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If Food Had Audio Settings, Ottolenghi and Tamimi's Would Be Set at a Thrilling 11

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Monday, Nov 18, 2013
Sami Tamimi (L), Yotam Ottolenghi (R) from a ubiquitous press photo (photographer unknown)
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s food is the Middle East on a plate: clamorous, intense, each bite demanding your full attention. This is food shrieking with yogurt and lemon, garlic and tahini.
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Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi

(Ten Speed; US: Sep 2013)

Ottolenghi: The Cookbook is actually Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s first cookbook, originally published in England in 2008. It’s the last to be published in the United States, after the insane popularity of 2011’s Plenty and 2012’s Jerusalem. I’ve no idea why the reverse order of the books’s appearances, only that they’ve captured the American imagination on a startling scale.


For those struggling to obtain American healthcare, or absorbed by the former Hannah Montana’s poor performance choices, meet Ottolenghi and his business partner, Tamimi.  The men have much in common: both are professional chefs, born in Jerusalem, now living in London. Both are homosexual (they bring this up as partial reason for leaving the Middle East for England, where they met). But Ottolenghi is Jewish, born of an Italian father and German/Israeli mother. Tamimi is Palestinian.
  
Although they grew up within miles of one another, religious divisions made those miles into continents. It took actually moving continents away before meeting as adults where they learned how much they shared, including gastronomic passions. The pair opened a small restaurant/carry-out with a few chairs, serving the beloved Mediterranean foods of their childhoods. 


The English responded with equal ardor. Ottolenghi expanded, now encompassing three cookbooks, four locations, and a regular vegetarian column in The Guardian Newspaper, which became Plenty, the kind of vegetarian cookbook even carnivores are willing to cook from. 


Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s food is neither for the faint of tastebud nor the calorically nervous. It’s the Middle East on a plate: clamorous, intense, each bite demanding your full attention. This is food shrieking with yogurt and lemon, garlic and tahini. If food had volume settings, this would go up to 11. The authors agree, writing: “We wanted to start the book with the quip ‘If you don’t like lemon or garlic… skip to the last page.”


The loss would be yours. Ottolenghi: The Cookbook is filled with taste combinations many will find challenging—and this is a good thing, for even the most savvy home cook needs the occasional shake-up to her repertoire. The food is unabashedly Mediterranean, often mixing sweet and savory, while other dishes begin with Mediterranean flavor combinations only to veer off wildly into other gustatory dimensions: oxtail stew with pumpkin and cinnamon, fried scallops with saffron potatoes, asparagus, and samphire (sea beans or glasswort to Americans). 


Indeed, not all the dishes will please every palate, but the popularity of the cookbooks is indicative of more than a fad. Moreover, the men’s talents are hardly newfound; United Kingdom cookbook writer Tamasin Day-Lewis was an early supporter, mentioning the pair in 2001’sSimply the Best and again in 2004’s Tamasin’s Weekend Food


Even those of us who avoid mixing sweet and savory in our cooking will be captivated by Ottolenghi and Tamimi, for their enthusiasm is thoroughly winning. Coming from cultures famed for its hospitality, both clearly feel sharing all things food is cause for joy. It’s impossible not to be caught up in their exuberance, which in turn is key to Ottolenghi: The Cookbook’s popularity, creating a willingness to try new foods, new combinations, and new recipes.   


Ottolenghi and Tamimi are well aware that their audience, however eager, may have limited experience with foods like freekeh, bulgur, even eggplant. They happily explain where to locate these foods and how to handle them. They also take on more familiar ingredients like yogurt, tahini, hummus, and pomegranate, which see extensive use throughout the book.


The pair are refreshingly honest about contemporary food issues, threatening to send nascent cooks fleeing into the frozen food aisles. They take on the locavore movement bluntly: the United Kingdom’s damp, cold climate is hardly comparable to Northern California’s gentler climes. Local lovely artichokes aren’t to be had year round; fresh broccoli doesn’t abound. British food culture, suffering so long beneath protracted war rationing (rationing did not end in England until 1954)  and institutional “school food”, finally coming into its own, was hit hard by the locavore movement. 


Ottolenghi and Tamimi write: “Then, suddenly, they (the British) were made to feel guilty for having fun. All of a sudden it is all about diets, health, provenance, morals, and food miles. Forget the food itself.”


The men offer a realistic approach: a supermarket run during the week, the farmer’s market on the weekend. In short, livable compromises making sustainable eating both possible and enjoyable: “For us, cooking and eating are not hazy, far-off ideals, but part of real life, and should be left there.”


