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Monday, December 31, 2012

Cookbook of the Year: Jerusalem

The world may not need more good recipes, but good stories are always in demand. And a good cookbook not only tells a story, but also helps its readers create their own stories through meals with family and friends. Jerusalem is such a book.

I have to admit, I'm in no place to actually pick a "cookbook of the year." Of the hundreds (thousands?) of new cookbooks this year, I've only actually read and cooked from a few. There were some with strong Atlanta ties worth pointing out - Kevin Gillespie's Fire in My Belly was well received, and Adam Roberts' Secrets of the Best Chefs leaned heavily on Atlanta chefs for inspiration. But Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, is as worthy of singling out as its namesake city.

I'm not alone in praising Jerusalem. compiled a mega-list of the various "best of 2012" lists out there, and Jerusalem came out on top. It's a book that, yes, has intriguing recipes. And mouth watering photos. But, most of all, it has a great story to tell.

Jerusalem tells a story of that city's unique melding of history and religion and culture, but it also tells the story of two chefs raised in that city - one a Jew born to European immigrants, the other an Arab Muslim - working together and weaving together their childhood memories of a city and its food. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi met serendipitously as budding chefs in London, far removed in space and time from their common Jerusalem upbringings. In the introduction to the book, the authors speak to their common yet uncommon roots, shared but seen through different eyes:

Trio of dishes from Jerusalem
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Trio of dishes as cooked from Jerusalem: butternut squash with tahini sauce, roasted cauliflower salad, burnt eggplant with pomegranate.
"The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue... Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer's day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas with ground lamb... the list is endless... We want to offer our readers a glimpse into a hidden treasure, and at the same time explore our culinary DNA, unravel the sensations and the alphabet of the city that made us the food creatures we are."

There are photos of Jerusalem itself that help transport you to that city - the vibrant markets, the glow of the stone walls of the old city, the melting pot of people who make it their home. There are essays on topics as diverse as the heady spice mixture called za'atar, the figurative wars fought over hummus in Jerusalem, and the humble eggplant and its role in the many cuisines that converged there. Most importantly, you also get a brief history lesson as background, capped with a heartfelt plea that this city might reach the same type of happy and productive coexistence that the book's authors have forged together.

Then there are the recipes. My goodness, I want to try every single one of them. So far, I've tackled quite a few and really like what I see - techniques that are new to me, ingredients that push me a bit out of my comfort zone, results that do indeed bring an air of the exotic alleys of a faraway city steeped in history. These are dishes that bring the fragrance and flavors that rise up in Jerusalem kitchens every day into your home. The first night I cooked from this book for my wife and kids, my parents and sister and her family actually happened to be together in Jerusalem, which only served to heighten my appreciation for the cookbook's transportive ability.

There's an expression uttered at Passover tables all over the world each year that wishes, "next year in Jerusalem." Now, we can all get at least a little closer to that holy city, through the stories told in a cookbook.

Jerusalem Cookbook
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Chicken with clementines. Wine-poached pears with saffron and cardamom.

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