Middle East feast

Yotam Ottolenghi is to London what Bill Granger is to Sydney. The Israel-born cook began by transforming London’s cafe food and, in the 10 years since, has built an empire.

Perhaps best known for his iconic London food stores, run with Palestinian-born business partner Sami Tamimi, Ottolenghi has unwittingly fashioned himself as the poster boy for contemporary Israeli food.

His food and style attract much devotion. Chef Andrew McConnell, of Cumulus Inc in Melbourne, rates Ottolenghi’s NOPI restaurant, in London’s West End, among his favourites, and chefs including Matt Moran eagerly await the release of his best-selling cookbooks.

Cookbook retailer Kevin Casey of The Cookery Book in Northbridge, Sydney, says Ottolenghi’s books have long been bestsellers, and his latest offering, Jerusalem, the second book co-authored with Tamimi, seems set to follow suit.

"He is a phenomenon,"  Casey says. ‘‘His second book, Plenty, is far and away the best-selling vegetarian book we’ve ever had. We have one customer who converted her whole family to vegetarianism on the strength of the recipes in that book.’’

Casey air-freighted several hundred advance copies of Jerusalem to Sydney  for customers who had put their names on a waiting list.

Ottolenghi became interested in food only as an adult.

‘‘I’m not one of those classic stories of a kid at the apron strings of his mother learning to cook,’’ he says. Rather, the cook, cookbook author and business owner came to food late. ‘‘Not until I was in my 20s and, more particularly, once I’d moved to London.’’

In the 10 years since opening their first store, Ottolenghi and Tamimi have become almost as famous for their brand of hospitality and food styling as they have for their cooking.

‘‘The food displayed like a marketplace, or a family table, is very natural to us,’’  Ottolenghi says.

Each London store showcases the daily offerings in an abundant tableau. Sweet treats greet you in the front window. Meringues the size of saucers and dusted with cocoa balance on a glass cake stand. Beside them sits a platter of pretty passionfruit tarts and a tray of dark-chocolate hazelnut brownies.

‘‘Not extraordinarily original,’’ Ottolenghi says, but the bestsellers nonetheless. Dishes including the popular wild, red and basmati rice salad with roasted shallots, nuts and sour cherries, and the maftoul (Palestinian couscous) and moghrabieh (Lebanese couscous) salad with red onion, almonds, lemon and parsley are piled in pyramids like spices in a souk.

Born to a German mother and an Italian father, Ottolenghi grew up in a city of divided cultures and a home of multiple culinary styles.

His grandmother steadfastly retained her Italian heritage, speaking the language at home and never missing her ritual afternoon espresso.

‘‘The Mediterranean influence on the food at home was powerful,’’ says Ottolenghi, who, like his grandmother, strongly identifies with his Italian heritage.

Family recipes are included in the book, among them, ‘‘Ruth’s stuffed Romano peppers’’, his mother’s recipe.

‘‘It is my only personal book,’’  Ottolenghi says, having finally taken the time to look deeply at the food of his home town, Jerusalem.

Middle Eastern flavours weren’t introduced to Ottolenghi’s repertoire until much later, when he met Tamimi in London in the late 1990s.

The two, who worked in the same north London deli, grew up worlds apart, even though they were born in the same city. Ottolenghi was raised on the western, Jewish, side of the city, Tamimi in Muslim east Jerusalem.

‘‘Despite our differences, we discovered that we had many shared experiences,’’  Ottolenghi says. He points to the way in which Jewish and Arab people eat. ‘‘This is where the Jewish world meets the Middle East,’’ he says.

‘‘Both cultures are accustomed to feeding lots of people with a lot of food. For both, cooking and feeding is a means of nurturing, the most basic way of showing love and endearment. It is an act that is essential to both Jews’ and Muslims’ daily life.’’

It is this shared tradition that has fuelled the friends’ small-business empire. When they opened their first deli-cafe in Notting Hill 10 years ago, Ottolenghi and Tamimi wanted to encourage Londoners to celebrate food.

‘‘There was nothing like us, no colour and nothing shared,’’ Ottolenghi says. ‘‘Unfortunately, our way of eating has largely become lost in Western culture. It has been set aside, replaced by work and by fleeting meals.’’

While writing Jerusalem, the friends found that, despite a decade working together, they still had much to share. It wasn’t until they started researching the book that they began to dissect the food of their birthplace.

‘‘We’ve never talked a lot about the food of the city or our childhoods, but as we grow older, nostalgia seems to have set in,’’  Ottolenghi says.

