The recipe for a good dinner group has many ingredients, but two are essential: good conversationalists and a shared passion. For a group of eight Sacramento women, that passion is food by Yotam Ottolenghi. The London chef and restaurateur’s cookbook “Jerusalem” sparked what’s become a dinner group of Jewish women. Some claim they don’t cook, but they do with Ottolenghi.
At an early December dinner in the Sierra Oaks home of Karen Ziskind, seven members gathered to share five dishes from Ottolenghi’s four cookbooks, including his newest, “Plenty More.”
Ziskind followed Ottolenghi’s recipes precisely for organic salmon with red pepper and hazelnut salsa from “Ottolenghi, The Cookbook,” his first published work in England but third in the States. The dish garnered raves for its moist texture and uniform pink hue with grill marks and subtly piquant salsa.
Dinner was served buffet-style, and once everyone had served herself and joined in a toast to Ottolenghi, the diners took turns talking about what they’d made and ’fessing up to any substitutions.
For the four dinners they’ve had this year, the group has prepared 20 of Ottolenghi’s recipes. Selecting what to cook can be a challenge because of food allergies and diet preferences. For example, one member is allergic to animal fat, two are vegetarians and one keeps a kosher kitchen. A diner might have to skip a dish, but so far that hasn’t deterred anyone from anticipating the next themed dinner or Ottolenghi cookbook.
“I just love this food,” Ziskind said earlier by phone. “Sometimes it’s a challenge. Some recipes use exotic spices, and I usually make a run to the Middle Eastern market on Fulton.”
A retired attorney, Ziskind first heard about the Ottolenghi cooking group from Hellan Roth Dowden and Naomi Rice, both longtime book club friends who wanted to cook their way through “Jerusalem.”
“I couldn’t make all those dishes fast enough,” Dowden said by phone. “I’m not a big fan of cookbooks, but these are really clear. ‘Plenty’s’ recipes are fantastically good.”
She bought “Jerusalem” after reading about it in The New Yorker magazine. “I couldn’t make anything bad in that book. I’m not a cook, but these recipes are terrific,” said Dowden, a legislative advocate who lives in Carmichael. She admitted to substituting pecans for the macadamia nuts in the sweet winter slaw she made from “Plenty.”
For the dinner, Davida Feder made the roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad (see recipe, Page D2) from “Jerusalem.” She didn’t try it first. “I thought it would look pretty on the plate next to the salmon,” she said.
“I think ‘Plenty More’ is absolutely beautiful,” said Feder of the photographs. The retired clinical social worker and vegetarian is an accomplished photographer who lives in the Sierra Oaks neighborhood.
Possibly the most avid Ottolenghi cook of the group is Linda Schroeder, a certified public accountant who lives in Carmichael. She has “Ottolenghi, The Cookbook” and “Jerusalem.” For the dinner she made the clementine and almond syrup cake, substituting mandarins. Schroeder said she usually follows the recipes precisely and tries not to let the long list of ingredients deter her. “Once you work through (the recipes) and have the spices, they are not that complicated,” she reasoned.
Group organizer Rice made two dishes for the dinner from “Plenty More,” fancy slaw and the saffron, date and almond rice, a Persian-style rice that had intrigued her for years.
A licensed clinical social worker who lives in the Arden Arcade area, Rice said she likes how recipes in “Plenty More” are grouped in chapters according to cooking method.
Off the hook for cooking – this time – were Barbara Baran, a vegetarian, and Claire Lipschultz, who freely admits that she’s not a cook but says Ottolenghi has pulled her into the kitchen.
“It’s an adventure to cook from these books,” she said, equating the hunt for ingredients to travel. “I like finding the ingredients at places in Sacramento that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. It’s a little like taking a trip.” Lipschultz volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women and lives in Carmichael.
Rona Sherriff, who missed this dinner while out of town, says she often alters Ottolenghi’s recipes, baking potatoes instead of frying them or boosting the spicing. Spicing adjustments are common in this group of Californians, who tend to like spicier foods than Londoners.
“One thing I enjoyed about Ottolenghi is it has opened my vista to new spices, like sumac, za’atar and turmeric,” Sherriff said.
Between bites of cake toward the end of dinner, the foodies pulled out their phone calendars to plan their next Ottolenghi meal. It was only the second time that conversations slowed for a group focus on their shared passion.
