One of my birthday gifts was the cookbook Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi, whose Israeli heritage has obviously shaped his approach to food, is a chef in London, and also writes on vegetarian and other types of cooking for the Guardian newspaper. I was really excited to get this book, as one of my sisters is a rabid fan of Ottolenghi’s writing in the Guardian (well, she’s a rabid fan of many things in the Guardian, but particularly of Ottolenghi!). As I leafed through the book, it struck me immediately that these were different from the vegetarian recipes I was used to: they seemed lighter, with a greater emphasis on vegetables rather than trying to simulate meat dishes, and they made heavy use of Middle Eastern and Asian flavors. This is a great book to check out if your primary vegetarian cookbooks have always been of the Moosewood cookbook variety.
In comparison with another recent acquisition, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, this book seems less accessible to the inexperienced cook. First of all, the book is organized according to the primary vegetable used in the recipe. Initially, this seemed to me like an excellent system, especially for a cook who was interested in eating seasonally. I pictured myself plucking a strange vegetable from my CSA (community supported agriculture) box, (perhaps one fitting the theme of the chapter titled “Funny Onions”?), locating the relevant chapter, and going on my merry way to cooking a masterpiece of seasonal appropriateness. However, the more I tried to figure out how to fit this book into our daily cooking, the more I realized that this is not actually the way I plan my meals: I think that categories such as “curries,” or “noodles”, or “salads” (hopelessly old-fashioned, I know!) are more helpful when you are trying to figure out which recipe might be appropriate to a certain day, pantry situation, or level of hunger.
The other criticism I have of this book is that, in comparison to the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook or some of my other favorites, such as Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the instructions for each recipe are somewhat scanty, and there are few “process” photographs and no illustrations. It’s often hard to visualize exactly what the author is describing, and there are few tips or pointers to reassure you. One of the things I find most useful about the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, for example, is the fact that the author will tell you “the dough should have enough flour incorporated so that it does not stick to your fingers” or “the fritters should be golden brown after 1 minute: if they are not, turn down the heat.” It’s tips like this that actually ensure that you will have success with recipes, so I will be interested to see cooking with this cookbook will be more challenging. It’s certainly not a book for a beginning cook.
So, what is this book good for, then? Inspiration! Many of the recipes combine ingredients in ways that I would never have thought of, to make less-usual categories of food such as cold noodle salads, flatbreads with toppings, etc. One featured ingredient that I had never used before is chickpea flour (sometimes sold as garbanzo flour, or pakora flour, since it’s what those Indian fritters are made of). I had, however, eaten chickpea flour many times, because I love love love pakoras, and I had also eaten socca, a Provencal chickpea flat bread, while in Europe several years ago. I made a variation on Ottolenghi’s recipe for Socca, which appears in the “pulses” section of the book. While Ottolenghi served his version with a tomato, onion and thyme topping, I made a topping of tomatoes, chard, fresh herbs and goat feta. Ottolenghi adds two egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks, to his socca batter. I omitted these to make the recipe quicker, since I had seen socca recipes without eggs, and the pancakes were delicious.
Note re: chickpea flour:
I think chickpea flour will become one of my new favorite ingredients: it’s tasty, high in protein and iron (good for vegetarians), and it’s also gluten free (I’m not gluten-intolerant, but I sometimes cook for people who are, so it’s good to have some GF recipes up my sleeve). Surprisingly, it wasn’t available in the bulk section of my local (extremely well-stocked) food co-op, but I finally located it in the baking aisle. The kind I bought was made by Bob’s Red Mill. It can also be found in the bulk section of natural foods stores, or in bulk stores, or in grocery stores that carry South Asian/Indian foods.
The Recipe: Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard, and Goat Feta
For the socca:
1 3/4 cups chickpea flour (see Note above)
2 cups water
1 teaspoon olive oil (for the batter)
canola oil for frying (or other neutral vegetable oil)
For the topping:
2 pints cherry tomatoes (2 small containers) – You could also use large tomatoes, cut in quarters. I used cherry tomatoes because I was making this in the winter, when cherry tomatoes have better flavor than other kinds, but I would make this with large tomatoes if they were in season.
1 tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh mint (about 1 cup, chopped)
1 bunch fresh basil (about 1 cup chopped)
1 large bunch swiss chard (about 6-8 cups, chopped roughly)
about 6 oz goat-milk feta – You could use sheep-milk feta or cow-milk feta but I like the flavor of goat-milk feta
Equipment note: You will need to use a frying pan to cook the pancakes, and the swiss chard. I used a large saute pan to cook the swiss chard, and a cast-iron frying pan to cook to the pancakes. If you don’t own two frying pans, cook the Swiss chard first, set it aside, and use the same pan to make the pancakes.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut each cherry tomato in half and put the tomatoes in a baking dish (I used a ceramic casserole dish). Drizzle olive oil over top and season with salt and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and roast until they are starting to shrivel and release juice – about 30 minutes.
They will look like this when they are done:
Make the socca batter. Put the chickpea flour in a bowl and add water, oil and salt. Whisk until it reaches a smooth consistency. Leave the batter to sit for a few minutes, then whisk again and add a little water if it seems too stiff. It should be a thick, pourable batter, like pancake batter.
Fry the swiss chard with a little olive oil until it is soft, but not mushy (about 10 minutes).
While the Swiss chard is frying, make the socca pancakes. Heat a spoonful of oil in the frying pan, wait until it is hot, and pour in a large spoonful of the batter. I think I used about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. Wait until bubbles appear on the top of the pancake, and the top of the pancake is no longer wet-looking and appears solid.
Flip the pancake over, but don’t worry if it breaks – you will be eating this mixed up with the toppings anyways!
While the pancakes are frying, chop the basil and mint, and set the table with bowls containing the herbs, feta (crumbled), swiss chard and roasted tomatoes.
Everyone can help themselves to a pancake and top it with vegetables, herbs and cheese!