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If you’ve eaten a tomato and egg shakshuka recently, or a dollop of creamy labneh with your roasted vegetables, you should probably thank Yotam Ottolenghi. In only a few years, the Israeli-raised, London-based chef and cookbook author has become one of the most influential – and in many quarters, beloved – figures in food.

Plenty, his inspired cookbook of extraordinary vegetable dishes, almost instantly became a blockbuster when it was published four years ago, and not only among vegetarians. While the recipes were distinctly exotic-sounding (smoky eggplant with pomegranate, za’atar and buttermilk sauce; “fried lima beans with feta, sorrel and sumac”), they were also eminently doable, and so delicious-looking they were impossible to resist.

Jerusalem, published in 2012 with Ottolenghi’s business partner Sami Tamimi, read like an edible love letter to the city, its food and its cultures – and to a series of complex, extraordinary, enormously tasty ingredients, foods and flavours, just when many home cooks were yearning for something new.

With Plenty More, published this month, Ottolenghi gets back to vegetarian cooking, combing the world for its tastiest vegetable-focused dishes: Persian legume and noodle soups, tart Southeast Asian salads, Brussels sprouts roasted with pomelo and star anise. Following the Ottolenghi formula, they’re exotic, they’re irresistible and they’re easy to make. You can bet they’ll be turning up on restaurant menus any day. The Globe spoke with the chef on the phone from London.

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi's new cookbook Plenty More features delicious vegetarian recipes from around the world. (Jonathan Lovekin/Penguin Random House)

You’ve become this sort of hero to a lot of vegetarians, and I’m sure the new book will only strengthen that. Yet you’re an omnivore – I’ve got your amazing leg of lamb shawarma recipe from Jerusalem marinating in the frige right now. Has that been a challenge?

Considering where I grew up, cooking vegetables has never been a massive challenge. With Middle Eastern food, it’s very much a case of vegetables being at the centre, and if it’s not vegetables, it’s legumes and rice, grains. So it’s never seemed unusual not to serve meat.

I started to expand my horizons a bit. I began to engage with cuisines that I hadn’t really met before, through travels and reading, and meeting other cooks. Think about the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where you really have whole culinary cultures based on very little meat, and often without fish either. It’s been less challenging than I thought it would be.

Your food stands out from so much of North America’s vegetarian canon because it’s often very rich in fats like olive oil and tahini, in pastry, sugar, salt, butter, cheese – have you had much reaction to that here?

Old-school vegetarian cooking was really all about bland cooking, as if to not eat meat means that you need to take all the deliciousness out of your food. There is a sense that the flavours are really put in second place. It’s all about denying yourself of something. When your focus is a negative focus, it’s a focus about denial, I’m not surprised that the food doesn’t taste that great. That’s why I don’t like the title “Vegetarian” too much, because it doesn’t really convey what it is.

Both the Plenty books make a point of calling it “Vibrant Vegetable Cooking” on their covers.

It’s just about celebrating vegetables. And you know, vegetables need help. Especially if you’re living somewhere the sun doesn’t shine all year round, you want to use more herbs and more spices, sometimes a pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt – all those things that help the vegetables to come into their own. You don’t need a lot of it, but you do need some to make people, especially omnivores, enjoy vegetables in the same way they enjoy their meat.

What advice do you have for cooks who may be intimidated by sumac, or harissa, or the lowly okra, which you use in your recipes? How do you get comfortable cooking a new cuisine?

Let’s talk about Middle Eastern cuisine: It’s much simpler to cook than French food! Once you’ve got to know the ingredients, the processes of cooking them are actually simpler. Many people say, you know, ‘I feel overwhelmed by the number of ingredients that you use. Every recipe has a new thing that I don’t know.’ The idea behind this is not to shock you or make you anxious. It’s all about exposing people to new ideas. But a lot of people also put a lot of pressure on themselves, to perform the next miracle at the next dinner party. That's not fun, and I think cooking should be fun. If you want to familiarize yourself with a certain cooking style, then just cook one or two recipes to start that you are happy with, and carry on cooking them over and over again, and that will give you a sense of familiarity, with a dish and an ingredient. And only then move on to the next thing. Some of the best home cooks I know cook a very narrow repertoire of dishes, but they do them really well.

Are there any cuisines that intimidate you?

I don’t get scared so much, because I try to not think that any mistake I make in the kitchen reflects on me in any way. But I will not make my own sushi, because there are enough good people who are trained well and make good sushi. There’s no reason to make an effort. I haven’t engaged much with Mexican food, so if you told me that you want me to cook a Mexican meal for you tonight, I’d probably be a little stressed out. Forget it, I’m not doing it. I’ll cook you something wonderful from the Middle East!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Honey-Roasted Carrots
with Tahini Yogurt

(Photo by Jonathan Lovekin/Penguin Random House)

The inspiration for this dish came from Sarah, who works in my test kitchen. Sarah’s “nan” (grandmother), Dulcie, in Tasmania, always used to add some honey to the pan before roasting her carrots. I’m not sure what Dulcie would have thought about a tahini yogurt sauce served alongside, but the sweetness of the carrots certainly welcomes it.

Serves 4

  • Scant 3 tbsp (60 g) honey

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds, toasted and lightly crushed

  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed

  • 3 thyme sprigs

  • 12 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3/4 by 2 1/2-inch/2 by 6-cm batons (3 lb/1.3 kg)

  • 1 1/2 tbsp cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

  • salt and black pepper

  • Tahini yogurt sauce

  • Scant 3 tbsp/40 g tahini paste

  • 2/3 cup (130 g) Greek yogurt

  • 2 tbsp lemon juice

  • 1 clove garlic, crushed salt

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Place all the ingredients for the tahini sauce in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Whisk together and set aside.

Place the honey, oil, coriander and cumin seeds, and thyme in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and a good grind of black pepper. Add the carrots and mix well until coated, then spread them out on a large baking sheet and roast in the oven for 40 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until cooked through and glazed.

Transfer the carrots to a large serving platter or individual plates. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a spoonful of sauce on top, scattered with the cilantro.

Excerpted from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi. Copyright © 2014 by Yotam Ottolenghi. Excerpted by permission of Appetite by Random House, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

Fava Bean Spread with
Roasted Garlic Ricotta

(Photo by Jonathan Lovekin/Penguin Random House)

Don’t be put off by the need to start with shelled beans: Buy them already shelled (I have seen them in a few Middle Eastern grocery stores) or else it’s a fun and therapeutic task to delegate to helpers – little or big. Serve with toasted sourdough as a starter.

Serves 4 to 6 as a starter

  • 1 head garlic (10 cloves), cloves separated, skin on

  • 1/2 cup/125 ml olive oil

  • 1 cup (240 g) ricotta

  • 3 tbsp sour cream

  • 2 lemons, rind shaved in long strips from one, 2 tsp finely grated zest from the other

  • 1 1/3 lb (600 g) fava beans (2 2/3 cups (400 g) if starting with shelled beans)

  • 1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice

  • 1/2 cup (15 g) mint leaves, chopped, plus 1 tbsp shredded mint leaves to garnish

  • salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Mix the garlic cloves with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil, place on a baking sheet, and cook for 15 minutes, until soft. Remove from the oven and when cool enough to handle, squash the garlic out of its skin using the back of a fork. Discard the skins, place the flesh in a small bowl, and add the ricotta, sour cream, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some black pepper. Use a whisk to mix everything together well and set aside.

Place the remaining olive oil in a small saucepan with the shaved lemon rind. Place over medium heat, bring to a gentle simmer, then remove from the heat to cool and infuse.

Bring a large pan of water to a boil. Add the fava beans, blanch for one minute, drain, and then remove them from their skins. Crush the beans with a fork, add all but 1 tablespoon of the lemon-infused oil (removing the rind first), the lemon juice, the chopped mint, 1/2 teaspoon salt and some black pepper and mix together.

Spread the ricotta mix in a thin layer over the bottom of each serving plate or one larger platter. Spoon the fava bean mixture on top, lightly spreading it out to cover most of the ricotta. Sprinkle the shredded mint and grated lemon zest over the fava mixture and finish with a drizzle of the lemon-infused oil.

Excerpted from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi. Copyright © 2014 by Yotam Ottolenghi. Excerpted by permission of Appetite by Random House, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

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