When I want to waste time looking for recipes on the internet, I do not look at food blogs or Pinterest, but go straight to the Guardian page. Here we find food columns from some of the most interesting cooks today in England, including the authors of the two books featured in this post, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Yotam Ottolenghi. Neither of these authors are vegetarians themselves, but know their ways, quite well, around vegetables.
I sometimes think of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as the English Christopher Kimball: Both have multiple food interests, a rather dorky appearance, and a patrician background (Eton and Oxford; Exeter and Columbia). On closer examination, however, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a much more intriguing approach to food, as can be discovered on his River Cottage website. He is all about good food: good tasting, good for you, and good for the planet. Any such food regime will involve lots of vegetables, hence this book, based on a television series of the same name. I have the British edition, River Cottage Veg Everyday!, which I ordered from Amazon.co.uk; all recipes and page numbers in what follows refer to the British edition.
I like this book a lot. It is a solid, reasonable sized volume with about 200 recipes, the minimal number, in my opinion, for a cookbook of any generality. The recipe introductions do the job of enticing the reader to try the recipe, yet are short enough that most recipes (with the introduction) fit on one page. This is a very good property for a cookbook that is going to be used to have, and a property that is all too frequently lacking in cookbooks. Almost every dish is pictured. The bloggers whose cookbooks have been reviewed in previous posts and who did their own photography did a very nice job, but the difference between professional and amateur is quite clear when their photos are compared to the ones in this book. These photos are gorgeous, useful, and even interesting. The book is arranged in a sensible way: sample chapter headings are: “Raw Assemblies”, “Bready Things”, “Mezze and Tapas”. Despite Hugh’s desire to see everyone eating seasonally and sustainably, he resists the urge to arrange his recipes by season. I, for one, appreciate this, as I don’t like the feeling of guilt I have whenever I find myself using a recipe from the spring or summer section of a cookbook in the middle of winter.
So far, I am four for four with recipes from this book, and intend to try more. I tried two dips, “Cambodian Wedding Day Dip” (page 299) and “Artichoke and White Bean Dip”. The Cambodian wedding dip (and it is not clear what the dip has to do with either Cambodia or weddings) is a mixture of mushrooms, peanut butter, and coconut milk with curry paste, garlic, and other seasonings. It is unusual and delicious. The artichoke and bean dip is a little more standard, a purée of artichokes, cannellini beans, walnuts, and yogurt, with, of course, some seasonings. I cooked my own cannellini beans instead of using canned, as called for in the recipe. Canned beans are convenient and okay, but I believe that beans you cook yourself really are a lot better, and not that much trouble. Both dips have the advantage of not being all that fattening, at least as far as dips go.
Another good recipe is “Mushroom Stoup” (page 154). I like the recipe and book so much that I will even forgive Hugh his cutesy coinage “stoup”: a cross between a soup and a stew. I would be happy calling this a soup, although we ended up calling it “Burnt Soup” in my house (so I suppose it really is a bit more solid, more like a stew) after I left it on a burner cranked up to high for too long. The recipe calls for simple dill dumplings; I also failed to execute properly the dumplings, since they all disintegrated to some degree. Nevertheless, the mushy dumpling remnants in the burnt soup were quite good, and the leftover soup disappeared within a day. One day I will try to prepare this recipe properly, but I’m not sure that it could be much better.
The last recipe I tried was a simple salad, “Red Cabbage, Parsnip, Orange and Dates” (page 110), which is exactly described by its title. The recipe called for ¼ of a small red cabbage, but I ended up using a whole small red cabbage. Unlike Hugh, I salted my cabbage, as is my wont when preparing cabbage for slaws. When I compare my salad’s appearance to the book photo, it is clear that I used a lot more cabbage. I also found the parsnip rather gratuitous; although I used it, I will probably omit it in future renditions of this salad. Finally, Hugh calls for thyme leaves sprinkled on top; I used what I had, za’atar.
I had high hopes for Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. The book is based on Yotam’s vegetarian column in the Guardian (his current column is not vegetarian), which is where I found one of my most frequently requested recipes, Cauliflower Cake. This is a sort of giant Spanish-style tortilla with cauliflower; it’s a bit bland but with a simple sauce of mayonnaise and sriracha (or other hot sauce), it is sublime. My copy of this book, like my River Cottage Veg copy, is from England: Danny brought it back after a trip to London, months before the American edition came out. Page numbers below refer to the British edition.
