When I finally got my hands on Plenty, the padded white tome of vegetarian recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi, I was stoked. The Israeli-born restaurateur with four eponymous, popular locales throughout London (one restaurant in Islington and three smaller takeout/cafés in Kensington, Notting Hill, and Belgravia) has some serious food cred. His first cookbook, Ottolenghi, was a bestseller. Yet I had trouble with Plenty. Flipping through it made my mouth water, but cooking from it was a different story.
The photos by Jonathan Lovekin are gorgeous. The dishes read as both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly different, like sweet potato cakes (a twist on latkes), soba noodles with eggplant and mango (interesting combo), burnt eggplant with tahini (a.k.a. baba ghanoush with pomegranate molasses and seeds), and more. Some vegetarians complain that Ottolenghi, a full-fledged carnivore, sometimes recommends serving his meatless dishes with lamb chops. But his prowess with vegetables turned him into a successful columnist for London's Guardian newspaper. Plenty is a compilation of many of the recipes from his New Vegetarian column.
Things seemed promising until I started cooking. We first tested the roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime, and green chile. Flop number one! The tahini yogurt, which tasted mostly of tahini, didn't work with the squash and the abrasive lime slices. The recipe made so much sauce that we could have drizzled it over 20 times the amount of squash called for.
A bit defeated, we returned to the book for another try. This time we decided on crêpe-thin chard and saffron omelets, folded and stuffed with crème fraîche, saffron potatoes, and wilted Swiss chard.
I followed the recipe by simmering small cubed (1-centimeter) potatoes in saffron water for 14 to 19 minutes. As I suspected, by the time the potatoes hit 14 minutes, they were mush. I continued to follow the instructions, draining the chard and potatoes from the saffron water. Wait! That saffron cost me at least $3. And we're going to just pour it down the drain? The potatoes weren't nearly as dark yellow as the ones in the photo; they were fibrous and light yellow, with no traces of saffron flavor.
The omelets cooked up beautifully; you can see the recipe here. They reminded me of the rolled eggs my grandfather used to make. But when folded with the crème fraîche, loose pieces of potato, and wilted chard, the omelets tore. The bland-tasting potatoes and chard fell out of the triangular packages as we ate them. To help bind the dish together and add flavor, it needed a sauce—a poached egg in the center would have helped. Flop number two!
Our last and final attempt was the black pepper tofu. We chose it because it was a main dish and we had never seen anything like it. But once I got started, the recipe seemed flawed. It called for "8 fresh red chilies (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced." Is that with or without seeds? What kind of chiles, and how big? There were more problems: Should the "crushed" garlic be smashed, pressed, or minced? Should the ginger be chopped finely, roughly, or minced? I forged on, deep-frying the tofu, then tossing it into the sauce (made from a huge amount of butter, shallots, chiles, soy sauce, sugar, and 5 tablespoons of coarsely crushed black peppercorns). And why use corn flour with all those Asian flavors? Flop number three. Reports about Plenty from Chowhound's Home Cooking board also singled out this recipe as disappointing. I chuckled when a colleague came to taste it and said, "Yay! Tofu—something healthy." The dish was decidedly unhealthy (too greasy), and too spicy. If I were to make it again, I would add less butter to the sauce or use none at all, I would pan-fry the tofu instead of deep-fry, and I would use less black pepper.
And that is exactly what you should do with this book: Use it for inspiration; don't follow it blindly. Plenty is a great addition to the scarce selection of sexy and creative vegetarian cookbooks. But please, Yotam, next time hire a good recipe tester. We're a dime a dozen.