Monday, November 17, 2014

Under the wire



sludge with a generous dollop of kashk
In about twenty minutes a Prune lamb shoulder comes out of the oven and I really want to say a few concluding word about Plenty More before galloping off with Gabrielle Hamilton.

I’ll get straight to the point: I have no idea why Yotam Ottolenghi is so phenomenally popular. He comes across as urbane and amiable. His dishes feature intriguing, seductive combinations of ingredients. The photographs are gorgeous. But the food I’ve cooked from Plenty More fails to live up to any of that. It's possible I picked the wrong Ottolenghi book to cook from, so help me out here, Ottolenghi fans. Which is his best book? What are the classic Ottolenghi dishes? I will happily cook them. I want to understand. 

Unfortunately, I have to end the Plenty More chapter with a downbeat round-up of recipe reports.  I don’t like writing these. I feel like a prig, picking apart dishes that didn’t please her majesty. But since they're integral to my critique of the book, here goes:

-The Iranian vegetable stew with dried limes was a tart, frumpy melange of butternut squash, spinach, potatoes and barberries. I made a pot of this for my lunches and by the middle of of the week it was a struggle not to jump in the car and drive over to the frozen custard shop instead of heating up another bowl of nutritious sludge. It was a struggle I eventually lost. 

-You’ve made dozens of tastier pasta dishes than the misleadingly-named grilled ziti with feta, a tomato sauced pasta that you top with three kinds of cheese and run under the broiler so the cheese gets leathery and the noodles crunchy. Needlessly fussy. Not great.

-The sweet potatoes with orange bitters required too many ingredients and too much work (fresh-squeezed oj boiled down to a syrup, bitters, two heads of garlic, sage, thyme, goat cheese), given the pedestrian dish I eventually put on the table.

-Ok, the halvah ice cream with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts was delicious, although halvah ice cream isn’t as exciting as it sounds. I wouldn’t make it again. You could achieve much the same effect by crumbling halvah on store-bought vanilla ice cream. 

Here’s the breakdown from the thirteen Plenty More dishes I tried:

worth price of book -- 0
good -- 8
so-so -- 4 
bad -- 0

Shelf essential? No. 


38 comments:

  1. I can't call myself a fan (I cooked too many duds out of Plenty), but I think people must be responding to his style and the interesting-but-somehow-approachable flavour combinations. Gabrielle Hamilton certainly seems to have based her Piglet vote on the ideas rather than the recipes, plus the aura of general coolness. And when the recipes actually work, they're great: I loved his recipe for brussels sprouts and tofu (plus I had fun watching the faces of various family members when I told them what we were having for dinner), and pasta with yoghurt, peas and chilli is a staple when I have basil.

    Brussels sprouts: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/nov/24/weekend7.weekend3

    Pasta with peas etc:
    http://orangette.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/told-you-so.html

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    1. Those both look delicious. I will make them. Orangette sure liked that pasta!

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  2. I'm with Chris, I think it is the style and "new" flavor combinations. The recipes I've tried have also been good (such as the pasta with yogurt, peas, and chili that Christ mentions...I think that one is in Jerusalem. I've made some very good things from Plenty (such as the sweet corn "polenta" with eggplant sauce) and from Jerusalem (the cod cakes), but the misses were very disappointing. For example, none of the chicken dishes from Jerusalem result in crisped skin. Why cook chicken with the skin on if it is just going to be flabby? Yuck. The last dish I made from Jerusalem (chicken with sunchokes) put me off the book for awhile. Also, that vegetable stew from Plenty More should be called "Iranian-inspired." Sounds like a mess. Can't wait to hear your verdict on Prune. I'm holding off on buying that one for now. But I recently bought Verdura, based on your mentions of it in the past, and made a soup from it tonight (lentil, fennel, squash). SO good.

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    1. I'm so glad you bought Verdura. That book is a gem. One of my all-time favorites.

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    2. Is this the cookbook by Vianna LaPlace? I just picked up a copy at a used book sale. If is is the same book, what recipes should I start with?

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    3. Anonymous -- The appetizer I make more than any other is from this book -- bruschetta with avocado and green onions. Make it once and you won't need to look at the recipe again. As for other dishes, not all of these are do-able right now because it's fall, but: rustic spring stew, cold rice with hot baked tomatoes (great), rice with ricotta (simple, gentle), pasta with green peppers and herbs (improbably good; I don't love green peppers), potato-tomato soup with rosemary (super easy and delicious, have made this many times), tomato and bread soup, summer holiday rice salad, asparagus soup with rice and caciocavallo, country salad.

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    4. Thanks so much!

