I’m not a vegetarian – I like bacon way too much to be so crazy, and duck confit too for that matter, and sushi, so really this isn’t going to work out – but I do believe in eating less meat as part of our overall diets. It’s better for the planet, and it’s better for the wallet, even if you choose, as I do, to spend some of the savings on buying better-quality meat, like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, or organic chicken. It’s probably better for your health as well, although I think that’s still up in the air. The problem is that a diet based around meat is pretty easy to plan and prepare – most meats can be marinated and grilled, or brined and roasted, or even pan-seared with a quick sauce, without a ton of active work. If you want to eat more vegetables, either with or in place of meat, you need more time and more creativity to make them taste better and fill the void left on the plate by the reduction in animal proteins. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi, a book of vegetarian recipes written by a chef who eats and cooks with meat, has filled a critical hole in my bookshelf.
Ottolenghi was born in Israel, trained as a chef in London and operates one restaurant, Nopi, and four shops in that city. His food is heavily Mediterranean, although it has strong Turkish, Italian, and Arab roots as well as the obvious Israeli influences, and at the same time grabs from other cuisines around the world, often crossing boundaries – such as his insistence that cilantro has a place in dishes that are fundamentally Italian. Plenty brings that sensibility together with the idea that a vegetable can be the star of the show, filling its pages with potential main courses and luxurious side dishes across the spectrum of vegetables, even stretching into pulses and grains before the book concludes.
I’ve tried a half-dozen recipes from Plenty so far, with broad success overall. The hits included zucchini and hazelnut salad with parmiggiano-reggiano; stuffed zucchini with rice; mushroom ragout with croutons and poached eggs; roasted sweet potato wedges; and caramelized endive with Gruyère, although that latter one suffered slightly from the way the cheese melted right off the endive halves in the oven. In general, Ottolenghi uses every non-meat tool available to boost the flavor of vegetables and make them more suitable for the central role on a vegetarian plate, including spices, herbs, acids, sharp cheeses, yogurt, crème fraiche, and the occasional runny egg. The resulting dishes burst with strong yet balanced flavors and are bright and appealing on the plate, with most recipes within reach of a moderately skilled home chef. The one disappointment, lentil galettes with a lemon-yogurt dressing, wasn’t bad, but even with all of the spices and herbs included in the mix, you’re still left with a plate of lentils, just nicely seasoned ones. Every recipe I tried was clear enough to make substituting ingredients (e.g., swapping out pine nuts because my daughter is allergic to them) simple.
The drawback to Plenty is that the instructions for several recipes don’t seem to have been tested on home stoves. When the text says “simmer gently,” what they actually seem to mean is “boil.” Oven cooking times all seemed too short, even with a thoroughly preheated oven. The book also includes volumetric measurements when weights would be more accurate. It’s a better cookbook for someone with a little more home cooking experience than a beginner would have, but if you’re like me and want to find new ways to get vegetables into your diet, whether as side dishes or as main courses, it’s perfect.
So here’s my take on Plenty‘s stuffed zucchini recipe, tweaking some of the ingredients to suit our tastes and allergies. Removing them from the pan after 40 minutes of cooking was a little tricky because I used very long zucchini, so look for short, wide fruit that will allow you to stuff them without requiring an engineering degree to extract them once they’re done.
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup short-grain rice
2 tbsp chopped pecans
2 tbsp minced parsley
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground allspice
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 wide zucchini, sliced lengthwise
¾ cup boiling water
1½ tsp sugar
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
about 1 oz Pecorino Romano
salt and black pepper
1. Saute the onion in the oil until translucent but not brown. Add the next seven ingredients, a pinch of salt, plus 2 Tbsp of the lemon juice and cook on low to medium-low heat for five minutes, stirring to avoid sticking, until highly fragrant.
2. Use a spoon to scoop out the centers of the zucchini for stuffing. Place them in a shallow but wide saute pan that is large enough to fit all the zucchini. (You can use more zucchini if they’re small enough to fit in the pan.) Fill them with the rice-onion mixture. Pour the boiling water, sugar, a pinch of salt, and the last tablespoon of lemon juice around the zucchini (but not on top yet).
3. Cover and cook at an active simmer for 30-40 minutes, basting with the cooking liquid several times to allow the rice to cook. They’re ready when the rice is al dente.
4. Plenty suggests serving these cold with yogurt as a sauce, but I liked these hot, topped with sesame seeds, freshly ground black pepper, and shaved Pecorino Romano.
Note: Thicker grains of rice may require more cooking time, so you might parcook them about ten minutes to get them soft before adding to the remainder of the stuffing ingredients. I’d also recommend the same if you wish to use brown rice, although that might require even more pre-cooking.