In the parlance of No Country for Old Men, Yotam Ottolenghi is no swinging dick in the world of vegetable cooking. The guy’s a sextuple-threat. He uses a blend of Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Armenian, Iranian, and Israeli flavors to put such a distinctive mix of tastes and textures on the plate that no one even misses the meat. “I want drama in the mouth,” he said to the New York Times, but “meat should be a celebration, not everyday. There is so much else out there.” He would know. His cookbook Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi is as much a vegetarian tour-de-force as it is an exhibition of minimalist photography that makes his dishes look like the results of a culinary master class. Paging through it, you can almost feel the weight of the master’s thesis Ottolenghi wrote in Amsterdam, on the ontological status of the photographic image in aesthetic and analytic philosophy, before he moved to London, became a chef, and earned his title as the “Champion of Kohlrabi.”
Bottom line: if you want to take your vegetable game to the next level, pay attention to this guy. That’s why I busted out the copy of Plenty I received for Christmas this past Sunday and started with a classic: cucumber salad. I heartily enjoy the zen-like experience of working ingredients with a mortar and pestle. Besides, what else was I supposed to do while the Patriots rode their deflated balls to blowout victory over the hapless Colts? My veg game wasn’t going to next-level itself, and cucumber salad seemed like a safe yet tasty place to begin.
But be careful–this isn’t your English mum’s cucumber salad. Though they are mellowed by the nuttyness of the sesame oil, the garlic and onions here come to the front full force as foil to the crisp lightness of the cucumber. If you want a reminder about the potency of the vegetable world, this cucumber salad is definitely for you–just don’t make any plans to leave the house after you eat it.
OTTOLENGHI’S CUCUMBER SALAD
(adapted slightly from Plenty)
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons safflower oil
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
For the salad:
¼ of a medium red onion, sliced as thinly as possible
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon salt
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 large cucumbers
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a bowl.
- Add the onions to the dressing, mix thoroughly, and marinate for an hour, stirring occasionally.
- Use a mortar and pestle to pound the ginger and salt together, then add the garlic and continue to pound, but stop short of working it into a paste.
- Use a spatula to push the contents of the mortar into the bowl with the onion and dressing, then stir them together.
- Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, then cut each half into ¼ inch thick slices.
- Add the cucumber, sesame seeds, and cilantro to the bowl.
- Mix well and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Tip out some of the liquid accumulated at the bottom of the bowl and season to taste before serving.