Monday, August 06, 2012

vegan feast: Ottolenghi cookalong

When The Guardian gave a column to a vegetarian-friendly chef a few years back, I was excited. Was the zeitgeist shifting and vegetarian food becoming mainstream? I didn’t mind if he was an omnivore (after all, I’m a pescetarian but a huge promoter of vegan food), anything that makes a plant-based diet sexy is good enough for me.

Melbourne foodbloggers adopted Yotam Ottolenghi with gusto. I wanted to love him but the more I scoured his recipes, the less accessible I found them. Being dairy-free rendered 70% of his dishes inaccessible without a lot of adaptation. (And I hate to admit it, I carry a bit of a grudge that the aforementioned column segued from vegetarian to meat-centric a while later).

When Cindy suggested the next cookalong be Ottolenghi themed, I thought it was time to tackle my difficult relationship with his work. Once more I requested Plenty from the local library and poured over the padded tome. It was difficult. So many of his ingredients didn't lend themselves to our seasonal availability. But I figured with celeriac in season, I’d give his Celeriac and Lentil Salad with Hazelnuts and Mint a go.

While I could source all of the ingredients at Vic Market, the simple salad rung up a hefty toll – puy lentils (or the equivalent) $11 a pop, bunches of thyme and mint, celeriac (two small organic left little change from a tenner), red wine vinegar, hazelnuts…I drew the line at hazelnut oil and substituted with some macadamia I had at home.

The recipe is not officially online but has been reproduced by others in the blogosphere. This version’s authentic, though the blogged recipe is not metricized. From memory the Australian edition of Plenty called for about 600gm of celeriac).

In a (hazel) nut shell the recipe is simple but rendered unnecessarily fussy. Toast the hazelnuts (60gm) in their shells, cook the puy lentils until al dente, boil the celeriac and mix together in a dressing made with olive oil, hazelnut (or in this case macadamia) oil, “high quality” red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and lashings of fresh mint. The recipe called for cooking the lentils with thyme and bay leaves, which didn’t really add any extra flavour.

Overall the salad was healthy but lacking in zing. An entire bunch of mint didn’t particularly enliven the dish (perhaps in summer the essential oils in the herb would pack more punch but then celeriac would be difficult to find) and the dressing needed more acidity. Some roughly chopped parsley instead of mint, an extra slug of vinegar and a heavier hand with the salt may have made it a little tastier.

The entire meal, however, was a raging success. Last year five of us got together to make an vegan, Indonesian-themed shared lunch. It was lovely to chop, cook, chat and eat with a bunch of healthy-food minded people. This time Cindy and Michael hosted and  Kristy and Toby came along to fire up the wok. Who’d have thought you could get five food bloggers in the same kitchen and cook without ego or (too much) chaos?

We feasted on Ottolenghi-inspired gluten-free, vegan food. Michael quietly whipped up a borlotti and green bean masterpiece, Cindy made a bejewelled roasted cauliflower salad and Kristy fried up black pepper tofu in a tasty sauce, while Toby veganised this polenta cake using egg replacer and olive oil.

But wait there’s more.

Cindy roasted rhubarb and whipped coconut cream* flecked with lemon zest (oh my what a heart stopping vegan treat!), which went perfectly with Toby’s polenta cake. It was one of the best vegan desserts I’ve eaten in a long time.

So am I an Ottolenghi convert yet? If I was Joyce of Hot Or Not fame, based on the lentil salad alone, for me Plenty is a definite “not”. But I loved everyone else’s dishes, the camaraderie of the kitchen, Michael’s thoughtful Flying Nun heavy play list and those wonderful desserts.

* Serendipitously Jess Cox posted this simple recipe for whipped coconut cream this morning. A simpler version but just as rich. My gallbladder would like to warn you that delicious as it is, limit it to a very small serve.

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Blogger Cindy said...

I suspect the joys of collaborative cooking can outweigh all but the most disastrous of recipes!

Plenty has really stoked my enthusiasm for whole foods, when so many veg*n blogs lead me down the path of mock meats and cupcakes. It has served as a welcome gateway to more of Heidi Swanson's recipes (which hit me as too earnestly healthy sometimes!). But I absolutely agree that Ottolenghi's style is fussy with loads of ingredients, tools and time needed for most recipes.

3:06 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Collaborative cooking is one of the things I miss from my days of living in shared houses. I love it that Ottolenghi celebrates plant-based food, maybe if I just trust my instincts and short-cut the recipes if I attempt any more in future I might like them more.

3:17 pm  
Blogger Reemski said...

oh I SO agree with yours and Cindy's comments about Ottolenghi's recipes! They are such a pain! Always too much hassle I find, either too fiddly or don't have the ingredients. BUT, I do find the way he puts together things a great inspiration when I'm running dry.

7:49 pm  
Blogger Johanna GGG said...

I haven't got into ottolenghi despite bookmarking some of his recipes but I know converts. I agree the recipes seem overly fussy and there are too many other excellent cookbooks out there to grapple with him.

But ottolenghi aside, good food, good company and lots of flying nun music sounds excellent

8:24 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hey Reemski, lovely to (virtually) see you again. Have worked out a Ottolenghi shortcut - if in doubt sprinkle whatever you've made with pomegranate seeds!

Johanna - next good food and company I reckon is a spring, vegan-friendly picnic like we had in autumn.

12:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So glad you enjoyed the lemon polenta cake, I've had a couple of negative comments about dry results which really upset me. Think I need to put a ml of lemon juice rather than amount of lemons, Andalucian lemons are big & juicy! On the Ottolenghi debate, I love! Haven't got Plenty but Ottolenghi The Cookbook has served me very well indeed, have a great weekend!

1:35 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Too fussy was my immediate reaction to Plenty as well, but I've actually ended up making a fair few dishes. In some cases the first glance trickiness is deceptive. I adore the black pepper tofu, and have experimented using chicken (wouldn't interest you, but it was delicious!), adding vegetables (broccoli and carrot) and reducing the amount of butter used.

Have made bunch of other stuff, the parsnip dumpling broth is amazing. The stock includes prunes, which is genius.

His writing is great as well.

11:48 am  

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