Yotam Ottolenghi isn't a vegetarian, but recently, his name has become known for the preparation of vegetables — both in the London shops that bear his name and in his column, "The New Vegetarian," that has run for the last five years in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Those columns were collected last year in a cookbook called Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi. An American edition was released earlier this year, and if you're looking for fresh preparations of vegetables for summer salads, this could be your book, as NPR's Susan Stamberg discovered during a recent lunch at which a friend prepared two recipes from Plenty. There was burnt eggplant with tahini studded with pomegranate seeds, smoky and bursting with flavor, and green bean salad — fresh as a minute — with mustard seeds and tarragon.
"That's a fantastic lunch," Ottolenghi told Stamberg after sitting down in a studio in London. "These are some of my favorite recipes in my book and I think it was a good choice."
The secret to the eggplant dish, he says, is fire.
"It is something quite magical, because it carries the smoke in it like nothing else does," he says. "You've got your stovetop and you spread foil around [the eggplant] and then you literally leave it over the fire for a good 15 minutes. And every now and then you come with some metal tongs and turn it over. So it really does burn in an actual flame. And what that does is the skin starts burning and producing smoke, and that's what gives the flesh the flavor."
Then, after the eggplant cools, Ottolenghi says, "[You] just spoon out all the flesh and avoid the skin because at this point the skin is very, very smoky."
From there, it's just a matter of mixing the smoky flesh with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, vegetables and herbs, plus a old-school trick that he says is becoming more popular: pomegranate molasses.
"All around the Middle East it's been used for a long time," Ottolenghi says. "It's very simple. It's just pomegranate juice that has been reduced by heating up for a while and then it is extremely sweet and sour. It's a little bit like balsamic vinegar."
Pomegranate seeds are "the jewels in the crown," according to the chef.
"I'll tell you what it is about them. There's something — talking about the [cookbook's] title, Plenty — there's something very plentiful about them. They're really symbols of abundance because there's so much of them in every pomegranate, and they obviously have beautiful color and they have this sharpness that is a little bit sweet," he says. "So you can add them in so many contexts and they always sort of add a little extra something which is a little hard to explain but it's very visual. It's completely beautiful."
Also beautiful: that bean salad, barely cooked and popping with various shades of green.
"You know what it is," Ottolenghi says, "basically all these are very simple ingredients that everybody knows, but I think sometimes they don't know how to put them together properly. There is a long tradition of overcooking green beans of all sorts, even in Italian cooking, which does wonders with vegetables. Whenever I go to an antipasti place, the beans are limp and completely lacking in texture. And what I try to do in so many of my salads — or any dish really — is to just try to keep as much of the original wonderful, crunchy texture, so you remember it's a french bean, you remember it's a snow pea. It's not something that could be anything else. And that's the wonder of it."
Just as in the eggplant dish, seeds add intensity.
"You need to cook them and they flavor the oil, but they also add little bits of flavor inside the salad itself, so you have the crunchy beans and also little crunchy bits of seeds."
Ottolenghi was born in Israel to German and Italian parents, and now lives in London, where he oversees four prepared-food shops and a new restaurant. His food carries some of the same multi-cultural pedigree as his background.
"I would say it is pretty dominantly Middle Eastern and Mediterranean in the flavors and the colors and in the ingredients. Occasionally I do go and venture out to Asian, but really it is very Mediterranean in spirit," he says. "Everything that fits that palate I can add in. You know, in Italy, for instance, they don't use cilantro, but all around the Middle East they do. So what I do is try to bring all these things together, not in fusion, but in inclusion."
Much of his food is casual, so what does he do to dress it up for special occasions?
"For me, every food can be special," Ottolenghi says. "I always think you can add beauty and luxury to a dish by adding lots of herbs to it. I think a huge platter always looks better than a small plate, so to make my guests welcome and feel special I put many beautiful platters with food, as I do in my shops, so it's quite a lot around, a lot to choose from. Once you've done that, you can make the simplest things in the world, and still everyone thinks you've gone to the longest of efforts, but actually it's as simple as that."
Recipe: Green Bean Salad With Mustard Seeds And Tarragon
By Yotam Ottolenghi
This salad — offering a good balance of clean freshness from the beans with the punchy complexity of the herbs and spices — works in plenty of contexts. Try it next to Two-Potato Vindaloo, along with Fried Lima Beans with Feta, Sorrel and Sumac, or as a side dish with grilled lamb chops.
1 1/4 cups green beans, trimmed
2 1/4 cups snow peas, trimmed
1 3/4 cups green peas (fresh or frozen)
2 tsp coriander seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp nigella seeds
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 mild fresh red chile, seeded and finely diced
1 garlic clove, crushed
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp chopped tarragon
coarse sea salt
1 cup baby chard leaves (optional)
Fill a medium saucepan with cold water and bring to the boil. Blanch the green beans for 4 minutes, then immediately lift them out of the pan and into iced water to refresh. Drain and dry.
Bring a fresh pan of water to a boil and blanch the snow peas for 1 minute only. Refresh, drain and dry. Use the same boiling water to blanch the peas for 20 seconds. Refresh, drain and dry. Combine the beans, snow peas and peas in a large mixing bowl.
Put the coriander seeds, mustard seeds and oil in a small saucepan and heat up. When the seeds begin to pop, pour the contents of the pan over the beans and peas. Toss together, then add the nigella seeds, red onion, chile, garlic, lemon zest and tarragon. Mix well and season with salt to taste.
Just before serving, gently fold the chard leaves, if using, in with the beans and peas, and spoon the salad onto plates or into bowls.
Recipe: Burnt Eggplant With Tahini
By Yotam Ottolenghi
This can be a potent dip or condiment that you can serve with raw vegetables or to accompany lamb or fish. Or, with the optional chunks of cucumber and tomato, it can be a gloriously refreshing summer salad that exudes Middle Eastern aromas. You choose.
1 large eggplant
1/3 cup tahini paste
1/4 cup water
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and black pepper
3 mini cucumbers (6 to 7 oz in total, optional)
3/4 cup cherry tomatoes (optional)
seeds from 1/2 large pomegranate
a little olive oil to finish
First, burn the eggplant. To cook the eggplants on a gas stovetop, which is the most effective way, start by lining the area around the burners with foil to protect them. Put the eggplants directly on two moderate flames and roast for 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and smoky and the skin is burnt all over. Keep an eye on them the whole time so they don't catch fire. For an electric stove, pierce the eggplants with a sharp knife in a few places. Put them on a foil-lined tray and place directly under a hot broiler for 1 hour, turning them a few times. The eggplants need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break. When cool enough to handle scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding the blackened skin. Leave to drain for at least 30 minutes.
Chop the eggplant flesh roughly and transfer to a medium mixing bowl. Add the tahini, water, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and some salt and pepper; mix well with a whisk.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more garlic, lemon juice or molasses if needed. You want the salad to have a robust sour/slightly sweet flavor.
If you want to add cucumber and tomatoes, cut the cucumbers lengthways in half and then each half lengthways in two. Cut each quarter into 3/8-inch-long pieces. Halve the tomatoes. Stir them and the cucumber into the eggplant mix.
To serve, spread over a shallow dish, scatter the pomegranate seeds on top and drizzle with oil.
Excerpted from Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottlenghi. Copyright 2011 by Yotam Ottolenghi. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.