Got the Ottolenghis? 4 new cookbooks take you behind the yogurt curtain

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Got the Ottolenghis? Here are four books that you're going to love

I’ve come down with a strange disease for which their may be no cure. Call it a case of the creeping Ottolenghis. 

Ever since I started cooking from British chef and cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi’s phenomenal “Plenty” a couple of years ago, I’ve found my tastes shifting gradually eastward. I'm reaching for feta and mint instead of mozzarella and basil. Rice and whole grains are taking the place of dried pasta. And I’m buying tahineh and yogurt in what seems like industrial quantities.

Still, even as my dinners are becoming progressively lighter, brighter and more herbaceous, I find myself wanting to push even further into the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Fortunately, it seems the Ottolenghi effect has not escaped the notice of the publishing industry — either here or in Britain. Four cookbooks have crossed my desk recently that go beyond the yogurt curtain.

Any of them would make a terrific gift for anyone on your list who has been similarly infected.

When I interviewed Ottolenghi for a Live Talks L.A. program this fall, he singled out “Persiana” by Sabrina Ghayour as one book he was especially excited about. Selected as the best cookbook of 2014 by Observer Food Monthly, it has just been published in the U.S. by Interlink Books.

It’s easy to see why Ottolenghi is so excited about it. Ghayour’s food is both sophisticated and approachable — a tough line to tread, particularly with cuisines and ingredients that might be unfamiliar. But consider a dish like her tagine of lamb, butternut squash, prune and tamarind — it's just 11 ingredients including spices, but the flavors jump off the page. Even simpler — and maybe even more compelling — shrimp sauteed after a quick marination in sumac, cilantro, lemon and garlic. 

Jila Dana-Haeri’s “From a Persian Kitchen” offers a more traditional look at Iranian cooking, but is just as appealing. The rice chapter alone is reason enough to love this book, covering not only the standard chelo and polo styles (with tahdig!), but also alternatives, including intriguing sounding dami — sticky rice cooked with vegetables. There’s also a full complement of Persian-style pickles (torshi), stews (koresh) and salads.

Yet another book originating in Britain, Tony Kitous and Dan Lepard’s “Comptoir Libanais,” takes a look at the home-style cooking of Lebanon, albeit home cooking from a restaurant point of view (Kitous owns a small chain of Comptoir Libanaises in London). 

Far from the baba ghanoush and kefta familiar from so many “Middle Eastern” restaurants in Southern California, this book offers recipes such as goat cheese rounds deep-fried in a coating of sesame and nigella seeds, flatbreads riddled with a thick coating of za’atar and an utterly delicious sounding combination of fried eggplant with yogurt, crispy onions and toasted pita sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

Aglaia Kremezi has long been one of our best writers on Greek cooking. With “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts,” she simultaneously goes wider and deeper, extending her geography to the entire Eastern Mediterranean, but focusing it only on vegetable cookery. 

Fortunately, the food looks just as amazing as always: spiced chickpeas served with yogurt, crisp pita, pine nuts and mint; a thick soup of red lentils finished with a spicy oil; and who could refuse a twist on Greek roasted potatoes, flavored with garlic, orange and mustard?

SHRIMP WITH SUMAC, CILANTRO, LEMON AND GARLIC

From “Persiana” by Sabrina Ghayour. She notes: “Sumac has very citric properties. Traditionally, we use it to season grilled lamb kebabs, although it is now sprinkled onto everything and used in many different ways. It works especially well with seafood and white meats, as the citrusy flavor really complements them. Love using it with shrimp; it adds flecks of color to them and gives a lovely flavor to the finished dish. I like to buy the biggest shrimp I can find (and keep just the heads and tails on), but you can use whichever kind you like best.” This recipe was not tested in the Times Test Kitchen.

6 tablespoons olive oil

Zest of 2 lemons and juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons sumac

5 large garlic cloves, bashed, peeled and thinly sliced

1 small bunch cilantro, stems and leaves finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 3/4 pounds peeled raw jumbo shrimp

1. Select a wide, shallow vessel in which to make your marinade. Put in the olive oil, then add the lemon zest, sumac, garlic and cilantro. Season well with a generous amount of sea salt and black pepper, ad the lemon juice and mix the ingredients together well.

2. Place the shrimp in the marinade and mix well to ensure they are evenly coated, then cover the dish with plastic wrap and marinate for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator if you can. Of course, you can cook the shrimp immediately, but a little marinating time will allow the flavors to penetrate. As the marinade contains acid (lemon juice), I would not recommend marinating the shrimp for longer than a few hours, since it may partially cook them (although they will still be perfectly safe to eat). 

3. Preheat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Once it is hot, shake off the excess marinade from each shrimp and place it straight into the frying pan. Cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes on each side until they turn pink, and serve immediately. 

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