I am a terrible cook. It’s okay, I’ve come to terms with it. I make the best toast, a mean avocado and tomato sandwich, and can put a teabag in a mug of hot water like I’ve been doing it all my life. But I’ve never made a good cake or fantastic cupcakes, or enraptured dinner guests with a meal. In short, I am no threat to your plan of winning Masterchef.
But I like cookbooks. Since I became vegetarian, then vegan, I’ve procured many more cookbooks and given away some of my now redundant ones. And I always look through them and imagine myself in the kitchen as some kind of zen chef, smiling at everything, using all stove hobs without crying and producing a meal that would render Gordon Ramsay speechless. As it is I would probably be wailing with hysteria halfway through a recipe and the oven mitt will be on fire. And that would just be for the accompanying salad.
When I woke up one morning to a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty from the gorgeous folk at Random House (literally, as the postman threw the package at the door and scared us all awake), I thought: this time will be different. Instead of flicking through, looking enviously at the recipes, then shelving it and going out for Indian food, I would actually do something completely out of character and cook something out of it. No! Cook many things. Because Plenty is just divine.
It’s the bestselling Ottolenghi author’s second cookbook: all vegetarian, lavishly photographed and with clear and helpful instructions. Right there was an immediate pleasure for me; I realised I could actually make these things. They weren’t ridiculously simple recipes and steps—1. Procure bread, 2. Plug toaster in, 3. Place bread horizontally in toaster, etc—but they were recipes that weren’t in all my other cookbooks yet did not terrify me. Ottolenghi’s notes on the top of each recipe and relaxed but concise explanations appeased me into a nice mellow feeling of I can do this. And so I went out to the shops. And after a hasty consult with my iPhone to see what shallots were and a small anxiety attack at the price of saffron, I bought my ingredients for the recipes I’d eyed up and went home.
Attempt one was the quinoa and grilled sourdough salad on page 128, which looked fresh and healthy and relatively simple. I’d always avoided quinoa in the past, substituting couscous if a recipe called for it, but this time I went out and found some. Now I am thinking about substituting quinoa for couscous in everything from now on because it’s a sweet little grain, amusingly shaped, easier to cook that I’d imagined and, importantly, scrumptious. In fact, the entire meal was an absolute success, hungrily gulped down by me and Chris, and I even made enough to take to work for lunch the next day, where all my co-workers were peeking into my Tupperware to see what it was and making appreciative noises. It was straightforward and very tasty, a new version, as Ottolenghi says, of the Arabian fattoush. It was also a lesson in paying attention to recipes—I made too much bread for the croutons, which was astonishing as my general kitchen rule is There Can Never Be Too Much Bread. In this case, there was. In the past I may have covered up average meals by overdoing the bread, but maybe it’s not always necessary! I’m planning on making this at the next barbecue or party, because it really was spectacular.
Attempt two was made a little later, after I had mostly recovered from a cold that had killed my sense of taste and left me looking pathetically in the fridge as the parsley I bought started to go all floppy and the mint a bit brown. Finally, I had enough feeling in my tongue to have a go at page 260, saffron tagliatelle with spiced butter. I cheated a little here, as I didn’t make the pasta as per his suggestion (he does point out you can use normal pasta, just to boil it with some threads of saffron, which I did) and used margarine instead of butter, which is probably a terrible food crime but didn’t bother me. This went a little less successfully because I burned the scallions I was cooking in the butter, but I can’t blame poor Yotam for this. I also left out the pine nuts (because I forgot them) and feel they would have been a beautiful crunchy addition to an otherwise silky dish. My own inadequacies aside, the mix of spices were just heavenly and with the addition of parsley and mint, the dish sprang into something absolutely beautiful. Managing to still be tasty even with burned bits of onion all over the dish is a pretty impressive accomplishment and again, the method didn’t scare me off. I’ll absolutely try this again, possibly with a few modifications like, I don’t know, the correct ingredients and a better attention span.
Plenty is a super cookbook. To my vegan pals: this is heavy on the eggs and cheese, though plenty (o I am hilarious) of it is adaptable. It’s a lovely-looking and very encouraging addition to any kitchen bookshelf, and I now recommend it. And after having it by my side for reference for this, I’ve just made myself hungry again.