Review of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Prolific is the word that comes to mind when I think about cookbooks these days. There are hundreds lining the shelves of bookstores or on your computer screen--depending on how you choose to do your shopping. Either way there are a lot of cookbooks to be had, and with new ones published on a regular basis, it can be hard to know which are actually worth purchasing.
There have been many excellent cookbooks published this past year, and Jerusalem is without a doubt at the top of that list. I remember my excitement when I read the news about its publication, and when I finally received my copy, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those cookbooks that elicits exclamations of “I have to make this!” with almost every turn of the page.
Cookbooks often focus on the cuisine of an entire country, so choosing to focus on the food of a specific city is a unique and brilliant idea. Cities each have their own distinctive food culture which plays a role in defining and reflecting its character, and this cookbook succeeds in vividly capturing the food culture of Jerusalem. Furthermore, the fact that Yotam Ottolenghi grew up in the Jewish west of the city and Sami Tamimi grew up in the Muslim east also lends a broad perspective to the recipes and information presented to readers.
Reading the cookbook is just as enjoyable as cooking from it, and as of late it has a place of pride on my nightstand. Each recipe is preceded by head notes that discuss a dish's origins or offer suggestions related to its preparation. Interspersed throughout the cookbook are short blurbs about specific dishes, colorful stories, or background on specific ingredients such as eggplant. They also share personal stories, my favorite of which, involves playing as children in the occoasional Jerusalem snow fall.
It’s a beautiful book, with stunning pictures of food that makes you wish you could take a bite out of them. Along with these photographs are scenes of places and people from around the city, contextualizing the food. This cookbook is divided by dishes and ingredients, so there are chapters that focus on vegetables, beans & grains, soups, meat, fish, savory pastries, and sweets & desserts. There’s even a chapter devoted to the stuffed dishes that are important to so many of the cultural groups living in Jerusalem. It should be noted that this isn’t a kosher cookbook but many of the recipes are nonetheless kosher. Certain recipes can be adapted, while only a few cannot be prepared in a kosher kitchen.
I tasted quite a few of the dishes from this cookbook because I chose to use this book for the first meeting of the cookbook club my friends and I started. Some of the dishes that graced the table that night included a baby spinach salad with dates and almonds, Swiss chard fritters, hummus topped with lamb, lamb stuffed quince with pomegranate and cilantro, chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice, and cardamom rice pudding with pistachios and rose water. (They were all delicious!) The recipe I made is a simple roasted beet dip that makes a beautiful dish to serve as an appetizer or part of mezes. The dip itself is earthy and sweet with the goat cheese adding a little tang; the almonds and green onions add some welcome texture. All you need alongside this dish is some fresh pita to scoop it up, and just like many of the recipes in Jerusalem, the flavors are rich and extraordinarily vibrant.
Puréed Beets with Yogurt and Za’atar
Adapted slightly from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
About 2 lb beets (they should weigh about 1 lb after cooking and peeling)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1 cup Greek yogurt
½ tablespoon maple syrup (you could also use date syrup if you have it)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra oil to finish the dish
1 tablespoon za’atar
2 green onions, thinly slice
2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted until golden brown
2 ounces soft goat’s milk cheese, crumbled
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Wash the beets and place them on a pan that has been lined with aluminum foil. Roast them uncovered for about an hour, until you can easily slide a knife into them. Take the beets out of the oven and let them cool until you can handle them. Peel the beets, cut them into quarters and allow to cool completely.
2. Put the beets, garlic, chili flakes and yogurt in a food processor and blend until you have a smooth paste. Transfer the beet mixture to a large bowl and mix in the maple syrup, olive oil, za’atar and 1 teaspoon salt. At this point, taste the puree and add more salt if you’d like to.
3. Place the puree on a flat serving plate, using the back of a spoon to spread it evenly around the plate. You could also serve it in a bowl if you don’t have a flat serve plate. Sprinkle the green onions, the almonds and the goat cheese on the puree and drizzle with olive oil. Serve at room temperature.