Reading and cooking through ‘Plenty More’
Yotam Ottolenghi is back stronger than ever. It seems there’s no end to his imaginative preparation of vegetables. Ever since he dazzled American home cooks with his vegetable recipes in “Plenty,” his fans have eagerly anticipated his next step. It came in mid-October with “Plenty More” (Ten Speed Press, $35, 340 pages).
In a kitchen full of vegetarian cookbooks, it stands tall. It’s original and fresh. The writing is clear and precise yet friendly and engaging. The food photography is gorgeous, even if many pictures show a stage in cooking instead of the final plated dish. “Plenty More” and its predecessor radiate delicious ideas that have changed the way we perceive vegetables.
Only cooks who don’t have time and don’t want to explore will find some recipes difficult. He calls for ingredients that are not always in a local supermarket. However, in Sacramento, exotic spices – za’atar, sumac, nigella seeds – are readily available in our Middle Eastern and Asian grocery stores.
Ottolenghi’s genius for vibrant, unexpected vegetable dishes keeps cooks turning the pages and eagerly making plans to chop and dice. It may involve braising lettuce or roasting lemons. Among my favorites, with minor adjustments, is the butternut squash with cardamom and nigella seeds.
At a book tour luncheon in October in San Anselmo, Ottolenghi, an unabashed omnivore, told a room full of fans, “You can do more with a cauliflower than you can with a steak.” To wit, in “Plenty More,” cauliflower is simmered for a mango salad; baked in a frittata-like cake (see accompanying recipe); roasted for a salad with grapes and aged Cheddar; breaded, fried and served with a tamarind dipping sauce or a squeeze of lime; and tossed raw in a salad.
With “Plenty More,” Ottolenghi institutes two major changes. First, he adds spices from the Far East, including Japan and India. He’s not beyond listing hard-to-find ingredients, such as black garlic, lemon geranium water, barberries (tiny sweet-and-sour berries) or kashk (a type of Iranian yogurt that even he can’t easily get). When certain ingredients are hard to find, he often suggests a substitute.
The second change in “Plenty More” is the organization of the recipes into a dozen categories. Instead of sorting recipes by menu course or by vegetable, the chapters are by technique, such as Steamed, Braised or Roasted. Beyond the expected ones, there’s Cracked, about dishes made with eggs, such as an eggplant cheesecake made with feta. There are cakes and pies, stews and soups, salads and dips, but they fall into categories according to how they are cooked. Soups are simmered; stews are braised; and a zucchini “baba ghanoush” is grilled.
For all its strengths, there are a couple of ways this cookbook could be even better. First, it would benefit from an American, preferably Californian, copy edit so a green chile would become a jalapeño and pumpkin seeds would be pepitas or hulled pumpkin seeds to guarantee the expected outcome. The headnotes for the recipes are terrific anecdotes and often informative, but a glossary of the exotic spices and recipe names, while not essential, would enhance the book.
GROUP DINNER MENU
Entree: Organic salmon with red pepper and hazelnut salsa, from “Ottolenghi, The Cookbook”
Rice: Saffron, date and almond rice from “Plenty More”
Salads: Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad from “Jerusalem;” sweet winter slaw from “Plenty” and fancy coleslaw from “Plenty More”
Dessert: Clementine and almond syrup cake from “Jerusalem”
Yotam Ottolenghi’s headnote for this recipe suggests serving it as a light supper with a salad. He says it will taste even better the next day. It should be served warm or room temperature. The recipe appears in “Plenty More” (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
1 small cauliflower, outer leaves removed, broken into 1¼-inch florets (about 4 cups)
1 medium red onion, peeled (about 6 ounces)
5 tablespoons ml olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
7 large eggs
1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
11/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 teaspoon ground turmeric
11/2 cups coarsely grated Parmesan or another aged cheese
Melted unsalted butter, for brushing
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds*
Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400ºF
Place the cauliflower florets in a saucepan and add 1 teaspoon salt. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes, until the florets are quite soft. They should break when pressed with a spoon. Drain and set aside in a colander to dry.
Cut 4 round slices, each ¼ inch thick, off one end of the onion and set aside. Coarsely chop the rest of the onion and place in a small pan with the oil and rosemary. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Transfer the onion to a large bowl, add the eggs and basil, whisk well, and then add the flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper. Whisk until smooth before adding the cauliflower and stirring gently, trying not to break up the florets.