‘‘Jerusalem is a unique city, not only by itscultural make-up but by its geography. It is a city rooted in the surrounding landscape. From the centre of the city you can see hills and countryside; you can see where the food is grown and that is not the case in other cities.’’

The business partners researched the book during visits home; Ottolenghi returns three to four times a year. ‘‘When we were growing up, there was virtually no food crossover between Jewish and Arabic,’’ he says.

But things have changed.

‘‘We identified all kinds of similarities and crossovers,’’ Ottolenghi says. Hummus, stuffed vegetables and raw vegetable salads are among them.

‘‘There is a sense of food becoming more similar. Everyone has hummus and burnt aubergine salads on their tables.’’

Terroir is partly responsible, Ottolenghi says.

‘‘The climate and the soil are great; there is so much produce to draw on and everyone cooks using the same ingredients,’’ he says.

‘‘But because of the unique mix of heritages, what you end up with is vibrancy, a cuisine that is constantly evolving. Just as the city does. That is the nature of Jerusalem.’’

Roasted chicken with Jerusalem artichoke and lemon

CAPTION

Jerusalem artichokes are well loved in the Israeli city but actually have nothing to do with it; not officially anyway. The name is a distortion of the Italian name of the sunflower tuber, which has an artichoke-like flavour. From ‘‘girasole articiocco’’ to ‘‘Jerusalem artichoke’’.

The combination of saffron and whole lemon slices not only makes for a beautiful-looking dish, it goes exceptionally well with the nutty earthiness of the artichokes. This is easy to prepare. You just need to plan ahead and leave it to marinate properly.

450g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled andcut into six, lengthways (1cm thick wedges)
3 tbsp lemon juice
8 chicken thighs, on the bone with the skin on, or a medium whole chicken, divided into four
12 banana shallots, peeled and halved lengthways
12 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 medium lemon, cut in half lengthways and then into very thin slices
1 tsp saffron threads
50ml olive oil
150ml cold water
1  tbsp pink peppercorns, slightly crushed
10g fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp salt
 tsp black pepper
40g tarragon leaves, chopped

Put the Jerusalem artichokes in a medium saucepan, cover with plenty of water and add half the lemon juice. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-20 minutes, until tender but not soft. Drain and leave to cool.

Place the Jerusalem artichokes and all the remaining ingredients, excluding the remaining lemon juice and half of the tarragon, in a large mixing bowl and use your hands to mix everything together well. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight, or for at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 240C/220C fan-forced (gas mark 9). Arrange the chicken pieces, skin-side up, in the centre of a roasting tin and spread the remaining ingredients around the chicken.

Roast for 30 minutes. Cover tin with foil and cook for 15 minutes. At this point, the chicken should be completely cooked. Remove from the oven and add the reserved tarragon and lemon juice. Stir well, taste and add more salt if needed. Serve at once. Serves 4

Spice cookies

CAPTION

These are loosely inspired by duvshanyot, or pfeffernusse. They are actually more closely related to an Italian spice cookie and are hugely popular on the sweet counter at Ottolenghi in north London during Easter and Christmas. The recipe was adapted from the excellent The International Cookie Cookbook by Nancy Baggett.

125g currants
2 tbsp brandy
240g plain flour
1/2 tbsp best-quality cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2  tsp each ground cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
150g good-quality dark chocolate, coarsely grated
125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125g castor sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2   tsp grated lemon zest
1/2  tsp grated orange zest
1/2  medium free-range egg
1 tbsp diced candied citrus peel
Glaze
3 tbsp lemon juice
160g icing sugar

Soak the currants in the brandy for 10 minutes. Mix together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, spices, salt and dark chocolate. Mix well with a whisk.

Put the butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon and orange zest in a mixer bowl, then beat to combine but not aerate much — about a minute.

Add the egg slowly, while the machine is running, and mix for another minute. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the currants and brandy. Mix until everything comes together.

Remove the bowl from the machine and use your hands to gently knead until you get a uniform dough. Divide the cookie mix into 50-gram chunks and shape into perfectly round balls. Place on two baking sheets lined with baking paper, about two centimetres apart, and rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 190C (170C fan-forced, gas mark5). Bake the cookies for 15-20minutes, or until the top firms up but the centre is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven.

Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow to cool for five minutes only and then transfer to a wire rack. While still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin and smooth icing is formed.

Pour one tablespoon of the glaze over each biscuit, leaving it to drip and coat them with a very thin, almost transparent film. Finish each with three pieces of candied peel placed at the centre. Leave to set and serve, or store in an airtight container for a day or two.

Makes 16 cookies

Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Random House,$49.95.

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