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  3. I've made a lot of successful dishes out of Plenty (two-potato vindaloo, green couscous, celeriac and lentils with hazelnut and mint, gado-gado, banh xeo). Although I haven't cooked out of Jerusalem, I love the book for it's theme and spirit. That book alone explains a lot of why I like Ottolenghi; his appeal goes beyond the culinary for me and into the political (at the risk of starting a fire on that topic, that is all I'll say). But as a personality I also find him infinitely appealing. On that account (and the others I suppose), it may just come down to personal taste. And I guess I am willing to grant some leniency on the technicalities of the recipes based on these other factors! I have yet to cook out of Plenty More, but I will say that many of his combinations are beginning to go a bit beyond the pale for me, though I still appreciate his general sensibility.

    I have also been wondering throughout your process if he uses a different yoghurt than the styles generally available here, so that his results aren't as puckery. But I really don't know anything about British or Middle Eastern yoghurts. Will be curious to hear if others have ideas about that.

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    1. That's an interesting question, about the yogurt. It could make a big difference.
      The celeriac and lentils sounds good -- I'll try those. Was the banh xeo tricky? I tried to make it a number of years ago from a Vietnamese cookbook and it didn't turn out.

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  4. The original Ottolenghi cookbook is the one to cook from. The meat and seafood recipes in this book are excellent, the vegetable dishes are nicely balanced and offer lovely combinations, and the fudge brownies with toffee bits are to die for (although I skipped adding the recommended jam or bananas to them).

    I like Jerusalem for the fish recipes and some of the vegetable recipes, plus one of the desserts (Muhllabieh), but I agree with Sara above that the chicken recipes are not that satisfying in texture or flavour. I had to donate Plenty to a friend because nearly all the recipes contain cheese and I have a cheese-phobic at home.

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    1. I would never omit jam or bananas from a dessert -- probably why my kids are so down on my desserts.
      I will look into Ottolenghi and try the muhllabieh in Jerusalem. I do have regrets I didn't get to more of the Plenty More desserts, like the tofu pudding, the rice pudding, the pot barley pudding. I suppose there's no reason I can't still try them.

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  5. Jerusalem is the only Ottolenghi book I have and I love it. Almost everything has been good, with many standouts: baby spinach salad with dates & almonds; cannellini bean & lamb soup; spicy freekah soup with meatballs; roasted chicken with clementines; chicken with carmelized onion and cardamom rice. (Both chicken recipes had nice crispy skin.) I also started cooking from 2 Turkish cookbooks this year and the Jerusalem book fits in well with those in terms of tastes and techniques. I love what happens to salad in these cuisines - somehow they get away with far less oil, and do such lovely subtle things with herbs, lemon juice, and then sour/pungent touches like sumac.

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    1. Ok, yes, I have had the spinach salad at my sister's house -- it's great. This is a good list and I'm going to write down the names of the dishes and try them. Thank you!

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    2. Oh, I forgot about that cannellini bean & lamb soup...it's excellent. And the chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice is actually the only chicken dish that I like from Jerusalem.

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    3. I tried that chicken and rice recipe but found it both bland and greasy. But I want to try he layered vegetable and rice dish.

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  6. I like Plenty--the eggplant dishes I've made are the reason Sophie loves eggplant, the surprise tatin is another standout, roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime and green chile is a refreshing treatment that doesn't come out tasting like pie. I'm glad you have warned me away from Plenty More....I don't own Jerusalem and didn't really pine for it. Now tell us about that lamb shoulder.....

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    1. I don't think I can eat lamb anymore -- I'm having trouble even drinking my coffee this morning, that's how rich it was. More soon!

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  7. I have all his books: Ottolenghi, Plenty, Jerusalem, Plenty More. Haven't done anything with Plenty More yet, but I have to say out of the first three, Jerusalem is by far the best. I definitely had some duds out of Plenty. I've enjoyed your reviews so I know what recipes to avoid from Plenty More! I'm really looking forward to seeing how you like Prune - another book I have but have not had a chance to cook from yet.

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    1. If you find something great in Plenty More, let me know. Are you eyeing anything in Prune?

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    2. The roast rabbit, chicken braised in cider, celery root with caraway, just to name a few things jumping out at me in Prune. Something about that book makes me hungry.

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    3. For me, it's the Grape Nuts with the ice cream cone, the pear tarte tatin, the bacon sandwich.

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  8. From Jerusalem, the lemony leek meatballs are the best meatballs I have ever eaten. Also, there's a spiced chickpea salad that's great - we make it all summer while tomatoes are in season, and make the chickpeas by themselves the rest of the year. So easy and tasty. There have been a few recipes in there that aren't worth the time to cook, though.

    I have been reading your blog for ages (found it through your book, which I picked up by chance in a bookstore and had to take home!) but have never commented before. I just want to take a moment to say thank you! This is one of my favorite blogs and is one of the very first I click through to read from my blog feed.

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    1. Thanks! I'm very glad you commented. I will try the meatballs, as meatballs generally go over big around here. I think my favorite meatballs so far are the meatballs from Nancy Silverton's Mozza cookbook, but they're of the hearty, tomato sauced, Italian variety. Lemony sounds delicious.

