Citrus spiked with pithy self-reflection
This recipe from chef Yotam Ottolenghi‘s newest book, Plenty More, quite simply blew me away. The flavors? MASSIVE! Bright, puckery grapefruit gently mixed with peppery watercress, pleasantly bitter Belgian endive, whole leaves of gorgeous basil, slices of sharp red onion, all topped with a tangy vinaigrette that featured the lemony, delightfully astringent Middle Eastern spice, sumac. Delicious, to be sure, and I’m excited to share it with you as it was a bit of a revelation for me. Ottolenghi’s become known for taking lots of big, bold ingredients that one might think would clash… and somehow brilliantly and elegantly smashes them together, creating something that is as magnificent as it is wholly unexpected.
I’ll get back to the food in a few paragraphs, but first, can I let you in on a little secret? I struggle sometimes. I mean, it’s minor stuff. Really, it is. Trivial. No complaints here about my lot in life; it’s just that I’ve got deep-seated habits that I’ve gotta push extremely hard to break through. I eat too much. I don’t get enough sleep. I’m buried in work. I don’t have time to exercise. Simple things that countless others undoubtedly face. (And I’m sure you have your own short list of things about you that you wish weren’t so. Kudos to you if you don’t!)
They feel so insignificant given the “real” or “bigger” struggles that many others face in the world, so we downplay our challenges. It’s part of my having a glass-half-full kind of mindset, I suppose, and always wanting to find the positive in things. But the longer I pretended my internal conflicts were small potatoes—”nothing” in the grand scheme of things—the longer I’d continue to do nothing about them. It’s a spiral that was only leading one way, I assure you.
I needed to carve out some serious quiet time to figure out what my real priorities in this life are. What am I doing in the big picture? What’s keeping me from finally getting in shape, or regularly updating my blog like I said I would? And I realized that I was looking at my struggles the wrong way. “I eat too much”? No, let’s call it like it is: “I allow myself to eat too much.” These things I’ve been up against for years… they are all in my power to change if I put in the time and energy. Easier said than done? Absolutely! But acknowledging that it can be done, that I can do it—REALLY acknowledging it to myself in a mirror—was difficult and emotional, but it was talk I needed to have with myself.
“Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it’s not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.” —Seth Godin
Besides finally starting a rigorous workout routine (after carrying around excess weight for the past ~20 years), I’ve also begun taking a much more serious look at what I’m eating and drinking, and how much of it. Large portion sizes have long been my main downfall and knowing when to… y’know… STOP eating. But aside from some gluttonous gorging on my Europe trip in January, I’ve been doing pretty damn well and I feel great!
As my eating habits adapted, I’ve been grateful to find that friends and strangers alike have been not only been receptive to the healthy, plant-based recipes I’ve started posting, they’ve been asking for more!
Inspired by that, here’s a recipe I whipped up after attending a really great talk led by famed chef and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi. His books—Plenty, Jerusalem, Ottolenghi, and now, Plenty More—offer stunning vegetarian and vegan recipes unlike any others I’ve come across. As much as I love dreaming up recipes, it’s also been fun to “force” myself to cook according to a recipe straight from a cookbook—measurements and all—rather than the usual dash of this and dash of that business. Other than substituting plain ol’ endive for the red endive that was called for (couldn’t find any), I followed Ottolenghi’s recipe to a T.
I’d gotten to try dishes from his books before, but this was my first time making one of his recipes. And I remember my good friend Julia giving me some wisdom beforehand, letting me know that they were often quite involved, and that they often called for insane amounts of herbs. In both cases, it’s advised to simply STFU and TRUST. (There’s a reason Ottolenghi’s got all those books, after all…) Oh, whaddya know? The recipe calls for 2/3 cup of basil leaves! It looks like such a crazy amount, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the perfect amount! And while this salad recipe was simple to make, it does take a little prep time to get the grapefruit segments out and to cook the grapefruit juice down for the dressing. (Worth it.)
- 6 pink or red grapefruits (5 lb/2.2 kg)
- 2 Tablespoons superfine sugar
- 1 small dried red chile (use less if it is very hot)
- 4 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tablespoon sumac
- 1/2 medium red onion, very thinly sliced (about 2/3 cup/70 g)
- 2 or 3 small heads red Belgian endive, leaves separated and any large leaves cut in half on the diagonal (9 oz/280 g)
- Scant 3 cups (80 g) watercress
- 2/3 cup (20 g) basil leaves
- Using a small, sharp knife, slice off the top and tail of 5 of the grapefruits. Cut down the side of each grapefruit, following its natural line, to remove the skin and white pith. Over a small bowl, cut between the membranes to remove the individual segments.
- Place in a colander to drain and gently squeeze any remaining juices into a small saucepan. Squeeze enough juice from the last grapefruit to bring the juice in the pan up to 1 1/4 cups (300 ml). Add the sugar and chile and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens and you have about 5 tablespoons left, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool down, then whisk in the olive oil, lemon juice, sumac, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
- To assemble the salad, put the grapefruit segments, onion, endive, watercress, and basil in a large bowl. Pour over three-quarters of the dressing and toss very gently. Add the remainder of the dressing if the salad seems dry; otherwise, keep in the fridge for another leafy salad. Serve immediately.
It was a real treat to get to make my first Ottolenghi recipe and I’ll undoubtedly be making more of them! (He’s just showing off at this point; he’s got yet another volume due out in October 2015 called NOPI: The Cookbook.)
It was also great to meet him and see him speak as part of Live Talks LA! Even if you missed it, you can catch the full video of his chat: Yotam Ottolenghi at Live Talks Los Angeles; in conversation with Russ Parsons (51:10) and/or read the LA Times recap of it: “Ottolenghi on vegetarian cooking, the Middle East, feeding a 2-year-old” by Russ Parsons. Hope you enjoy!
Reprinted with permission from Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photos by Randy Clemens; some rights reserved under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.