It's ironic that chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi has written one of the greatest vegetarian cookbooks of all time, Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi.
He is, after all, a carnivore. Such distinctions matter little to his many fans in Britain, where his eponymous London restaurants as well as his New Vegetarian column in The Guardian have made him a culinary celebrity.
But Mr. Ottolenghi is one of the few chefs who's able to bridge the two dietary solitudes. He abstains from the irrational hostility of many meat-eaters to flesh-free cooking, and remains equally dismissive of the ethical and ecological pieties that make so much vegetarian cooking a physical and mental chore. Mr. Ottolenghi may well be the poster boy for the middle way commonly called "flexitarianism."
He proves that an eggplant or lentil offers as much potential for pleasure as a slab of beef - as long as you deal with it on its own terms and don't try to turn it into an ersatz steak. Mr. Ottolenghi, who originally hails from Israel, explores the flavours of the Mediterranean, the Levant and points east in a series of easy-to-prepare, astonishingly delicious lacto-ovo vegetarian dishes that celebrate vegetables, pulses and grains while articulating their charms with flavour-packed accents of herbs, spices and citrus, and adding richness and body with generous dollops of dairy and the occasional egg. The book's only cliché is a fava bean burger.
There is not a bland bite in this book. Roasted sweet potato wedges lavishly sprinkled with ground coriander, cilantro leaves and chopped red chilies rival the addictiveness of conventional fries, especially when dipped in vibrant, tart lemongrass crème fraîche.
Creamy charred eggplant offers a smoky contrast to the mound of dense puy lentils and still-crunchy roasted veg it crowns. Dollops of crème fraîche and a drizzle of olive oil gild this phenomenal dish. I was once a vegetarian, but after two years I lapsed back into the pleasures of the flesh. Chick peas are great, but they'll never be chicken (or a thick, juicy burger). But Mr. Ottolenghi's version of vegetarian fare does something no other meat-free cookbook has ever accomplished: make me love vegetables without missing meat.
THE GRADE (OUT OF 5)
Quality of recipes: 5
Most of them are convenient enough to make on a work night, but delicious enough to serve at a dinner party, though the presentation may be too rustic for truly formal occasions.
Glorious, glossy photos make ogling this book almost as satisfying as eating from it.
Recipe instructions are clear, but otherwise there's very little text to digest. Cookbook lovers who prefer a little poetry with their polenta will be somewhat disappointed.
With the exception of a few Asian specialty items, almost all ingredients can be found at a well-stocked grocery.
Over all: 4.5
An essential volume in any cook's library, and required reading for carnivores looking to add some flex to their diets.
You can follow Rob Mifsud's culinary experiments at www.hungryinhogtown.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail