Sunday, January 22, 2012

Plenty of Ottolenghi & A Word to the Sage

Mushrooms & Herb Polenta from Plenty by Ottolenghi
I have something to confess.   A relatively major thing, as foody confessions go.  There's something I've been keeping to myself for several years now that I dared not utter but was forced to the forefront of my mind a few months ago when I randomly purchased a new cookbook.

I'd been wanting it for a while but I decided to finally just go out and buy Plenty when I saw it at a highly aesthetically pleasing little shop on the main street in Camden, ME on a whimsical weekend getaway in the fall.  I ordered it off Amazon as soon as I got home.  I just couldn't stand not having that picture of the eggplants (slathered in some sort of deliciously light yoghurty-sauce and sprinkled with thyme, zatar and pomegranate seeds, if you must know) as part of my daily visual binge.

I flipped through it voraciously as soon as it came.  And I oohed and ahhhhed over the lovely, intensely creative vegetarian recipes which literally jump off the page at you.  I'd heard of Ottolenghi for so long.  First, just because I lived in London, of course (they're in Kensington, Notting Hill, Belgravia...).  Then because it was somewhat of a rival to Melrose & Morgan, the place across the street from the bakery I worked at in Primrose Hill where I generally got my lunch (to this day I often dream of their beef wellington).  And finally because a friend of mine was obsessed by their style of cooking and was going on about the new book coming out and how she'd pre-ordered it.  I scoffed.  All-natural ingredient-driven delis with modern lighting, bright white platters and on-the-edge-of-acceptable-vegetarian-salads are kind of "a thing" in London.  They're almost common, ironically.  It's like they're the British upper-crust's answer to the working man's pub on every corner: "So, you dare to serve microwaved cottage pie with frozen chips?  Take THAT scoundrels!"  

Vibrant Vegetable Recipes - as Ottolenghi's Plenty is described - have arrived.

* * *

Yottam Ottolenghi is Israeli and, surprisingly, not a vegetarian (as Plenty's recipes and his weekly column in The Guardian would suggest).  I don't know much about Israeli food, though I do know a fair bit about the Mediterranean and I'm guessing he's going for a fusion of those two with light, modern British cuisine.  I admire the use of local, fresh ingredients and the fact that everything is made from scratch by them every single day.  The only problem I often find with modern, all-vegetarian takes is that they often look better than they taste.  It seems to me that in an effort to use as many fresh, raw, unique ingredients as possible, the flavor combinations can often cross the line a little too far into the purely "artsy-fartsy" side of food, straying every-so-much from the purely "tasty-wasty" side of things.  (I mean, in all honest, I have never tasted a dish where plain quinoa featured prominently that I loved.) 

Despite my misgivings, I must admit that I was spoiled for choice with Plenty.  It covers all the seasonal bases and I had no problem finding  a warm, inviting Fall or Winter dish.  In the end I settled on a deceptively simple recipe: Mushroom and Herb Polenta.

I had all the ingredients in the fridge and any recipe that includes more than one type of mushroom in copious amounts makes it to the table at my house.  I was also especially taken by the idea of creating a beautiful slab of polenta.*  Just so aesthetically appealing.  But anyway, the only thing I was missing was the chervil.  After a quick google search I realized you can substitute a combination of parsley and sage for it and felt happy that I finally had a reason to cut into that giant, beautiful sage bush growing in my backyard before the first frost.  Except for one thing - and here's where the confession comes in - I hate sage.

What possessed me to grab it anyway?  What made me think that instead of using the 1/8 tsp the website suggested I cold use the 4-5 full sage leaves I greedily grabbed?  Was it my hopeful trust in Ottolenghi's magic chef wand?  Was it that I thought maybe this would be the dish that converted me?  It's all beyond me.  I grabbed it anyway.  Yes, I'm a beast.  

I poured my heart into that recipe, chopping up a fragrant herbal storm, conjuring and channeling the spirit of London's most sophisticated, most natural eateries - and what resulted was beautiful.  Truly beautiful.  A purely aesthetic masterpiece of creamy polenta with roasted, autumnal mushrooms.  A delightful thing to look at, and one which Matthew found me gleefully photographing in the backyard as he got home from work.  

But back at the dinner table, I knew something had gone awry.

I don't know why I don't like sage!  I never have.  Maybe in a minute quantity I can kind-of stand it but to me it just tastes like badly-cooked liver.  Badly-cooked liver in the deceptively enticing form of a lovely, velvety leaf.  A perfectly shaped leaf that is iconic for many dishes such as Saltimbocca alla Romana in which it serves as a garnish and seasoning, or traditional Christmas sausage stuffing.  And yet, I just don't get it.  It ruined the dish for me and I am convinced the chervil would have done the same.  If I ever cook this again (which I might), I'd leave it out altogether.

Ottolenghi prides itself on bold, fresh flavors.  This polenta certainly delivers that and a little too much more.  I can't say I agree with this particular flavor combination but...I can't wait to try another recipe.  And maybe even get the first cookbook. :) 

*In the book it's served on a wooden board (which, if I'd had a big enough one I would have done).
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