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  9. From Jerusalem, I make the Mejadra frequently. It is a lentil/rice dish with lots of onions and warm spices that I love. The leftovers reheat well for lunch. The kofta b'siniyah are delicious and my children love them. The cardamom rice pudding with pistachios and rose water I will make every so often as a treat for myself. I've made two more recipes from Plenty More this past week. The walnut and halvah cake was not as problematic as the banana bread, but I didn't have any takers. My family thought the halvah was too bitter (my oldest said, "Gross, I thought this was cream cheese") and I was disappointed that the end result wasn't the lovely jumbled mess shown in the picture. Last night, we had the Eggplant Kadaifi Nests with the Red Pepper Tomato Salsa. I broke up the recipe into parts over several days and was pleased with the results. However, I have enough filling left over for another whole recipe which I will make today with the rest of the phyllo. They should freeze nicely. Also, I turned down the oven from 425 to 350 halfway through because the nests were browning too quickly. The salsa recipe is a keeper!

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  10. The fattoush salad and the spiced chickpea chopped salad from Jerusalem are excellent. Also the mujaddhara is wonderful.

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  11. Well, I just loved reading all the responses and thank everyone! I, too, will make a list to try. For a while now, I've really felt that given how expensive food is, cookbook writers are obligated to publish things that really do work and are good. I suspect that many throw a book together, knowing that only a few are worth it. And I bet that each of us knows the agony of working like mad on a recipe, having spent a ton on ingredients, to have it just be so-so. For me, the litmus test is whether or not I would ever cook something again, and too often, the answer is no. But I do acknowledge that tastes vary, so what one loves might not please another. Recently I made the chicken and bread salad from Zuni Cafe, after reading rave reviews. I followed the recipe to a tee, and it was certainly edible but really only average and not worth all the trouble. I hate that! I'd love to hear what books all of you are recommending as good. I always ask for a cookbook for Xmas. I love to sit on the sofa after the hullabaloo and just pour over the pages. Jennifer, you are the BEST writer ever. Please gallop through Prune.

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  12. I've cooked several recipes fro Jerusalem and liked them, especially the roasted cauliflower salad with arugula, chicken with clementines (to another poster who commented on the chx recipes-run them under the broiler, as in this recipe) and the lamb and beef meatballs with Lima beans. The recipes are very forgiving of missed/reordered steps and substitutions, which is lucky because of some problems in the instructions. I also have the Ottolenhgi book, and found it not as good. The recipes are even harder to follow, and the ones I've tried have not been so tasty.

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  13. I don't think of my self as a picky eater or a lazy cook, but when I look at the recipes in his books, the combinations look so strange and unappealing and the preparations look so involved and time consuming that they don't appeal to me in the slightest. Thanks for validating that for me!

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  14. From the original Ottolenghi book, there are loads of great recipes. I love the caramelised garlic tart, the green bean and hazlenut salad, the radish and preserved lemon salad, the rack of lamb, the chicken with sumac. So many things. And the cheesecake with macademias and caramel is probably one of my most successful desserts ever.

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  15. Melvil Dewey12/1/14, 12:24 PM

    Coming late to the game, but I want to add to the voices praising Jerusalem. I have cooked many dishes from it, and all have been fun to make, flavorful, and serious crowd-pleasers in my household (ages ranging from 12 to 50). Particular favorites: burnt eggplant with garlic, lemon and pomegranate seeds; lamb shawarma; stuffed eggplant with lamb and pine nuts; roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad; hummus kawarma with lemon sauce. As a cookbook, it's the anti-Prune: generous headnotes and sidebars, recipes well adapted to home cooking, very clear in its instructions, well-indexed, many of the recipes given extensive cultural and social context. If the kitchen was on fire and I could rescue only five cookbooks, this would be one of them.

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  16. Interesting! I have made two recipes out of Plenty More and I've like them both: I made the lentil hummus (which I liked, though less so than the the squash) and the squash with chili yogurt and pumpkin seeds. I have to say I don't find myself especially inspired to cook other recipes from the book. Perhaps it wouldn't be worth the time.

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  17. I currently have Plenty More, A Kitchen In France-Mimi Thorisson, Mrs Wheelbarrows Practical Pantry, and Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen - Dana Cowin
    All from the library that I picked up in one day on my reserve list " I love my library"

    I gotta say.... I avoid buying cookbooks like the plague. Or any book.. For some reason I prefer paying huge overdue fees " usually the price of a book monthly"

    But if I ever see Prune (maybe in a discount bin somewhere... Or at Costco) I'd probably buy it.... I love the writing style as both a professional and a home chef myself, it's the way I cook

    The one recipe that I can't get out of my head is the Limp /Dead celery. Now that I haven't been in a prof kitchen for ages I'd be tempted to return to one just to have the ingredients to prepare this mess.
    Though I'm at a lose what to do with it or how to serve it
    ...but I'm halfway to the needed 14 zucchini heads.. Looking forward to that one and there cauliflower hearts and the chard veins----though my mother is the queen of pickled chard veins
    Garbage cooking!!!! Love the concept

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