I’m so predictable, I joined the rest of the world, or at least my little corner of it if my Twitter and Instagram feed is anything to go by, by easing and eating myself into the new year by working my way steadily through the quite brilliant Jerusalem. I’m sure many of you, certainly plenty of my Twitter chums, received the book as a Christmas gift. Sadly it appears I’ve been banished from being gifted pretty recipe books, I think it’s generally considered that I own far too many of them and so am forced to self gift, no bad thing I guess as I get what I want that way.
For some reason Jerusalems timing seems serendipitous, providing a fresh, soul nourishing and faintly exotic counter point to the saturation of burgers and fried food that hit a slightly silly peak just before christmas. I’m sure I’m not alone in that my bad eating and drinking habits increase exponentially towards the end of the year hitting a crescendo at Christmas and then I coast into the new year in a bloated, alcohol fuggy daze, liver pickled, blotchy and waddling. This no mans land of time that advocates wallowing in sheer gluttiny. When else is it deemed acceptable to mainline Quality Street and Baileys from dusk till dawn? I exacerbate this in grand style by doing Christmas en famile early, and then eating and drinking EVERYTHING in New York for the actual holiday. Jerusalem, whilst not quite the antithesis of this, there’s lashings of olive oil, sugar, cheese and pastry, does offer balance; abundant fresh vegetables and herbs, sprightly sauces, zingy spices and soothing slow cooking.
Far too often I covet a beautiful recipe book only to get it home, flick through the gorgeous pictures, impressive styling, pour over the words, plan elaborate dinner parties and weekend feasts. Then never cook from it, or at most make and perfect one thing and shelve it, pulling it out only to remind myself of that one failsafe recipe while the rest of the time it languishes forlornly amongst the others insulating my book shelves. I think, for me at least, I have to be in the right frame of mind to utilise something new, move out of my comfort zone and actually bother to do something different. I had a big Middle Eastern and Georgian phase a couple of years ago, bought all the beautiful books from Diana Henry, Moro, Silvena Rowe etc but the boy can be so fussy with the whole sweet/savoury thing and much spicing beyond, well, salt and pepper, that I ended up giving up rather than endlessly cook two separate meals. By some miracle the boy has all of a sudden dropped this particular fussiness, I have no idea how or why, but it’s opened up our dinner choices massively and I’ve really enjoyed being able to play around in the kitchen again.
I have both Ottolenghi’s first cookbook, a fab selection of the cafe classics, and Plenty which is a great resource for vegetable based dishes, but like so many others they fell by the wayside with only a handful of dishes sampled. Jerusalem however has come at just the right time to satisfy everything I currently want in a recipe book, mainly in that I’m finding it inspirational and achievable. I can dip into it for ideas as much as for a complete recipe, and those recipes are really very accessible, each of the ones I’ve tried are well laid out and written, and so far fool proof, they also provide an excellent base for a bit of creativity. I’ve spent the last two weekends selecting tempting things randomly from it and without fail each has been a resounding success.
The first recipe to catch my eye is the Shakshuka, basically eggs slow cooked with tomatoes in a pan, a dish you’ll find on brunch menus all over London in various guises, it’s pure comfort food and just what’s needed at this gloomy time of year. I swapped the red peppers for aubergine and onion, and added some salty feta and spicy nduja for a bit of ooomph, then served with great swathes of seeded Turkish bread.
Shakshuka – Serves 2
2 tbsp harrissa paste
2 tsp tomato paste
1 onion sliced
1 large aubergine cut into cubes
4 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tin chopped tomatoes
3 large tomatoes chopped
4 large eggs
Heat olive oil in a large pan and fry the aubergine cubes, in another heat more oil and soften the onions, then add the harissa, tomato puree, garlic, cumin and a little salt. When the aubergine is soft and colouring, add to the onion mixture with the chopped tomatoes and a large dollop of nduja then simmer until the sauce thickens.
Make four spaces in the sauce, carefully break the eggs into their respective holes and simmer for about ten minutes until the whites are cooked but yolks are still runny. Carefully spoon onto two plates, scatter crumbled feta over and serve with plenty of bread.
Shakshuka comes from the Vegetable section at the very front of the book, it’s a great start and I’m already planning on making the Roasted Cauliflower & Hazelnut Salad, Burnt Aubergine with Garlic, Lemon and Pomegranate Seeds and gloriously sweet and sticky sounding Roasted Potatoes with Caramel & Prunes.
Pulses and Grains are key to this cuisine and I make both Mejadra and Hummus Kawarma with Lemon Sauce from this next chapter, both are equally delicious in very different ways. Mejadra is another dish that is pure cosy blankey in food form, a fluffy plate of lentils and rice, fragrant with spices, tossed through with deep fried crunchy onions and topped with more of the same, I can’t help pimping it with a little crumbled salty feta and scooping great mounds from plate to mouth with more flatbread.
I’ve never owned a blender before and so the boy’s impulse purchase means I’m dying to try making hummus, the recipe here is beautifully smooth and mild, the perfect blank canvas for all manner of toppings. Lamb is chopped into bite sized nuggets, sweetly spiced and doused in a bright lemon sauce, a wonderful foil for that soothing base. Be warned, the basic hummus recipe makes loads, we were happily tucking into it all weekend. From the same chapter I’m also keen to make the Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta and the Couscous with Tomato and Onion from this section mainly because I love the look of that crusty bottom!
So far so good and I’ve not even started on the meat chapter yet, of which I love the sound of Saffron Chicken & Herb Salad and pretty much all of the meatballs. The Lamb Shawarma looks epic and fit for a huge Sunday dinner and browsing through now I’ve got a feeling the Braised Eggs with Lamb, Tahini and Sumac could be next on my hit list.
Towards the back of the book we come to Sweets and Savoury pastries, this is definitely where my weaknesses lie, I haven’t dared touch any of the sweet recipes yet, for fear of ingesting all of that sugar…I will do, just not quite yet. I do fully embrace a couple of the savouries though. Sfiha or Lahm Bi’ajeen are spiced lamb mini pizza type things, the recipe suggests making fourteen but as it’s just for two of us I make six larger ones. Again, I’m thrilled with the results, although there’s no picture to check the end result against I think these work excellently; the dough is somewhere between a pizza base and a pastry, massively oil enriched and addictively crispy, topped with a rich and fragrant lamb mince mixture, I just about resist my knee jerk reaction to anything that is to add cheese as it simply doesn’t need it.
The other recipe I can’t resist making is the Acharuli Khachapuri partly as the name reminds me of the Georgian cheese bread I spent some time trying to perfect a couple of years ago. This is quite different, it is yeast risen for a start but equally delicious. I’m serving my little buns with a spicy deep fried vegetable dish topped with egg so omit this from the final stage, instead sealing the top of the breads with a twist and a squash before egg washing. The dough has a fantastic texture and glossy crust, but if making in this way again I’d definitely double the quantity of cheese filling, a combination of feta, halloumi and ricotta, as it’s a touch sparse.
So, already this is quite possibly my most used cook book within the space of just two weeks, I think that probably says it all; a worthy addition to your book shelf, it’ll be one of the best kind, splattered with tasty juices, grubby finger marks and well thumbed edges, I promise it won’t stay on the shelf for long though.