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The book’s recipes are divided into two categories. The first includes time-honored classics such as hummus, shawarma and falafel. But the bulk of the recipes belong to a second group: modern, produce-driven dishes that benefit from a looser interpretation of local originals and add ingredients such as pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs and a spice market’s worth of herbs. The lush food photographs convey the authors’ affinity for vivid colors — yogurt brightened with beet purée; a painterly mélange of roasted sweet potatoes, figs, red chilies and scallions — that are also a defining characteristic of the Ottolenghi restaurant menu, and highlight the freedom they feel in brightening traditional flavors with distinctive flourishes.
It’s this instinct — a process they call “Ottolenghifying” — that allows them to take a dish like tzimmes, traditionally stewed carrots and dried fruit — and reinvent it as a roasted-potato dish studded with whole dried fruit and lavished in a quick caramel sauce.
In their research, the authors also nailed down another common theme. “Everything has to be stuffed,” joked Ottolenghi, pointing out that everyone in Jerusalem — Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Arab or Palestinian — fills vegetables with meat, herbs and other alluring flavors. In recipes such as lamb-stuffed quince anointed with pomegranate and cilantro and artichokes stuffed with peas, “you really see that this is a Jerusalem specialty.”
And who can claim boasting rights to these recipes? “It really doesn’t matter,” the authors write in the introduction. “The beauty of food and eating is that they are rooted in the now. Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it.”
“Jerusalem” clearly makes the case that focusing on the pleasures of eating can transcend political, religious and ethnic strife. But attempting to pin any sort of rigid doctrine onto Ottolenghi’s chef jacket has proven near impossible. Many have tried, as though achieving peace in the Middle East were as easy as devising a felicitous topping for a flatbread pizza.
“It takes a lot to understand the complexity of coexistence or lack of coexistence,” said Ottolenghi. “Obviously we have a very fruitful friendship and relationship, rooted partly in the city we share. But it has nothing to do with politics.”
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.
4 small sweet potatoes (2 1⁄4 pounds total)
5 tablespoons olive oil
Scant 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (you can use a commercial rather than a premium aged grade)
1½ tablespoons superfine sugar
12 green onions, halved lengthwise and cut into 1½-in segments
1 red chili, thinly sliced
6 ripe figs (8½ oz in total), quartered
5 ounces soft goat’s milk cheese (optional)
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 475°F
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.
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.
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 chili. Spoon the oil, onions, and chili 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, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.”
Adeena Sussman is a food writer, recipe developer and restaurant critic based in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living.