As soon as I held this book, I had a huge complaint: the puffy cover. Puffy covers on hardbacks are even more useless than dust jackets on paperbacks. I usually take good care of my books, so I may never find out what will happen if the cover gets a tear in it, but I expect that would not be pretty. The arrangement of the book is slightly eccentric, but I will forgive Yotam this, as he explains in his introduction that the chapter divisions reflect the way he thinks about food. As with Hugh’s book, it’s pretty much one recipe per page, as should be, and the food photography is predictably good, although a little artier and a little less useful than in River Cottage Veg. Another small disappointment is that there are only 128 recipes.
As for the recipes, the key word has already been used: bland. This is really surprising. One would expect that Yotam Ottolenghi, with his Middle Eastern background and award-winning restaurant, would give us recipes for tasty, vibrant food, but every recipe I tried was just a little blah. My friend Susan B., who has also cooked from the book, shares this opinion, as do a few Amazon reviewers. Of course, I might just be trying the wrong recipes, but it may also be that Yotam, who is in the restaurant business, has discovered that many people prefer bland food, and so has toned down the flavor that should appear in his recipes.
Perhaps the best recipe I tried was “Asparagus Vichyssoise” (page 184). Vichyssoise is an inherently bland type of soup (so blandness is not a problem for this recipe), and if I could have found the samphire that the recipe called for, this might have provided just enough zing to produce a really good soup. Without the samphire, I just had to rely on chives and enough salt and pepper. This soup was quite well received by my guests, though, and I may well make it again, especially if any of that elusive samphire turns up.
The “Cucumber Salad with Smashed Garlic and Ginger” (page 166) tasted like cucumbers with smashed garlic and ginger. I want my dishes to be more than merely the sum of their parts. More vinegar or more garlic might have helped.
“Soba Noodles with Aubergine and Mango” looked quite promising, especially since we learn in the introduction that this was Yotam’s mother’s “ultimate cook-to-impress fare”. I suspect that either Yotam or his mother is keeping something from us. Maybe all the flavor ingredients should be doubled. Maybe the eggplants and mangos that Mrs. Ottolenghi got in Jerusalem were just way better than than the eggplants and mangos we get here. Maybe there is some secret ingredient not mentioned. In any event, this dish failed to impress anyone at my table.
My last attempt to find a really good recipe in Plenty was “Broccoli and Gorgonzola Pie” (page 92). In the recipe introduction, Yotam mentions his annoyance with a Guardian reader who complained about the amount of fat in the recipe. My eyes lit up when I read this. Too much fat? This seemed like the recipe to try. What we have here is a double crusted puff pastry tart filled with leeks, broccoli, cream, mustard, herbs, and blue cheese. Despite using all-butter puff pastry, the recipe, like too many others in this cookbook, disappointed. It was just a greasy broccoli pie.
Red Cabbage Slaw with Oranges
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Veg
1 small red cabbage
1 tablespoon salt
1 parsnip (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Slice the cabbage very thinly and mix with the salt. Let the cabbage sit for an hour or so, then rinse and squeeze the cabbage.
Section, or, as foodies like to say, supreme the oranges. Do this by first slicing off all the peel along with the pith. Run a sharp knife down each side of the membranes dividing the sections. Then use the knife to slide off the orange sections, removing the seeds as you do this. Do this over a bowl, so that you save all the juice.
Pit the dates, and cut each date into five or six pieces. If yoiu want to use the parsnip, grate it, avoiding the woody core.
Mix together the cabbage, oranges and their juice, dates, and parsnip (if using). Moisten with the olive oil. The cabbage should still have enough salt that you don’t need to add any more, but taste and salt if you want. Grate black pepper over everything, and sprinkle with za’atar. This slaw should be eaten sooner rather than later; it does not make good leftovers.
Cold Asparagus Soup
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty
1 pound asparagus
1 floury potato
2 tablespoons butter
2½ cups water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup cream
½ cup Greek yogurt
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
Chop off the asparagus tips and set aside. Remove and discard the woody end of the stalk (if you break a stalk in two, it should naturally break at the point between woody not useful stalk and unwoody but useful stalk), and cut the remaining part of the stalk into one inch lengths. Cut off the roots and dark green parts of the leeks. Slice what is left lengthwise, and rinse well. Then slice into narrow strips. Peel the potato and cut it into small cubes.
Melt the butter in a large pot, then toss in the asparagus stalks, leeks, and potato. Cook and stir, then after a few minutes, add the water, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. Blend the soup in your blender, or use your immersion blender. Add the asparagus tips and cook for another five to ten minutes.
Stir in the cream and yogurt and chill the soup. Before serving, taste to see if you need more salt. Stir in the lemon zest, and add pepper. If you are particular about color, use white pepper. Serve garnished with chives. (If you manage to find samphire, omit the chives, and garnish with the samphire, blanched for about 30 seconds.)