Bibliobites in April: Plenty Simple?

In the kitchen, we’re often looking to simplify– to create maximum joy on the plate with minimum time and effort.   Of course we want to eat something interesting and flavorful, but we don’t want to spend hours getting there.  And we also might want something new and different, too!  April’s title, Ottolenghi Simple by superstar chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi, seemed tailor-made for our list of dinnertime desires: “supremely streamlined” recipes with signature Middle Eastern herbs and spices that aim to create “drama in the mouth.”  While Ottolenghi may be widely known and rightly praised for his traditional yet inventive Mediterranean cuisine, he’s also notorious for recipes with long lists of seasonings and much chopping of ingredients; so could his food be simplified without losing its heart and soul?

Most in the group thought the recipes were “sort of” simple; they had some simple attributes, but overall we found this book a bit fussy– partly because the cuisine is less familiar to us, but also because prep could be time-consuming and convoluted.  To help readers, in this book the word “simple” is an acronym for short on time; ten or fewer ingredients; make ahead; pantry-led; lazy-day; and easier than you think.  Recipes are marked with color-coded letters to alert us to the ways in which it was simple– a feature none of us wound up using.  For some reason, it was difficult to remember what the letters stood for, and sometimes we just didn’t notice them (even though they’re at the top of every page!).  As always, we chose recipes based on what called to us and what we might have on hand.

Ottolenghi’s cooking is generally vegetable-centric, which most of us enjoy.  Starting with salads, tomatoes with sumac shallots and pine nuts was “good– and it was pretty simple,” as was chopped salad with tahini and za’atar.  Both of these would likely be better with August tomatoes, though they were still tasty and added welcome crunch to a meal.  Curried egg and cauliflower salad, a riff on the classic British coronation chicken, was “not bad,” part of the problem being that it made a lot and leftovers couldn’t be frozen.  It would be a nice side dish for a group.  Roasted eggplant with anchovies and oregano was loaded with umami; in addition to being a “very good” side dish, “it would be even better as a spread on bruschetta or pizza.”  Asparagus also got into the oven with roasted asparagus with almonds, capers, and dill, which was a “very easy, very tasty” combination– a keeper!  On the other hand, roasted cabbage with tarragon and pecorino was visually unappealing and had just “OK” flavor, despite its assertive ingredient list.  Two people tried mustardy cauliflower cheese, a comforting gooey gratin of cauliflower with ample cheesy sauce.  We thought it could have used more mustard but less cumin, which became a bit too strong after a few days in the fridge.  Butternut squash with corn salsa, feta, and pumpkin seeds was a good combination, but the timing of the recipe was a bit off– the squash was too mushy when cooked as directed.  And brussels sprouts with browned butter and black garlic were “fussy” and just “OK.”

There was plenty to choose from in the main dish category, for both carnivores and vegetarians.  Middle Eastern cuisine often features a lot of lamb, and this book is no exception.  That was problematic for some; a number of people don’t like lamb.  But maybe it’s time to try it again, since some of the recipes using it were quite tasty.  For instance, lamb and pistachio patties with sumac yogurt sauce were “easy” and had “really good flavor.”  The sumac sauce was an excellent lemony foil for the patties; and the sauce turned out to be delicious over roasted vegetables as well.  Two people made lamb and feta meatballs, which was also a yummy combination, and the optional pomegranate molasses glaze was the perfect accent.  However the recipe needed more of a binder than the breadcrumbs called for; the meatballs tended to fall apart.  An egg helped!  And the directions called for frying and then baking the meatballs, when just baking would have been easier, less messy, and equally good.  But overall, definitely worth making again.  Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with mint and cumin turned out just “OK;” the included veggies (celery root and carrot) didn’t seem to add much to the overall flavor, and a bigger problem was that the instructions called for cooking at 350 degrees for 6 hours.  That time span almost certainly calls for a lower temp if you didn’t want to turn your expensive lamb into a tough mess.  Oddly we didn’t make much chicken or fish; we did try seeded chicken schnitzel, which was kind of a high-class version of chicken fingers.  The seed-ful coating was crunchy and flavorful, but unfortunately this dish didn’t age that well– the flavors faded and it’s hard to reheat boneless chicken breast without drying it out.  Bridget Jones’s pan-fried salmon with pine nut salsa had a “cute headnote” and the fish was pretty good, too!  The salsa in particular was a keeper.  Roasted trout with tomato, orange, and barberry salsa also boasted a winning topper, “very much liked!”

We worked our way through several vegetarian mains, as well.  Baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic could be a side or a main; the tomatoes and spices elevated the rice to something savory and special.  On the other hand, couscous, cherry tomato, and herb salad turned out just “OK;” the dressing was kind of “blah.”  But the mint in the salad was a perfect addition!  Puy lentil and eggplant stew was “better than I thought it would be” though it didn’t get points in the looks department, “browny and mushy!”  Despite that, “I’ll make again.”  Two people tried gigli with chickpeas and za’atar, which could have used more sauce, but “we really liked it.”  Though this recipe wasn’t difficult, it didn’t seem super-simple with its “many steps.”  Also featuring pasta, pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives, and capers had good flavors, with plenty of salty umami from the olives and capers.  Rose harissa proved difficult to find so our cook made her own (non-rose) harissa, which worked well.  Anchovy and samphire spaghetti highlighted an unfamiliar and unlocatable sea vegetable; the author suggests using asparagus as a substitute, and the resulting dish came together very quickly and was delicious with its notes of lemon and garlic.  And curried lentil, tomato, and coconut soup was a winner– both people who made it thought it was a keeper.  This dish features quick-cooking red lentils accented with tomatoes, cilantro, and coconut milk.  It made a great leftover, only improving in the fridge, and it’s vegan to boot.

After all the cooking was done, there were lots of opinions about the experience.  On the plus side, group members used some new-to-them spices that they fell in love with, particularly sumac and Aleppo pepper.  We enjoyed many of the flavors that have come to define Ottolenghi– familiar friends like lemon, garlic, and anchovy; and new ones like sumac, za’atar, and pomegranate molasses.  We liked the book itself, with its typical large format; and there was uniform praise for the photography and layout.  On the downside, the large quantities of fresh herbs needed was a bit problematic for April in New England, both expensive and/or difficult to come by.  And there seemed to be a fair amount of prep for a “simple” book.  Also, some just aren’t crazy about Middle Eastern flavors in general, though others wished the book had more focus on what Ottolenghi is justly known for.  In trying to simplify, we thought the food lost some of its distinctive qualities– so maybe it’s Middle Eastern lite?   Several years ago (in February 2015!) our group reviewed Ottolenghi’s best-seller Jerusalem, which, as the title  indicates, is more sharply focused on those particular ingredients and flavors.  Despite its being more complicated to cook from, we preferred that book.  Go figure!  In the end, even though some of us found some keepers, no one was that enthusiastic about this title, and our voting averaged out to 2.25 (out of a possible 5).  We’re a tough crowd, and apparently we’ve gotten harder to impress as the months go by!

We’ll next meet on Friday, May 28 at 11 AM, where we’ll be discussing Mark Bittman’s boldly titled Dinner For Everyone.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk, or via curbside pickup.  Plan to chat via Zoom; if you’re not already on our mailing list and would like to attend, please email group leader Andrea Grant.  See you then!