of most cooks in the kitchen (isn’t it rare for a recipe to turn out exactly the same each time you make it?), is what makes his book so approachable. When cooking recipes from Plenty, I get the feeling that his creations are not set in stone. His head notes frequently offer variations and provide explanations for any changes he has decided to make, and I feel this openness invites the home cook to make the recipes their own.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Socca (Chickpea flour pancakes with caramelized onions and roasted cherry tomatoes, from Plenty, p. 224)
But what makes Plenty so popular amongst non-vegetarians? For me, it’s the creativity and sheer diversity of cultural inspiration behind the dishes. Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese and Middle Eastern cuisines, which have embraced vegetarianism for centuries, are all well represented in the book and every recipe abounds with fragrant spices and herbs. The dishes feel wholesome, complete, so the absence of meat is completely forgotten. What’s more, Ottolenghi tends to avoid using ingredients that usually frighten the meat eaters among us; there is no tempeh or seitan in sight, just the occasional bit of tofu, which is so well prepared and tasty that even the most dubious diners end up asking for more.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Zucchini and Hazelnut Salad (from Plenty, p. 70)
For the last few months, I have cooked my way through the book, trying close to twenty of its recipes. It has become a staple at home: when I don’t know what to make for dinner, E frequently suggests, “Why don’t you try another dish from that vegetarian book?” I have to admit, Plenty isn’t a 30-Minute Meals kinda book. Most dishes require a bit of prep work: dicing and slicing lots of vegetables can take time, especially when they’re going to be the star of the dish. But once your mise en place is done, the preparation of the dish itself is usually quick and easy, as the book contains lots of stir-fry, salad and soup recipes. I have found every dish to be so rewarding in flavor that I’m ready to forgive lengthier prep work for the satisfaction of making such a colorful and healthy dinner. Plus, I personally find knife work to be relaxing after a long day of work.
All the recipes I’ve made have been great successes, except for one – the Tomato, semolina and cilantro soup (p. 130), which I truly found unpalatable because I didn’t like the texture the semolina brought to the dish: it made for a dense, grainy and fairly tasteless soup that I ended up throwing away. All instructions are clear and easy to follow, and I find the head notes to be very helpful. My only complaint about Ottolenghi’s recipes (if you can call it a complaint) is that he makes such heavy use of herbs that some recipes can become very pricey to make during the off-season. When I started cooking from the book back in April, I spent over $12 to gather 1 cup of basil and had to cut down on cilantro (which the chef frequently uses several cups of) to keep costs to a reasonable level. Of course, in a northern climate, fresh herbs and vegetables are not ‘plenty’ in the heart of winter, so I should probably choose recipes accordingly, but they are all so tempting that it’s hard to snooze the cravings caused by reading the book until summer arrives. As a solution, I frequently cut back on the quantity of herbs required by the recipes and, with all the other spices and flavorings added to the dishes, they definitely don’t lack flavor.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango (from Plenty, p. 112)
Whatever your reason for wanting to eat vegetarian, Plenty is the book for you. It will convince you that meat doesn’t always need to be the star of every meal. It will leave you with the satisfaction of a more diversified diet. It will allow you to discover new ethnic flavors that perhaps you would have never thought to try by yourself. And it will have great benefits for your body because you will definitely eat more veggies.
“People have many different motivations for wanting to cook vegetarian recipes. Some choose unequivocally to exclude meat from their diet. (…) A second group of people, which is increasingly growing in number, are pragmatic vegetarians, those who have excluded meat or fish from their diet to some degree, but are not completely put off by the notion. This group include people who are concerned by the health implications of eating meat. It also consists of people who would like to eliminate or reduce their consumption of meat and dish due to the environmental implications. (…) Many long for a time when meat was precious, a reason for celebration rather than a cheap commodity, a time when farm animals were highly regarded and their slaughter more sensible.”
- Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty
Puy Lentil Galettes
Recipe from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi
I have chosen to share this recipe because I think it perfectly illustrates Ottolenghi’s creativity. Who misses chicken in a dish like this one? It’s beautiful, flaky, rich and filling. This is a dish that will astound meat-lovers.
I was a bit confused by the instruction of “rolling out the puff pastry 1¼ inches thick”. It seemed awfully thick to me! The puff pastry I used was already rolled-out so I stacked rounds of pastry to about ¾-inch high. It felt enough for me (it puffs up considerably while cooking), but if you feel adventurous, do try the 1¼ inches thick version and come back to tell me how it went.
1 cup [250 ml] Puy lentils, thoroughly rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp [5 ml] ground cumin
1 tsp [5 ml] ground coriander
5 tbsp [75 ml] olive oil, plus extra to finish
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1¼ cups [310 ml] Greek yogurt
2 cups [500 ml] baby spinach leaves
3 tbsp [45 ml] chopped fresh cilantro
3 tbsp [45 ml] chopped fresh mint
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
14 oz [400 g] best-quality puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Cook the lentils in a quart of boiling water with the bay leaves for 20 to 30 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked. Drain in a sieve and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small pan and fry the onion gently for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden and very soft. Add the ground spices and garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Mix this with the lentils and set aside to cool down. Once cool, stir in the yogurt, spinach, herbs, lemon juice and remaining olive oil. Taste and add salt and pepper.
Roll out the puff pastry 1¼ inches thick and cut out four circles about 3 inches in diameter. Alternatively, if the puff pastry you buy is already rolled out, stack circles of pastry until you reach the desired height and repeat for each portion. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F [200°C].
Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden on top and underneath. Allow to cool slightly.
To serve, place the pastry discs in the middle of four serving plates. Pile up the lentils high on top so you can just barely see the edge of one side of the pastry discs. Finish with a drizzle of best-quality olive oil.
- Ottolenghi’s Guardian column, The New Vegetarian
- Ottolenghi’s blog
- Recipe for Ottolenghi’s Zucchini and Hazelnut Salad
- Recipe for Ottolenghi’s Malaysian Fried Noodles with Tofu, Green Beans and Bok Choy (Mee Goreng)