WATERTOWN — At the Middle Eastern market, Sevan Bakery, I asked one of the owners for baharat spice blend (peppercorns, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and more). There’s a recipe in “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” but I decided not to make it because I was looking at a labor-intensive week ahead. He brought me a package and said, “You’re the fourth person this week who came in looking for baharat spices. What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure what anyone else is doing,” I answered. “But I’m cooking out of a book called ‘Jerusalem,’ written by a Jew and an Arab.”
“That’s what everyone else is doing,” he said.
“Jerusalem,” by the duo Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, both Jerusalem-born and now living in London,” is a pleasure to cook from and the food is remarkable. The book has attracted a cult following since it was published last year (see related story). I had baked a semolina cake from it in the spring during the lockdown after the Boston Marathon bombings and I’ve made that cake many times since. Most techniques in the book need little skill. There are versions of these recipes in many kitchens all over Jerusalem, both Arab and Jewish.
What is required here is a well-stocked Middle Eastern kitchen and a sharp chef’s knife. You also need a garden of tomatoes and parsley, quarts of Greek yogurt and olive oil, and if you had a lemon tree, you’d pick it clean. Oh, and you’ll have to preserve some of those lemons, and add to them sumac, za’atar, Turkish flatbread, whole cloves, cardamom pods, barberries, tahini, pistachios, and a host of other exotica, and you’re ready to make some pretty wonderful food.
The baharat went into tabbouleh, with a little bulgur and enough parsley to turn your cutting board permanently green (the recipe calls for four large bunches; I gave up at three). The spices almost disappear into chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, two more bunches of fresh mint, and olive oil, but after the salad sits for a bit, the aromatics enhance its fresh-tasting greenery.
For chunky zucchini and tomato salad, you sear halved vegetables, chop them, let them drain, and add them to a bowl of yogurt, walnuts, mint, parsley, lemon rind and juice, and date syrup. My merchant showed me a bottle of the syrup that was so large, I didn’t buy it (I only needed one tablespoon). The salad is homely, but lovely. The authors explain that it’s often made with grilled vegetables and buttermilk.
You don’t have to be a slave to long ingredient lists. You’ll succeed even if you omit things here and there. You can also be quite familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine and find new dishes and new ideas, page after page. One is fattoush, an extraordinary version of the bread salad. The “Jerusalem” recipe comes from Tamimi’s mother and begins by making your own buttermilk (you need only a third of what’s called for). Mix yogurt and whole milk and let it sit for half a day. Add that to stale flatbread or naan, tomatoes, radishes, mini cucumbers, scallions, mint, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, and garnish with sumac. The buttermilk is delightful in the acidic dressing. I had so much extra, I kept making fattoush to use it up.
Chicken with caramelized onions and cardamom rice doesn’t seem like it’s going to be grand. You season thighs with cardamom and whole cloves, sear them, cook with basmati, golden onions, plumped barberries (think currants, but redder and not so sweet), and cinnamon sticks, then garnish with parsley, dill, and cilantro, and serve with yogurt sauce. It’s spectacular. One tip: The water-to-rice ratio is off (use about 1 cup more water).
Another winner is hummus with ground lamb and lemon sauce. Hummus begins with dried chickpeas, which are soaked, then simmered with baking soda. Just when you think you’ve pureed the most velvety hummus you’ve ever seen, you add ice water and turn it into silk. That’s topped with finely chopped, spicy lamb and a lemony chili sauce.
The dish that’s worth the price of the book is pictured on its cover (and on the cover of this G section). Poach eggs in a ground lamb sauce with pistachios, pine nuts, harissa, and preserved lemon. Garnish with seared cherry tomatoes, yogurt-tahini sauce, sumac, and cilantro.
The ingredients in this dish, explain Ottolenghi and Tamimi, are typically Palestinian. (And the dish resembles the famous shakshuka, made in both Arabic and Jewish kitchens.) But this recipe was inspired by something the authors knew from the restaurant Machneyuda in Jerusalem, which they write, “serves the most innovative food in town.”
And therein lies the allure of “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” This is food from Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s families, ancient food in modern renditions, food that recalls the vast mix of cultures in the city, the array of spices, the sunny produce. The factions in the city are at odds with one another. Yet food, write the authors, is the one thing they all have in common.
They want to bring peace, they write, through hummus.Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.