"failure is funny, and makes for great story-telling"
Claire Lower - Lifehacker
The above is what I was aiming for last night for dinner. It's called Chard and saffron omelettes and it's from Yotam Ottolenghi's beautiful book Plenty. It's my lucky dip book and that page was the one I opened it at. Wow thought I - that looks wonderful, and probably easy, so I'll give it a go sometime. And last night I did.
Maybe one day my story of failure will be funny, but at the moment it isn't. Well not to me anyway and I am spending a lot of time in my head wondering what went wrong and why. Was it my fault, my equipment, or - dare I say - Yotam Ottolenghi's?
Plenty was my first Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook. It's gorgeous to look at and inspiring as well, and yet I have not actually made many things from it. But then I'm not a vegetarian - although I have to say, I eat more and more vegetarian meals these days. And I'm pretty lazy with my veggie sides which tend to be just a green salad these days. So a lucky dip was a wonderful way to actually try something.
As I said - it is beautiful and even critics of the book - and there are some - agree on that:
"The photos by Jonathan Lovekin are gorgeous. The dishes read as both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly different." Jill Santopietro - Chowhound
The cover not only looks artistically inviting but is padded as well, so there is a textural appeal in addition to the visual one.
So what went wrong? I should have taken pictures when it all started to go horrendously wrong but I was in such a panic that I didn't think to do so and when eventually we sat down to eat it - yes I did manage to salvage it a bit and it was eatable - I was so relieved that I forgot to take a photo then as well. So today I took a picture of the leftovers - cold and straight out of the fridge, so not looking at all appetising. But I have no shame. Here it is.
So let me take you through it. The recipe is really for chard - silver beet to us Australians, but I just couldn't bring myself to pay the high price for a bunch - over $4.00 I think, when you could buy 2 bunches of spinach for $5.00. Which is criminal because I pass several vegetable gardens on my walks which have masses of silver beet in them. I told myself that spinach was better anyway. Interestingly though one blogger said that they had used spinach and really they thought it too bland, and would add some lemon juice next time. Others made it with kale. Well you would wouldn't you? Mind you it seems that silver beet can be hard to find in America and the UK. Indeed the lengthy introduction to the recipe by Ottolenghi is all about how wonderful it is and how you should seek it out - "Try your local farmer's market or 'ethnic' grocer." And oh dear I've just noticed that he does actually suggest adding lemon juice if you use spinach. Black mark to me for not noticing.
I will now hand you over to Jill Santopietro of Chowhound because the experience she gives here was the same as mine:
"I followed the recipe by simmering small cubed (1-centimeter) potatoes in saffron water for 14 to 19 minutes. As I suspected, by the time the potatoes hit 14 minutes, they were mush. I continued to follow the instructions, draining the chard and potatoes from the saffron water. Wait! That saffron cost me at least $3. And we’re going to just pour it down the drain? The potatoes weren’t nearly as dark yellow as the ones in the photo; they were fibrous and light yellow, with no traces of saffron flavor." Jill Santopietro - Chowhound
I don't think mine were quite mush, but they were indeed quite soft - and yes, pale yellow and flavourless - well not of saffron anyway. But then they may have photoshopped the potatoes in the glossy picture. And she is right about throwing away the saffron water. I should have thought to keep it for something else.
However, so far so good really. The potatoes were just soft which was OK. Then you had to make the omelettes and this is where disaster struck unlike everybody else who made this recipe - and there were a lot of them. Theirs all look OK (and there were more - it was a very popular recipe):
Even the naysayers seemed to have no problem with making the omelettes. My problem might have been quantities. I tried to halve the recipe - for four people - well there are only two of us - but it specified 5 eggs, and you can't halve an egg, so I used three and slightly more milk than suggested. He specified a 22cm frying pan and I tried to be very exact and took out my ruler to measure. 22cm is quite large, but that was OK. Anyway when I had heated my oil and put in my egg mixture, my pan was just too non-stick for words and the mixture just made a little clump and then slid around the pan. Try as I may I could not make it spread out. So it was tiny and moreover not a nice circle and had holes here and there. Maybe I didn't put in enough mix. In fact I probably didn't because I ended up making four when really I should have been making two. Because the pan was big and very non-stick I turned to a smaller pan and guess what - total disaster as it all stuck to the bottom and still wouldn't spread around. In the end I had to scrape that out and then try and combine the already cooked scraps with the new mix that I put in the slippy pan.
My last two were tiny and had holes in them and definitely were not circular. The picture at right is what they were supposed to look like and all those bloggers that made them had show-off pictures that looked like this too.
Then of course you are supposed to spread crème fraïche over half the omelette. put mixture on top, fold it over and fold it over again. Ha! No way could I fold them in four - and I have to say at least one of those bloggers said the same, and one also said that her's tore when she tried to fold them. Anyway by now I was in despair, but somehow or other I managed to stack torn parcels into a dish, reheated them in the oven and served.
Verdict - lots of stress and trauma for a not mind-blowingly tasty result really. It was quite nice but not brilliant. As Gabrielle Hamilton of Food52 says:
"They are mightily good-looking but lack deep flavor and deep satisfaction ... I began to think that Ottolenghi's book was long on style but short on substance. Gabrielle Hamilton - Food 52
I would definitely agree - well as you can see from another picture of my appalling result mine are not even good-looking. But was it my fault, and should I try again?
Overall I think the recipe lacked those little tips about this and that and specifically how to cook a thin omelette. I did try to find somebody else that had the same problem, but couldn't, which makes me feel a real failure. I'm going to put it down to having too many eggs, and not enough milk, and the wrong pan. And perhaps there should have been more guidance on that. It would have been nice to have been told to save the saffron water too. And anyway, why the saffron? I have to say I can never really taste it, and there are a lot of other flavours in there vying for attention. Also why did the crème fraïche have to be chilled - he specified that it be cold? It would have been nice to have been told the reasoning behind that.
Gabrielle Hamilton, who is a professional chef and also a food tester, maintained that they should have been cooked in butter. The article that she wrote was a comparison between Plenty and another cook book and her conclusion was that Ottolenghi's recipes were extremely tempting, both because of the way they were photographed and also because they sounded enticing. They made her want to try them. However, when she did she often found that:
"his recipes are not quite careful and not quite balanced." Gabrielle Hamilton - Food 52
However, she did conclude that it was worth persevering because the ideas were so good. She just had to use her own judgement and not slavishly follow the recipe. But that's what you do when you try something new isn't it? (Although that said I added some chopped ham to the mix because David asked me too - quite a valid addition I think). She decided that:
"I will use my judgment and bring everything I know about cooking to the project to coax the deeper flavor, the greater savory deliciousness out of his fantastic ideas, and at the end of the day, I will have a book on my shelf from which I will really want to cook, instead of a book that contains over 300 recipes of which barely a dozen will inspire." Gabrielle Hamilton - Food 52
Well I'm not a professional and I was really quite disheartened, although I really would like to find out what I did wrong. No help from Ottolenghi though. I shall have to look and see if Delia has something similar in the way of herby thin omelettes. She would explain every little step - how and possibly even more importantly why.
Tonight I have returned to the tried and true - David's favourite curried pumpkin and ham soup from Bert Greene. Now his recipes have no pictures but work first time every time.