They are equally honest about baking. Too many cookbooks take a gloriously “can-do” approach to baking that skims over the realities. Ottolenghi: The Cookbook includes a section titled “Fear of Baking” that does nothing to defuse said fear. Rather: “Sorry, we are not going to try to convince you that this phobia has no grounds.” 


Though they encourage novice bakers, they are forthright about equipment needs and why so much can, and often does, go wrong when one attempts baking a cake. I welcome vindication wherever I can get it. 


* * *


I decided, in the spirit of open-mindedness, to try Quail with Mograbiah Salad. I love quail, and mograbiah is a large-grained couscous, another favorite food. I was unable to find it and substituted Israeli couscous. This recipe calls for a marinade of cumin, cardamom, turmeric, paprika, salt, garlic, ginger, and olive oil. 


The leap, friends, was the final two marinade ingredients: two tablespoons of cinnamon and two tablespoons of honey. I admit that much cinnamon was more than I could handle: I used one, but bravely stirred in all the honey. 


Incidentally, the recipe called for boned, butterflied quail, something I have never seen here. Our quail comes to us frozen, bone-in, from Quebec. I defrosted it, scissored it in half, mooshed the marinade over what looked like baby chickenlets with my hands, and gave them an overnight rest in the fridge. 


The result was that much overused food adjective, velvety, likely from the honey, which happily didn’t make the birds overly sweet. That said, even cutting back on the cinnamon didn’t stop it from dominating the dish. That’s a shame, as it was otherwise terrific. I’ll make it again. With less cinnamon, maybe none, but definitely with the honey, and this from a person who loathes sweet with her savory.


Turkey and corn meatballs are described as “Now you see them, now you don’t.” Apt, even if you skip the accompanying Roasted Pepper Sauce. These easy, tasty little morsels taught the Curious Omnivore a trick: after two decades at the stove, I never thought to finish meatballs in the oven. Here Ottolenghi and Tamimi instruct you to do just that, searing the mixture in a hot pan, then tucking the tempting little buggers into a hot oven for a five-minute finish.


Harissa-Marinated Chicken with Red Grapefruit Salad is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I adore harissa, a fiery red pepper paste. Here Scully, one of Ottolenghi’s chefs, gives a recipe for marinating chicken thighs in harissa, then serving the poultry over a grapefruit salad that includes maple syrup. 


Grapefruit and I do not get on, but I can see where the acidic fruit would offer punchy contrast to the spicy chicken. The maple syrup…well, as Mulder used to say when Smoking Man showed up, Scully, I gotta go now. But I’ve prepared multiple variants of this chicken recipe myself and will happily try this one, perhaps with a squeeze of preserved lemon replacing the grapefruit. 


The takeaway? While I’m awed by the tremendous creativity going into Ottolenghi’s dishes, I’d tinker with some to better suit my preference for savory foods. Any criticism should be directed at my limited palate. Other dishes require no personal meddling: grilled broccoli with chili and garlic, marinated romano peppers with buffalo mozzarella, red lentil and chard soup.


The baking and patisserie section ranges from manageable for a basic baker (foccacia, brioche) to more complicated (orange polenta cake) to terrifying (caramel and macadamia nut cake, macarons). But as admitted above, I’m no baker. The more deft and well-equipped among you may have a ball with the caramel and macadamia nut cake, which calls for springform pans, making caramel twice, then, if you want to get the cake off the pan, a second person, cake boards, and possibly a couple fish slicers. 


Maybe this is your idea of a good time. I bow to you.


* * *


Ottolenghi: The Cookbook is unusually designed, with slightly padded covers and an unconventional layout mimicking the shops, which are all white. The photography is edgy, the composition off-center, often employing photomontage. In a cookbook world increasingly dominated by food pornography, the net effect is surprisingly cool: we could just as easily be viewing fashion or art as food. 


I say the net effect is cool, and it is, save one startling exception: amongst the photographs of patrons dining at communal tables are candids of small children munching away, their toys parked beside elegant platters of food. Besides making the reader realize the dearth of children in today’s überhip cookbooks, they ratchet the coolness factor down in the best possible way. It’s hard to feel intimidated by a cookbook with a two-page spread of a child’s tricycle. 


* * *


Finally, were Ottolenghi no more than a pamphlet for roast chicken, it should be grabbing everyone’s attention. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, an Israeli and an Arab, have together built a successful, friendly business, creating delicious food. To do this, they are hiring employees from all over the world to staff their growing empire (whom they fall over themselves to credit in the cookbook).


Yes, food brings us together, but at risk of sounding like a naïf, Ottolenghi and Tamimi are on to something larger. Their wonderful food, this marvelous cookbook, is the bridge to that place. Even if you prefer to leave politics outside the kitchen, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, should be on your holiday gift list—for yourself, for every cook you know. 


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