SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
A friend had a girl's lunch on her back porch the other Sunday and served some of the best food I have ever had - truly. It's plenty," she said. "Well, good, I said, because I want thirds. No, no - "Plenty," the cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. He is an Israeli, he runs four food shops in London, he writes a column on vegetarianism for the Guardian, and everything you are eating today comes from his cookbook.
So, we have to meet this fellow, right? We're lucky he's at our bureau in London. Yotam Ottolenghi, welcome.
Mr. YOTAM OTTOLENGHI (Author, "Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London's Ottolenghi"): Thank you very much, Susan.
STAMBERG: Thank you. We had burnt eggplant with tahini and green bean salad with mustard seeds and tarragon. Is that your idea of a good lunch?
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: It's a fantastic lunch. These are some of my favorite recipes in the book and I think it was a good choice.
STAMBERG: Well, the genius of the eggplant dish, that burnt eggplant dish, what do you think it was? Was it the idea of burning the eggplant or the pomegranate seeds that you sprinkle on top?
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: Well, I would think that the one thing that really does work very well is burning eggplant or opishing(ph), as we call it here. It is something quite magical because it carries the smoke and it's like nothing else does and it's very, very easy to smoke.
STAMBERG: Well, tell how you burn it, because I've seen recipes in other people's cookbooks in which they say stab the eggplant with a long fork and then hold it over a burner's flame. But you don't do that.
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: No, that's not necessary. What I do is you've got you stovetop and you spread foil around it and then you literally leave it over the fire for a good 15 minutes. And every now and then you come with some metal tongs and turn it over. So, it really does burn in an actual flame. And what that does is the skin starts burning and producing smoke and that will give the flesh the flavor. You do need to just spoon out all the flesh and avoid the skin because the skin at this point is actually very, very smoky. A little bit of skin are fine.
STAMBERG: By the way, all these recipes will be on our website at NPR.org.
So, you're adding to that some tahini and water. Pomegranate molasses, what is it?
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: Pomegranate molasses is another trick up my sleeve and it's becoming more and more popular. It's something that all around the Middle East it's been used for a long time. It is very simple. It's just pomegranate juice that has been reduced by heating up for a while. And then it is extremely sweet and sour. It's a little bit like balsamic vinegar.
STAMBERG: And then those pomegranate seeds - that's a wonderful addition.
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: They're the jewels in the crown.
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: I'll tell you what it is about them. There is something -talking about the title "Plenty" - there is something very plentiful about them. They are really symbols of abundance because there are so much of them in every pomegranate. And they obviously have beautiful color and they have this sort of sharpness that is a little bit sweet. So, they can add them in so many contexts and they always sort of added a little extra something, which is hard to explain. But it's very visual. It's completely beautiful.
STAMBERG: And then that green bean salad that my friend served to us. Those ingredients are pretty simple but they tasted fresh as a minute. There were green beans and snow peas and green peas. And then you start with your seeds again, Mr. Ottolenghi.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: You do the mustard seeds and coriander seeds.
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what it is; basically, all these are very simple ingredients that everybody knows but I think sometimes they don't know how to put them together properly. There is a long tradition of overcooking green beans of all sorts. You know, even in Italian cooking, which does wonders with vegetables.
Whenever I go to an antipasti plate, the beans are limp and, you know, and completely, you know, lacking in texture. And what I tried to do in so many of my salads - or any dish really - is to just try to keep as much of the original wonderful, crunchy texture so you remember it's a French bean, you remember it's a snow pea. It's not something that could be anything else. And that's the wonder of it.
And with the seeds, you need to cook them and they flavor the oil, but they also add little bits of flavor, like, inside the salad itself. So, you have the crunchy beans and little crunchy bits of seeds.
STAMBERG: Can't tell you how my mouth is watering at this moment. Excuse me. Listen, what would you call this food?
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: I would say it is predominantly Middle Eastern and Mediterranean in the flavors and in the colors and in the ingredients. Occasionally, I do go and venture out to, you know, to Asia but really it is very much Mediterranean in spirit. And I think everything that sort of fits that palette I can add it. You know, in Italy, for instance, they don't use cilantro but all around the Middle East they do. So what I do is try to bring all these things together, not in an infusion but in sort of an inclusion.
STAMBERG: What do you make and eat for special occasions?
Mr. OTTOLENGHI: For me, every food can be special. I think is all about what you make of it and how you dress it. So, I always think you can add beauty and let luxury to a dish by adding lots of herbs to it. I think a huge platter always looks better than a small plate. So, to make my guests welcome and feel special, I put many platters, beautiful platters, with food as I do in my shops. So, it's a lot around, a lot to choose from.
Once you've done that, you can make the simplest things in the world and still everybody thinks you've gone through the longest of efforts, but actually it's simple as that.
STAMBERG: Thanks so much. Yotam Ottolenghi joined us from the BBC Studios in London. His new cookbook is called "Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi."