My first reaction on seeing “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” by chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, owners of Ottolenghi restaurants in London, was that it was too good to be true. The food looks stunning, the chefs are friends from opposite sides of the Jewish-Muslim divide in that fabled city, Ottolenghi had had a hit cookbook just two years ago, and the hype was already starting. Obviously something had to give, and that something had to be the food. I was sure of it.
But that’s what testing is for. In the week I cooked through “Jerusalem,” I learned something almost every day, whether it was a new technique or a new combination of ingredients or flavors. Although these dishes are often derived from traditional recipes, Ottolenghi and Tamimi never let a chance go by to streamline or improve or reinvent. Thus does a cuisine evolve, one tweak and one lesson at a time. And in this case, almost every lesson was a winner.
It seems that every good cookbook has a killer roasted cauliflower recipe these days, and “Jerusalem” is no exception. The perfume of hazelnuts and sweet pomegranate draw out similar elements in the cauliflower; an assertive note of cinnamon acts like an exclamation point, driving the flavors home. Roast potatoes with caramel and prunes are inspired, according to the authors, by a Lithuanian version of tzimmes. It’s pretty hard to argue with roast potatoes in the first place, particularly when they’re roasted in goose or duck fat. But toss in sweet caramel and prunes and the potatoes are irresistible.
Although I’ve had sumac-toasted pita before, I had never thought to toast it in a pan, with almonds and oil. The crunchy results make memorable a baby spinach salad that’s already sweet with dates and tart with lemon. Swiss chard dresses up for dinner in a creamy tahini-yogurt sauce, decked out with buttered pine nuts.
Grains are just as exciting. If you’ve had your doubts about wheat berries, it’s worth giving them a second chance and trying them, here with more Swiss chard and two ingredients that can redeem almost any recipe: leeks and pomegranate molasses. A saffron rice with barberries, pistachio, and mixed herbs may be a Persian classic, but when you lift up the lid to anise-scented clouds of aroma over a jeweled rice landscape, it seems new all over again.
Rice infused with cardamom forms a fragrant bed for chicken with caramelized onions in an easy one-pot meal. The rice cooks right in the pan with the meat, as if it were paella. But the most showstopping chicken recipe of all is roast chicken with clementines and arak (an anise liquor; we used Pernod). Somehow the lavish, brilliant citrus notes tame the slick taste of licorice, two intense flavors permeating even the heart of the breast, to lick-the-pan effect.
There’s a quantity of recipes based on ground meat to explore, each good enough to warrant the price of admission: turkey burgers held together with strands of zucchini, seasoned with scallion and cumin, dolloped with a sour cream and sumac sauce good all by itself. Lemony leek meatballs — really a leek-ball with some meat — are surprisingly light. Lamb-stuffed quince with pomegranate and cilantro melt together into a soft symphony of lemony, gingery, winter flavors — even if you skip the stuffing and simply braise the fruit and meat together.
Cod cakes in tomato sauce transform ordinary fish cakes into something unrecognizably delicious, a braise of sweet and sour with bright lights of mint.
Cardamom rice pudding with pistachios and rose water is another retouched classic, rice simmered in fresh milk, finished with condensed milk and butter, floral yet not too sweet.
With so many splendid dinners to choose from in this book, perhaps you think you don’t need dessert. That’s part of the generous spirit of “Jerusalem,” which offers a million different things worth sharing, one small step toward happiness at a time.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at email@example.com.