A Bunch of Ottolenghi’s – Controversial Love

I have a few books in my collection where I am not in sync with the author at all. I guess it is an old question, and we’ve actually learned about this in the Talmud class this year – can you learn/teach Torah from a sage that has gone astray? Think about the arguably most famous case of Acher – Elisha ben Abuyah, whose life was so brilliantly described by Milton Steinberg in his book “As a Driven Leaf“. Here was a person who left his people’s teachings, and possibly, even betrayed them, but who was brilliant and knowledgeable. Should we completely discard his wisdom, or can we glean something from it despite the controversy?

The ‘case in question’ for me is not so dramatic (or is it?) and I’ve made a choice of having and using these books while I am always hesitant to pinpoint what issues I have with the author. I know that I do not subscribe to the lifestyle or political views of the man, yet I have to admit the culinary brilliance of the chef. So, here we are:

So far, I own three of the Yotam Ottolenghi masterpieces – Sweet, Simple, and of course, Jerusalem, and only my space limitations stop me from acquiring more.

He is really a very talented guy. There are some interesting stories on the pages of ‘Jerusalem‘. Of course not all of them I take at face value, but they do paint a complex picture of the place that has such a complicated history in the eyes of many. To me, it’s history is very straightforward, but nonetheless, painful on many levels. To him, it seems similarly painful even though we may look at things differently. Meanwhile, we are both in Diaspora, so let’s leave the hard things and go to the recipes, shall we?

While I can only judge the meat recipes based on my prior experiences as a meat eater, I can certainly say a thing or two about the other dishes. I absolutely love the vegetarian dishes in this book. They are unusual to an average American or European reader. I did not grow up with that kind of food either, although I was exposed to certain examples spending my summers in the Caucasus. Maybe I just have the ancestral love for them.

Start with the no-brainer, foolproof baby spinach salad. What could be easier and simpler? Yet, when you add some dates, almonds, toasted pita bites and sumac, you will get a crown pleaser for its variety of tastes and textures!

Or, look at the different pairings of cauliflower – they are many, and rather unconventional. Beets get a great coverage too. I especially liked the spicy beet, leek and walnut salad. I am used to the traditional Russian beet, garlic, walnuts salad, and the addition of leeks that I love as well as arugula that makes puts every salad on another level really makes my cooking day. Leeks, by the way also make a permanent appearance in this book, like in the wheat berries & Swiss chard dish that is getting its sweet and sour taste from another favorite of mine – pomegranate molasses.

Of course you will see a multitude of rice, hummus, tahini and labane dishes here. How can Jerusalemites live without those? And, his recipe of mujadara is really great with all the warm spices and crispy onions on top.

Savory pastries section is really my favorite, I think, with all of the herbs/cheese combinations inside the dough. I would live only on those! Small pieces, large pies, cigars and burekas – you will find what you are looking for.

As for desserts, I would stop at clementine and almond syrup cake – a traditional Middle Eastern dessert. You will, naturally, find variations of the ubiquitous semolina and/or syrup cakes without which no Middle Eastern meal is finished. Finally, the condiments section will show the difference between the pickles you may be used to and the ones that are found on every table in Jerusalem.

If I could say one critical thing it would be, of course, that for a home cook, you need to make sure your pantry is well stocked with spices that you may never knew before. If you are new to the world of spices, I’d suggest to get just the minimum amount even though I know it’s hard to find most of the times. Start with a little less than needed for the recipe to see how you like it and how your body reacts. As for me – the more the merrier. I LOVE spies!

So, let’s move to another book, nothing to do with politics, thankfully, but all things sweet. Hence the name – “Sweet”. This book is written together with Helen Goh, whose Insta account has over 109 thousand! followers including my baking loving daughter.

This is a truly amazing book of desserts. I love to improvise, and the hardest thing for me is to stick to the recipe. I’ve learned that in dessert you can wiggle your way out of the original recipe with great caution as the textures and weights of the ingredients matter so much here. No wonder one should have a kitchen scale on hand.

There are some trusted favorites like oatmeal cookies, but also so many things that you’ll probably not find anywhere else. The things you knew and made before turn into something special like not-quite-Bonnie’s rugelach or tahini and halva brownies.

One of my (and it seems many members of my family and friend’s) favorite is the lemon, blueberry and almond teacakes. These mine cakes are so easy to make, and actually they adapt very easily to a parve version making them a perfect gift to bring to a Shabbat table anywhere. I, of course, also omit most of the icing sugar which makes them amazingly beautiful but also adds a huge amount of sugar to your diet.

One of the unusual things I made, although not in a tin (we’d probably say ‘jar’ here in the US) was a butternut, honey and almond cake – easy, stable to shelf and delicious.

And, the real winner – fig, orange and mascarpone cheesecake! Wow, this one is a stunning, but make sure to serve it alone at tea time or after a very very light meal. This is a meal in itself! It is so rich and surprisingly easy to prepare – what a bonus!

All in all practically every page of this book is a winner – so happy I got a hold of this one for free.

Finally – ‘Simple’. It really is. It is a great book to give to a bride, for example. Too bad it’s not kosher, but I am ok with skipping a few pages, or adapting some things to my lifestyle. Of course, if that’s not your way, it will be even easier for you to use. It is a great book in its direct style, step by step instructions, and of course, a picture for most of the recipes. And if you get to the sweet end of it – do make sweet and salty cheesecake with cherries. It is marked ‘easier than you think’ and it really is – delightful dessert to be served in individual portions as it is rather rich for the end of a meal. I do love desserts though – what can I say?

All in all, I think I made my peace with these because the talent and work that went into these books are impressive. I am hoping we can all be at peace with everyone else.

Happy cooking and baking!

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