Friday, January 4, 2019

Elaborate Simplicity: Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is the author of Simple. (Photo: Chris Floyd)

If you're familiar with Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks and you make a few of the recipes in Simple, you might find yourself tempted to suggest modifications to his title. Simple for Ottolenghi might be more apt, or perhaps Simpler than NOPI. (Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully's 2015 NOPI: The Cookbook offered such notoriously elaborate recipes that even some admiring reviewers admitted that they would probably only use it for special occasions.) Coming only two years after Diana Henry's collection of the same name, it's particularly difficult to deny that Ottolenghi's notion of simplicity is . . . involved.

He asserts, for example, that there are some half dozen ways for a recipe to be simple, and introduces a code to indicate how any given recipe earns its place in the collection. If the dish only takes a short time to get on the table, he tags it with the letter 'S'. If it uses 10 ingredients or fewer – that’s 10 ingredients plus any salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic or onions – he tags it with the letter 'I'. Dishes that can be made in part or entirely ahead of time receive an 'M'. Occasionally a recipe is all those things and can also be made with ingredients that are (or should be) already in your pantry (P) by lazy (L) cooks who prefer to be off doing something else while their meal basically makes itself. And if it’s all those things and – like the pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives and capers – “easier than you think” (E), then it’s identified as S-I-M-P-L-E. Simplicity, it turns out, is a rather elaborate concept.

Perhaps rose harissa is not a pantry staple in your household. You'll want to change that. When I first received my copy of the book, a friend and I – both enthusiastic cooks, both perfectly conversant with your everyday harissa – mocked the idea of rose harissa as a pantry staple. That was before I mail-ordered it and tried it in three recipes. I retract my skepticism: rose harissa is a transcendent incarnation of generic harissa.

In fact, there’s a sort of appendix to the book titled “Ottolenghi’s Ingredients” that lists and describes the ingredients the chef believes ought to become part of your regular rotation even though they probably aren’t already. In addition to rose harissa, he names items like black garlic, urfa chile flakes, preserved lemons, and barberries. Where I live, some of these are easier to find than others, but none are pantry staples unless you’re Iranian or Moroccan. But Ottolenghi thinks they deserve to be, and his talent for catching, creating, and amplifying trends is such that several of these ingredients have made it onto ingredient “It Lists” for 2019.

Elaborate simplicity is a concept that serves Yotam Ottolenghi well. Many of the recipes showcase his renowned inventiveness with vegetables. The cauliflower “tabbouleh” salad takes advantage the recent riced cauliflower craze, but riced cauliflower, while admittedly nutritious, has been the basis of some staggeringly dull dishes. Ottolenghi’s version offers a bright, lemony-herbal palette and, thanks to green herbs and pomegranate seeds, a burst of color. Similarly, all four of the soups in Simple use fairly common vegetables in in ways that are both uncommon and enticing. This collection runs the gamut, though: there are plenty of inventive meat dishes, here, like the harissa beef sirloin with pepper and lemon sauce, or the lamb and feta meatballs.

The thread that unifies the collection is that the recipes don’t tend to be easy in any straightforward sense of the word – just “easier than you think.” They’re worth making for all that, and I’m guessing that’s what Yotam Ottolenghi would like us to realize. The pumpkin soup involves making a pumpkin-seed-maple garnish, an extra step, but the garnish might be the best thing about that dish: it’s positively addictive and can be repurposed for finishing other dishes. I tried sprinkling it on carne adovada and a grilled cheese sandwich and both experiments were successful. The no-churn raspberry ice cream, which appeared first in Sweet, the collection of dessert recipes that Ottolenghi compiled with Helen Goh last year, isn’t particularly any easier to make than churned ice cream, at least not if you own an electric ice cream maker. But it is heavenly: you will probably be asked to share the recipe.

So maybe this book isn’t for when you come home at the end of a long day and just want to get something comforting into your belly. For that, we have mussels – and Marcella Hazan’s recipe for pasta with spinach and ricotta. If you’re new to cooking, or just plain tired, extracting the seeds from a pomegranate or hunting down the immersion blender that you stored God-knows-where might just be one step too many to contemplate. But it’s all relative, isn’t it? You also don’t have to save these recipes for when you have an entire day to make a single, elaborate dish. One friend put it this way when she was gearing up to make the chile fish with Tahini: “Only 25 ingredients and trips to 2 supermarkets (+ the Persian specialties store)? Are we sure this is a real Ottolenghi recipe?”

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

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