All week this week we count down the five best books of 2018. Number four: Linda Burgess reviews the Ottolenghi cookbook Simple.
Why the hell do people buy recipe books? Someone should do their PhD on the number of people who buy one, use it three times, then go back to the usual 10 things they make. But if you’re going to buy one, it may as well be by Ottolenghi.
You won’t be the only one making this choice. He’s not only managed to capture a market, he’s also managed to maintain a significant presence. My evidence of this is not only based on book sales, but on going to Wellington’s Moore Wilson’s to buy the latest ingredient that Simple demands. An unusually large number of people stand by Herbs and Spices. We don’t make eye contact as we silently reach for Greek oregano.
Ottolenghi is keen on those one word titles: Plenty. Jerusalem. And now Simple, which could well turn out to be the most mendacious title ever. No doubt everything is simple if you’re Ottolenghi with a kitchen full of sous-chefs and years and years perfecting the use of pomegranate molasses. So I decided to do a test run.
Prawn and sweetcorn fritters (p263). He says “adapt”, so I do: the prawns are shrimps because I’ve had some in the freezer for a suspiciously long time. Corn tinned not frozen. I don’t have half his spices but I reckon I have enough, and lookalike Italian parsley will do instead of coriander. Same with lime zest – lemon is going to have to do. I spoon each fritter carefully into the heated oil, and they break into a thousand pieces. I’d wondered what, other than the one egg, would bind them. While I try to push them back into some sort of shape, the corn spits spitefully at me, burning my eyelid. We eat them. They have a slightly strange after taste. They were reasonably simple.
But they are enchanting, his recipe books. They add gravitas to your kitchen by looking so stunning, as if drooling over the photos will make you be a really good cook. Your cholesterol level halves just by picking up one of his books. Vividly colourful food, but in a natural, not Red No 40, sort of way. He assembles fabulous fresh ingredients, and he generously implies that if you try even just a little bit harder, you can cook like this. Perhaps frozen corn doesn’t explode like the tinned stuff.
Ottolenghi kindly makes it very clear what you have to do to cook like him: Just buy the ingredients. Okay, adapt if you must, but for God’s sake use your head. For the fresh part, think reds (tomatoes, watermelon, beetroot, red cabbage) and greens (too many to list. Sadly, they do include kale.) He does some odd things – his jacket potato with a soft-boiled egg tucked in for fun could well be up there with Nigella’s spaghetti with Marmite – but he far more often performs miracles, like making your mouth water for Brussels sprouts. But just buying the ingredients? For us on the other side of the world from the specialist shops of London, we’re unlikely to have a local barberry dealer. And it’s even harder if you don’t live in Wellington or Auckland. He knows this, in a general sense. He wants you to do your best when sourcing ingredients, but not to worry too much if you can’t.
Unlike many recipe books, which are mostly about photoshopped pictures, Ottolenghi’s books, while beautiful, are very much about the writing. He has a clear, inclusive style, speaking to all readers. His information is never didactic; he’s the teacher who gives you credit for knowing at least a little bit already. When he’s describing Gnocci alla Romana he tells you that “comfort food does not get any more comforting than this…I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love it or an adult who doesn’t think it perfect with a glass of red wine.” Then he tells you that it’s fine to make it up to a day before baking it. Yes!!
Simple is well organised. Brunch, Raw Veg, Cooked Veg, Rice Grain and Pulses, Meat etc, and onwards towards Pudding. Then two sections I really appreciate: Meal Suggestions, and Feasts. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting down with the family to not only avocado and broad bean mash (p.106) but you’ll serve it with couscous, cherry tomato and herb salad (p.158). Tapas feast sounds good, with the avocado and bean mash showing its plucky head again, soothingly next to oven chips with oregano and feta (tried those too: nice). He’s already talked you through the concept of feasting; after you’ve read the bit about feasts for him being where you do most of the cooking in advance, and you just double the amount if you need to, you could possibly be over your panic attack. Unless of course you haven’t opened the book to page 297 until an hour or so before your guests arrive.
The best thing about Simple is that, like all Ottolenghi’s other recipe books, it’s inspirational. And although there is a longer list of ingredients than his introduction implies, think how good it’ll be to use up that pomegranate molasses you got when you bought Plenty. And if you’ve managed not to spill the molasses on that, and have already instagrammed it, you can always re-gift it.
It’s a damn fine buy, and all the more so if it’s your first time with Ottolenghi, if you’re coming to him as virginal as a bottle of local olive oil. The internet could well mean the end of the cookery book as we know it: this book could one day be a collector’s item.
Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury Press, $65) is available at Unity Books.