• 'Wondrous' recipes that turn up the flavours of veg (Ebury Press)Source: Ebury Press
Dive into the world of adventurous, inventive veg, with recipes that take a very inclusive approach to how we eat.
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29 Sep 2020 - 9:34 AM  UPDATED 2 Oct 2020 - 3:44 PM

Yotam Ottolenghi confesses he has doubts. Well, a small niggling doubt: in the introduction to his latest cookbook, he writes that every now and then, he wonders “How many more ways are there to roast a cauliflower, to slice a tomato, to squeeze a lemon or to fry an aubergine? How many more secrets are there to be discovered in a handful of lentils or a bowl of polenta?” Happily for fans of the author of the bestselling Plenty and Plenty More, says “the answer, I am delighted to report, is many.”

And in Flavour, the third book in the series, he and co-author Ixta Belfrage have thrown themselves into showing how the flavour of vegetables can be ramped up, combined, enhanced and transformed; made to dance on the tongue in the way a fine piece of music enchants the ear.

Belfrage, who works in the Ottolenghi test kitchen in London, has lived and worked in far-flung corners of the world including Italy, Mexico and Brazil, and brought that history to the pair’s work on Flavour.  

“Ixta always says that I introduced her to the majority of Middle Eastern ingredients that she now feels so familiar and comfortable with, and this is a wonderful exchange, because she has introduced me to ingredients and techniques from her Brazilian and Mexican heritage that I didn’t know before, and we often try to combine these in recipes,” Ottolenghi tells SBS Food. “A nice example of this is our recipe for Roasted carrot salad with chamoy - chamoy being a traditional Mexican sauce made from pickled fruit, lime and Mexican chillies that we reimagined with Aleppo chilli and sumac.” 

The book takes a three-pronged approach to enhancing flavour: a combination of process (what happens to veg when they are cooked); pairing (what do you match the veg); and produce (understanding ingredients – their flavour and texture, their ability to star in a dish or to work as a culinary equivalent of a ‘best supporting’ cast member).

Take the book’s luscious lasagne recipe. “Vegetables, famously, are not as good at importing flavour as meat and fish… some though are absolutely brilliant at it. Our spicy mushroom lasagne is living proof of the power of this particular veg to carry the weight of a complex dish on its own little shoulders, giving any meat a good run for its money,” Ottolenghi writes in the book.

Read on through the book, or listen to either of them talk about food, and you come to feel that Ottolenghi and Belfrage must have minds that are forever darting from one idea to the next, thinking of how to combine ingredients, how to transform textures and flavours, how to wrought change through cutting and cooking and seasoning, how to make the ingredients the love shione, like Archimedes or Leonardo di Vinci or Einstein, if those past geniuses had been driven by a passion for food.

Curious about how such dedicated, curious and inventive flavour-chasers cook, we asked: If there's one pantry staple your kitchen is never without, what is it?

“With this question, we’re both assuming that olive oil, sea salt, garlic and lemon or lime are a given! It would be far too hard to give you just one staple, so here are a few: miso paste, soy sauce, parmesan, tahini, za’atar and dried chillies,” came the answer.

And chilli pops up again when we ask about what they think is the biggest misconception when it comes to spice.

“The biggest misconception surrounding spice has to do with dried chillies, and specifically the notion that they are always hot. We use dried chillies in many of our recipes for many reasons, but it hardly ever has anything to do with spicy heat. Dried chillies are nuanced and have an incredible depth of flavour. They can be smoky, chocolatey, fruity, savoury and everything in between!”

Chillies are a key part of a dish that takes the star power of mushrooms and pairs them with a flavoured oil that can (like many of the component sauces and the like in the book) be just as delicious on other dishes: in the Flavour recipe for portobello steaks and butter bean mash, the mushies get a punch of flavour from an onion, garlic, chilli and spices-flavoured oil.

Flavour roams the globe (try these chaat masala potatoes, inspired by Indian street food), offering veg-based dishes that range from easy weeknight winners to dishes that need a little more time.

Almost half the 100 recipes in the book are vegan, and many more can be easily adapted a vegan diet.

“We made the majority of the recipes vegan to highlight the sheer potential that vegetables have to deliver incredible flavour,” he tells us. He’s used ingredients such as anchovies and parmesan in some recipes because, he writes in the book, when it comes to taking vegetables to new heights, he’ll look at every tool available in the kitchen; but he also wanted to appeal “to the widest group of vegetable lovers possible”.

“My own approach to vegetables has always been pragmatic and inclusive. If you want to win more people over to the veg camp, there is no worse way to go about it than demand the go cold turkey (excuse the pun).”

Where possible, the book offers alternatives to animal products. “This flexitarian approach to cooking and eating acknowledges the diversity of the people we are and the variety of choices we make.”

And no matter where your own approach sits, the common denominator for anyone poring over the pages of an Ottolenghi book is simple to define: we were thinking delicious, but we’ve found a better word. Let’s call Ottolenghi’s and Belfrage’s dishes ‘wondrous’: it’s a word Ottolenghi uses in Flavour to describe the potential of vegetables, and he’s proven yet again how true that is.

Recipe images from Ottolenghi Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage (Ebury Press, hb, $55).

more from yotam ottolenghi
Chunky minestrone with basil paste and pecorino

The ultimate Italian comfort soup, brightened with a chunky basil and parsley oil.

Swiss chard and herb tart with young cheese

With plenty of fresh herbs and cheese, this tart embodies an edible charcuterie board.

Tomato and watermelon gazpacho

The group of old ladies that were brought to teach me how to thread tomatoes together into a fine bunch were the funniest lot of pensioners I have ever met. They were animated, self deprecating and sarcastic in just the right quantity. I could spend hours listening to old time stories but they had to be whisked away from the scene for me to make this soup to camera. It was wonderfully sweet – the crew devoured it – and would have done me proud with my old lady friends.

Sweet and salty cheesecake with cherries and crumble

This is the ultimate dinner party dish. All the elements can be cooked well in advance and put together at the very last minute. Adding the feta is sure to win you serious accolades, as it is an original addition in a dessert and completely delicious. When fresh cherries are not in season you can easily use frozen.

Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs

This unusual combination of fresh fruit and roasted vegetables is one of the most popular at Ottolenghi. It wholly depends, though, on the figs being sweet, moist and perfectly ripe.