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Cookbook Review: Oils and Vinegars by Liz Franklin

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There are times when you can be overwhelmed walking down a food or beverage aisle. Wine stores are obvious candidates. So many pretty labels, so many grape varietals. The only hope I have is that sign on the top shelf announcing “this is Italy.”

I have the same issue in a supermarket when I wander down the aisle devoted to oils and vinegars. Again, there is a swarm of labels with language I don’t understand. What is a single estate olive oil and is it worth a price premium?

Liz Franklin has traveled the Mediterranean extensively and actually studied olive oil at the University of Perugia right in the heart of the olive oil world: Italy. In her carefully written volume Oils and Vinegars, Liz explains a cuisine world —  thousands of years old — in language that mere mortals can understand.

The book is composed of sections explaining individual types of oils and vinegars accompanied by recipes that show that ingredient at its sparkling best.

She begins, of course, with extra virgin olive oil. How do you read that label, what are the grades, how to do you store, how do oils from Italy and France and Spain and other producers compare? Just as there are wine tastings, you can find olive oil tastings where the same level of sensory complexity is explored. Olive oils can convey a wide array of flavors and textures that will affect how you can best employ them in your kitchen.

Liz presents a lovely first recipe to explore the power of olive oil: Rosemary and Potato Tart with Olive Oil Pastry. And now you’ll know how that pastry can vary depending on the particular olive you select.

Argan is a Mediterranean fruit that, with massive hand labor, is transformed by Berber women into a reddish oil with nutty aroma. You can put it to use in, what else, an authentic Lamb and Butternut Squash Tangine. If argans are not familiar to you or cannot secure argan oil, you may have more success with avocado oil and you’ll find a lovely use for it here: Avocado Oil, Lemon and Pistachio Cake

Walnut, hazelnut, sesame, and even pumpkin oils are described, discussed, and suggested for your tasting. Thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, you might consider serving a Roasted Butternut Squash and Pancetta Salad with Pumpkin Oil.

Literally, “vinegar” means “sour wine” and vinegars have been employed for over 10,000 years. The grand dame of vinegars is, of course, Balsamic and Liz gives a brief but detailed survey of the vinegar pride and techniques employed in Emilia Romagna since the 11th century. How does Liz showcase Balsamic vinegar? A pork fillet is cooked with cheese and olive oil, paired with potatoes mashed in mustard and olive oil, and then sided with onions fried in Balsamic vinegar. It’s a pungent exploration of tanginess.

Beyond Balsamic, Liz explores vincotto, sherry vinegars, red and white vinegars, and the rice vinegars of Asia. Rice vinegars are used twice in Spicy Beef Brochettes with Cucumber and Pineapple Salsa.

Finally, Liz gives you the opportunity to create your own vinegars at home with ideas for flavored vinegars: raspberry and thyme, blackberry, mango, rosemary and lemon. You’ll be inspired by this sampling and challenged to craft your own combinations.

If you take a little time and browse through Oils and Vinegars, you’ll find yourself reading those labels on the oil and vinegar bottles. You’ll pause, you’ll select, and your cooking will be enhanced with dash and depth.

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Cookbook Review: Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

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By now every foodie know the glories of Yotam Ottolenghi, his food, his restaurant, his books. As his prominence evolved, he was asked in 2006 by the Guardian newspaper to write a “new vegetarian” column. This book, Plenty, is a distillation of the first four years of those columns, with some rewriting of the original recipes. Yotam acknowledges that his perspective, his writing, and his recipes have evolved. Thus, Plenty is filled with great recipes made even greater.

Thing is, Yotam is not a vegetarian. He appreciates that his culinary perspective, his books and restaurant have plenty [no pun intended] to satisfy any vegetarian, but he sees vegetarian dishes as complementary. You can indulge only in them, or combine them with protein-based dishes. For Yotam, what matters is that each dish much stand on its own merits, ascend to excellence based only on its ingredients and special preparation.

So, if a dish just happen to have only vegetable components — no protein —then it is a vegetable dish, incidentally vegetarian, that needs to be supreme. There are 130 recipes in this book. 130 supreme recipes.

The book is organized in fifteen chapters, some a single ingredient and some a complete botanical category. But the signature feature of each of the chapters is a focus on one central flavor that is sophisticated enough to serve as the foundation for the entire dish. The chapters include:

  • Roots
  • Funny Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Zucchini and Other Squashes
  • Peppers
  • Brassicas
  • The Mighty Eggplant
  • Tomatoes
  • Leaves, Cooked and Raw
  • Green Things
  • Green Beans
  • Pulses
  • Grains
  • Pasta, Polenta, Couscous
  • Fruit with Cheese

That’s a lot of veggie territory and, even if vegetables are not your very most favorite thing, you can find delights here.

The quality and imagination is evident in the very first recipe in the book: Poached Baby Vegetables with Caper Mayonnaise. This is a Mediterranean inspired book so the capers are a given. The vegetables span an entire garden: carrots, fennels, asparagus, zucchini, and leeks. The poaching liquor is Mediterranean, too: white wine, olive oil, lemon juice, bay leaves, and celery. Typical of this book, the list of ingredients is not short. The directions are not brief. The results sublime.

It is hard to decide what is most important about this book: the recipes or the techniques. Yotam’s cleverness is evident in dishes that include:

  • Parsnip dumplings in broth
  • Caramelized garlic tart
  • Fried leeks
  • Black pepper tofu
  • Roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime and green chile
  • Crusted pumpkin wedges with sour cream
  • Green [spinach] pancakes with lime butter
  • Caramelized fennel with goat cheese
  • Crunchy papparadelle with panko
  • Watermelon with feta

Some of these are immediate and easy: the watermelon with feta. Some are surprising: the parsnip dumplings, or those spinach pancakes. And some will take a bit of time: the roasted butternut squash.

Quick or lengthy, simple or a bit complex, the recipes in Plenty bear Yotam’s signature: his creativity, his devotion to tradition, his joy in experimentation with the new.

Every recipe here is within your reach. You may need some time, some patience, but there is no need for exceptional skills, equipment or ingredients. Just let your imagination be stirred by Yotam’s.

You might have wondered, at times, how anyone could be a vegetarian. Wouldn’t they be missing out on so much? It’s the reverse really. Until you’ve had the chance to sample vegetables prepared in exemplary fashion, you cannot appreciate them. With Plenty, you can.