Jerusalem: A Country

Editor’s Note: Linda Avery returns with a look at a new book from the author of Plenty that’s generating plenty of buzz on its own. Read on to see what she thought.

Jerusalem: A Country

by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi
food photography by Jonathan Lovekin © 2012; location photography by Adam Hinton © 2012

Facts: Ten Speed Press, 320 pages, $35.00 (or Amazon $19.85)
Photos: about 98 food photos related to the recipes plus lots of people, shops, country, and slice of life shots
Recipes: 125

Two men born in Jerusalem. East side/West side. They meet in London almost 30 years later and, like Rick and Louie, it must have been “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Jerusalem: A Country has shown up on most 2012 best cookbooks lists. It’s unique, it’s beautiful, and as with many recent cookbooks, they want to make you as aware of the locale as the food via photos.

Yotam and Sami say the book is a combination of traditional dishes where no recipe alterations have been made and others, while still traditional, with which they have taken “poetic license,” updating as it suits them. They describe the food in the book as what they grew up with, i.e., “food in abundance… big piles in markets… big flavors”. Listen for yourself.

As I read the book, I pulled up a map of Jerusalem and then a map of the West Bank and Gaza, and then I flipped to Wikipedia to read exactly what Levantine cuisine is. As a food lover, there is so much about this cuisine and area of the world to study. Granted, one doesn’t need to know about the history or area to read and cook a recipe, but it does make the process so much more interesting.

If I had not been intrigued by that alone, looking at the first recipes in the book would have done it. Vegetables: Roasted sweet potatoes & fresh figs, Na’ama’s fattoush, Puréed beets with yogurt & za’atar, Roasted potatoes with caramel & prunes. It’s not unexpected that there are 67 pages of mouth-watering veggie recipes after Ottolenghi’s 2011 all vegetarian book Plenty.

There is balance in this book. Meat and fish recipes are plentiful: Slow-cooked veal with prunes & leek, kofta, lamb shawarma, cod cakes, pan-fried mackerel with golden beet & orange salsa and fish skewers to name a few. The book wraps up with savory pastries, sweet desserts and numerous condiments.

If you shy away from the exotic, you’ll find barley risotto with marinated feta, couscous with tomato and onion, even turkey burgers with green onion and cumin, but I urge you to put your toe across the line and try a Saffron chicken & herb salad — to die for.

Roasted sweet potatoes & fresh figsRoasted-sweet-potatoes

(photo by Jonathan Lovekin © 2012)

Figs are abundant in Jerusalem and many trees, bearing the most delectable fruit, actually belong to no one, so anybody can help themselves. Summer months are always tinted with the smell of wild herbs and ripe figs. The mother of Sami’s childhood neighbor and friend, Jabbar, used her roof to dry the glut of figs (and tomatoes) in the hot summer sun, spending hours cleaning and sorting them meticulously. Poor Um Jabbar—Sami and her son never wasted time and used to sneak up to her roof regularly, stealing her figs at their peak and causing havoc. This wasn’t enough for Jabbar, though. The boy had such a sweet tooth that he always carried around with him an old match box full of sugar cubes, just in case. Unfortunately, this habit had clear ramifications, evident in his “charming” smile.

This unusual combination of fresh fruit and roasted vegetables is one of the most popular at Ottolenghi. It wholly depends, though, on the figs being sweet, moist, and perfectly ripe. Go for plump fruit with an irregular shape and a slightly split bottom. Pressing against the skin should result in some resistance but not much. Try to smell the sweetness. The balsamic reduction is very effective here, both for the look and for rounding up the flavors. To save you from making it, you can look for products such as balsamic cream or glaze.

Serves 4

4 small sweet potatoes (2 pounds / 1 kg in total)
5 tablespoons olive oil
Scant 3 tbsp / 40 ml balsamic vinegar (you can use a commercial rather than a premium aged grade)
1 tablespoon / 20 g superfine sugar
12 green onions, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-in / 4cm segments
1 red chile, thinly sliced
6 ripe figs (8 ounces / 240 g in total), quartered
5 ounces / 150 g soft goat’s milk cheese (optional)
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 475°F / 240°C.

2. Wash the sweet potatoes, halve them lengthwise, and then cut each half again similarly into 3 long wedges. Mix with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, and some black pepper. Spread the wedges out, skin side down, on a baking sheet and cook for about 25 minutes, until soft but not mushy. Remove from the oven and leave to cool down.

3. To make the balsamic reduction, place the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes, until it thickens. Be sure to remove the pan from the heat when the vinegar is still runnier than honey; it will continue to thicken as it cools. Stir in a drop of water before serving if it does become too thick to drizzle.

4. Arrange the sweet potatoes on a serving platter. Heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the green onions and chile. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often to make sure not to burn the chile. Spoon the oil, onions, and chile over the sweet potatoes. Dot the figs among the wedges and then drizzle over the balsamic reduction. Serve at room temperature. Crumble the cheese over the top, if using.

“Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi,  © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.”

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