Superstar Israeli and Palestinian chefs and cookbook authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi spoke to a sold-out house at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last week, in celebration of the first U.S. publication of their book Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. While in-the-know-cooks have long imported copies of the book to use in kitchens here, the new edition has both U.S. and European measurements, making it easier for American home cooks to put to good use. Kosher cooks will find almost all of the recipes ready to use in their kitchen with no adaptation because of the emphasis the chefs place on fresh produce and spices.
At their D.C. talk, Tamimi recommended first following their recipes and then adapting them to personal likings in subsequent versions. This gives one a taste of the way the dish has been prepared for decades if not centuries. Lemon and garlic — pointed out local cookbook author Joan Nathan, who led the conversation at the synagogue last week — are two key ingredients in many of the recipes.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi jointly own four restaurants in London but what catapulted them to stardom — and rock star book sales in the U.S., is Jerusalem: A Cookbook, which they published last year. It offers the foods of their childhood that they saw simmered and tended on the eastern and western sides of the city.
WJW sat down with the chefs last week outside Zaytinya restaurant, where local superstar chef Jose Andres welcomed Ottolenghi and Tamimi to Washington, D.C.
WJW: People load so much onto your books. The hope of peace, the merging of cultures. But what is it you set out to convey? What is it you want to share with your readers?
Sami Tamimi: For us it’s just about enjoying food and having fun with it. To go back to Jerusalem was a great experience for us to discover layers, textures, culture.
Yotam Ottolenghi: We wanted to show people Middle Eastern food and help them experience the flavors and layers and textures and to go on a personal journey, which is what we write a lot about. It had been 20 years or more since we had lived there, and we wanted to show how it relates to the way we cook today.
WJW: Especially for people who don’t frequently eat in the Middle East, some of the flavors are exotic. What is your advice for newcomers to your books?
Yotam Ottolenghi: The books were not written for people who live in Jerusalem. They were written for people who live outside, because we do as well. There is a finite, long-life set of ingredients we often use that people can have in their cupboards such as paprika, cumin, turmeric, allspice, and condiments including tahini and pomegranate molasses and preserved lemon. The list we recommend has no more than 15 things, and then you can do most of the cooking.
WJW: What makes the books so appealing to cooking clubs, to people getting together to make your recipes?
Sami Tamimi: I think it’s that the book is about home cooking, family cooking and a way to be part of that.
Yotam Ottolenghi: I think for many it brings a sense of nostalgia, of cooking together. And the recipes are suitable for cooking together because it’s not individually plated, fancy restaurant food. It is home cooking, which used to be and can be family oriented. And there’s a lot of manual work — chopping vegetables — and you need a few pairs of hands to get it done quickly. I’ve been thinking about it the last few days and realized that what we have put together is both comfort food and extremely exotic.
WJW: People also put a lot of hope on to the two of you. If you two can work together, maybe others can. Is that a lot to ask of cookbooks and chefs?
Yotam Ottolenghi: For us it works, but we don’t feel we have to bridge any gaps. We have always gotten on, and the politics never entered our relationship. We didn’t have to overcome any political issues, because we have a very personal relationship and it is not our agenda.
Sami Tamimi: Other people see us as a Jew and Arab working together. We don’t want to say it’s not a good example, but whether it’s typical or realistic for a process for others, whether it will work, I’m not sure, but for us it works, and if people want to get inspired by that, then by all means.
Roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts, and honey
1 large organic or free-range chicken, divided into quarters: breast and wing, leg and thigh
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a generous pinch of saffron threads juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons cold water
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup 100 grams unskinned hazelnuts
3½ tablespoons 70 g honey
2 tablespoons rose water
2 green onions, coarsely chopped
1. In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces with the onions, olive oil, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, lemon juice, water, salt, and pepper. Leave to marinate for at least an hour, or overnight in the fridge.
2. Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C. Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Chop coarsely and set aside.
3. Transfer the chicken and marinade to a baking sheet large enough to accommodate everything comfortably. Arrange the chicken pieces skin-side up and put the pan in the oven for about 35 minutes.
4. While the chicken is roasting, mix the honey, rose water and nuts together to make a rough paste. Remove the chicken from the oven, spoon a generous amount of nut paste onto each piece and spread it to cover. Return to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the nuts are golden brown.
5. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and garnish with the chopped green onions.
Reprinted with permission from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2013, Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photos by Richard Learoyd © 2013
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