Line the base and sides of a 9½-inch spring form cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides with melted butter, then mix together the sesame and nigella seeds and toss them around the inside of the pan so that they stick to the sides. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the pan, spreading it evenly, and arrange the reserved onion rings on top. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and set; a knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Remove from the oven and leave for at least 20 minutes before serving. It needs to be served just warm, rather than hot, or at room temperature.
Note: Nigella seeds, sometimes called black onion seeds, have a mild, onion/pepper flavor and are available from India and Middle Eastern grocers.
Squash with cardamom and nigella seeds
This recipe, in the Roasted chapter in “Plenty More,” needs some clarification. I asked Yotam Ottolenghi about it in mid-October when we met at a book tour lunch in San Anselmo. He calls for pumpkin seeds and a green chili, when he means pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) and a jalapeño. We have many different green chilies in California, but he said in London they have only jalapeños. I made this recipe several times, and I prefer it with 3 jalapeños.
11/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced (1½ cups)
1 large butternut squash (2¾ pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1¼-inch chunks
31/2 tablespoons pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
11/4 teaspoons nigella seeds*
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 large cinnamon stick
1 green chili (jalapeño) halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
Scant 1 cup vegetable stock
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Place the butter and oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and fry for about 8 minutes, until soft. Add the squash, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook for a further 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it starts to color. Remove from the heat and add the pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds), 1 teaspoon of the nigella seeds, the cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, chili, sugar, and ¾ teaspoon salt. Mix well and transfer to a baking sheet large enough to hold the vegetables in a single but snug layer, about 10 by 12 inches. Pour the stock over the squash and roast for 30 minutes, until the squash is tender. Set aside for about 10 minutes: the liquid in the pan will continue to be absorbed.
Serve warm, with the yogurt spooned on top or on the side, along with a sprinkling of the cilantro and the remaining ¼ teaspoon nigella seeds.
*Nigella seeds, sometimes called black onion seeds, are available from Indian and Middle Eastern grocers.
Sweet potatoes with orange bitters
Yotam Ottolenghi credits Ruth Reichl with the origin of this recipe, which is in “Plenty More.”
11/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice (from 4 to 5 oranges)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Angostura bitters
11/2 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 5 sweet potatoes, unpeeled, halved crosswise, each half cut into 1-inch-wide wedges (31/3 pounds)
2 red chilies, slit open along the center
3 sage sprigs (1/2 ounce)
10 thyme sprigs (1/3 ounce)
2 heads garlic, unpeeled and halved horizontally
3 ounces chèvre (goat cheese) log, broken into pieces
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Place the orange juice in a saucepan with the sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn down the heat to medium-high and simmer fairly rapidly for 20 minutes, until the liquid has thickened and reduced to scant 1 cup (about the amount in a large glass of wine). Add the bitters, olive oil, and 1½ teaspoons salt.
Place the potatoes in a large bowl, add the chilies, sage, thyme, and garlic, and then pour in the reduced sauce. Toss well so that everything is coated and then spread the mixture out in a single layer on a baking sheet on which it fits snugly, about 12 by 16 inches.
Place in the oven and roast for 50 to 60 minutes, turning and basting the potatoes every 15 minutes or so. They need to remain coated in the liquid in order to caramelize, so add more orange juice if the pan is drying out.
At the end, the potatoes should be dark and sticky. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly before arranging on a platter and dotting with the goat cheese. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad
This recipe appears in Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem” cookbook. It was prepared by Davida Feder for the group dinner. Ottolenghi took his inspiration for the salad from Australian chef and food writer Karen Martini.
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets (1 ½ pounds)
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 large celery stalk, cut on an angle into ¼-inch slices (2/3 cup)
5 tablespoons hazelnuts, with skins
1/3 cup small flat-leaf parsley leaves, picked
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (from about ½ pomegranate)
Generous ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Generous ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
11/2 teaspoon maple syrup
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat over 425 degrees.
Mix the cauliflower with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt and some black pepper. Spread out in a roasting pan and roast on the top oven rack for 25 to 35 minutes, until the cauliflower is crisp and parts have turned golden brown.
Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool down.
Decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast for 17 minutes.
Allow the nuts to cool a little, then coarsely chop them and add to the cauliflower along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and the rest of the ingredients. Stir, taste, and season with salt and pepper accordingly. Serve at room temperature.
Editor’s note: This recipe was changed to expand the instructions for the dressing at 4:45 p.m. Dec. 12.