The apt-get manual says
--no-install-recommends Do not consider recommended packages as a dependency for installing. Configuration Item: APT::Install-Recommends.
If I understand correctly, this applies recursively, i.e.
apt-get install ubuntu-desktop --no-install-recommends skips both the packages
ubuntu-desktop recommends and, recursively, the packages that its dependencies recommend (?)
Is there a simple way of saying 'install ubuntu-desktop, skipping only the packages it directly recommends (but not those recommended by its dependencies)'?