Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi: Recipe for Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard and Goat Feta (Gluten-free)

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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

Ingredients

For the socca:
1 3/4 cups chickpea flour (see Note above)
2 cups water
pinch salt
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.

Method

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.

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They will look like this when they are done:

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Wash the swiss chard, and chop it roughly:
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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.

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Fry the swiss chard with a little olive oil until it is soft, but not mushy (about 10 minutes).

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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.

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Flip the pancake over, but don’t worry if it breaks – you will be eating this mixed up with the toppings anyways!

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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.

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Everyone can help themselves to a pancake and top it with vegetables, herbs and cheese!

“I hate those ebooks. They cannot be the future. They may well be. . . I will be dead” – Maurice Sendak

OK, so I said in my last post that I couldn’t really get into Maurice Sendak books. Good thing Kristin of Briney Deep Designs set me (sort of) straight and directed me to Stephen Colbert’s hilarious two-part interview with Maurice Sendak, which aired in January. It will not be surprising that this interview is not G-rated (among other things, the two discuss Colbert’s book idea, the masterfully ungrammatically titled “I’m a Pole (and so Can You)” and you might be able to see where that goes. Sendak hits so many nails on so many heads, and Colbert is a genius of poker face. It’s a masterpiece. Thanks, Kristin!

I also can’t recommend enough this video interview with Judith Kerr (from the Guardian), the author of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” and all the Mog picture books.

A completely fascinating look at a delightful woman, who, come to think of it, might agree with Sendak on what kids can handle in their picture books. The kind of woman who writes Goodbye Mog, a more than slightly weird book which her most beloved creation, Mog the Cat, dies of old age, and then follows it up with My Henry, a book she describes in this interview:

“It’s about being a widow, but it’s very jolly . . . it’s sort of slightly ridiculous. I mean, it’s totally ridiculous.”

Wolf Hall, a second time

I have been rereading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I think I’m enjoying it even more a second time. I have to admit, there are aspects of the plot I am still not fully grasping, particularly the episode of the Holy Maid towards the end of the book. Instead, I have been paying more attention to the parts of the book which I think make it special: the detailed descriptions of Cromwell’s home life, contrasted with the “big-picture” explanations of how he conducts his business (and Wolsey’s and the King’s) within a web of economic and personal relationships across Europe. That might sound pretentious, but Mantel’s ability to show (accurately or not, I don’t know) exactly how things were working behind the scenes was what made this book fascinating for me, rather than the scandalous nature of the main Henry-Katherine-Anne plot.

I was left with one question, why did Mantel choose to call it Wolf Hall if the incestuous drama of the Seymour family is only a small sub-plot? I have some ideas, but I would be interested in hearing yours. Maybe I am missing something . . .

I ate this book

Not really, but I did read it in less than two days, and it’s a fat book in more ways than one.

It’s Spilling the Beans, by Clarissa Dickson Wright, who is best known for being the Fat Lady that is still alive.

I have to admit that I am committing a cardinal sin of book-blogging (bibliologging?), and I don’t have the book in front of me. It’s back at the library already! But that doesn’t prevent me from recommending this book, with some reservations. It’s probably best as a book to read quickly rather than a book to be savoured over several weeks.

Why read this book quickly? First, because it’s morbidly fascinating and gripping to read about the author’s childhood as the daughter of a famous surgeon who was also an abusive alcoholic, about her sprees drinking away her £2.8 million inheritance, and finally her recovery from alcoholism. Secondly, because the writing itself is not a thing to be savoured; the book was obviously written very quickly, albeit by a very smart and articulate person who has a massive vocabulary. I couldn’t help thinking at several points while reading that Dickson Wright could have used an editor to tone down the spewing nature of her prose.

Incidentally, I had the same reaction to the massive wordiness of Infinite Jest. The two books were strangely complementary in their descriptions of addiction, and in the way that both draw the reader into a world with totally foreign rules and social mores. In Infinite Jest that world is the world of the elite tennis academy (and, you know, the world of the Quebecois wheelchair terrorist squad) and in this book it is the world of the “horsey set” of British society, and, to a lesser extent, that of Rumpole of the Bailey. For Clarissa Dickson Wright is not only one of the Two Fat Ladies, she was also the youngest woman ever to be called to the English bar. There’s your strange fact for the day!

So, read this book, but read it quickly, and do not be surprised if by the end, the novelty is beginning to wear off, especially since Dickson Wright spends much of the last hundred pages on a rant against the British ban on fox hunting. Still, a good one for the bathtub!