There are few things this year that I have looked forward to quite as much as the release of the third cookbook from Brit-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Entitled Jerusalem, and co-authored by business partner Sami Tamimi, it follows the earlier Ottolenghi and the vegetarian Plenty books as being staples in my kitchen. For someone who is as hopeless at following recipes as I am, trust me - this is a big deal. I am more excited by it than the new Bob Dylan record, Tempest. I am probably about as excited by it as I have been by the Paul Buchanan album Mid Air, and the Bill Fay effort Life Is People, and hell - even Simon Sweetman liked those...
I was first made aware of Ottolenghi's food and cookbooks a couple of years back, when a friend overseas messaged and said "I think you'll really like the Ottolenghi cookbook". I did a quick bit of research and found that it did, indeed, sound like the kind of thing I would be into. Turned out Ottolenghi had a restaurant/café in London (they now have four), was the son of a German mother and Italian father, held a chemistry degree and a Master's in comparative literature, and was an accomplished pastry chef who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London. Bit of a winner, then.
Now, I would attribute much of my ineptitude with following recipes to my thinking that I know how things are going to go - a little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing. With these recipes, however, it wasn't like making a pasta sauce, or burgers, or something I was familiar with - I was all at sea with his seemingly ludicrously convoluted combinations of flavours and seasonings. I found that unless you stuck to the recipes, and the method, they just didn't work. And so, I started trying a bit harder to follow the bloody recipes. My reward was some absolutely delicious, and unique, and flavourful food.
I like the Ottolenghi aesthetic. I like the fact that despite not being a vegetarian, or a vegetarian chef, he has written a weekly recipe column for The Guardian newspaper called The New Vegetarian. It is exactly the kind of vegetarian food I like, ranging from rich and sumptuous to light and fresh, but without ever falling into the trap of being just a meat dish with the meat taken out. It never feels as though it is apologising.
His food always looks beautiful, and this is carried over to the books - Jerusalem arrives in a cloth-bound cover with its title inky-printed on, as if with a stamp. It looks genuinely (and I hate this word, but I'm claiming it back in this instance) rustic. It is a book that is both beautiful to hold and read and flick through, and that is destined to be pressed into service in the kitchen - and strangely, there aren't that many books that I reckon achieve both.
Recipes are interwoven with the stories of the food and where it has come from, and what it represents - just as important as the food itself. There are lots of photographs of people and places, so it feels as though you have a very real context for where this glorious food has evolved from.
And what glorious food it is! There is a heavy emphasis on fresh herbs and vegetables - the fresher the better, but the recipes also use a lot of dried and powdered spices and seasonings, particularly sumac (made from a dried, ground berry), and za'atar, which is a mixture of seasonings frequently used to flavour Middle Eastern dishes. He is just slightly too keen on lamb for my liking (I am still not that partial), but he does wonderful things with chicken, and beef, and fish.
But it is the salads, spreads and dips that I really love about this food, what define the Ottolenghi style. Often, they are a riot of colour and texture, sometimes they are as simple as a few carefully chosen and thoughtfully prepared ingredients combined. They are not overly complicated (as I had thought), but they do require a little attention to detail, and a willingness to step outside your cooking comfort zone - for me, anyhow.
They have made me seek out and cook with ingredients I hadn't used before. They made suggestions as to how to redeploy ingredients I already knew in new contexts - especially things like yoghurt, and beans, and grains, and even rice. They have changed the way I eat, and cook, indelibly, and I would wholeheartedly recommend any of the three cookbooks - especially Plenty, if you are vegetarian, or are simply looking for good, innovative, interesting vegetarian recipes.
A footnote - my copy of the book arrived from the UK (I had pre-ordered it) looking as though it had swum here - pages wet and swollen - unreadable, unusable. However, a quick email to the seller saw a replacement being sent at no extra cost, and, when I opened it up - signed copy! Very nice!
Are you familiar with the Ottolenghi cookbooks - does it sound like your kind of thing? Ever been to any of the Ottolenghi cafes in London? What other cookbooks have changed the food you cook, and eat, and indeed, the very way you think about food?
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