Rushing to ‘Jerusalem’

The book inspired by Jewish and Arab cuisine has cooks clamoring for its Middle Eastern recipes

New York TimesAugust 6, 2013 

The first symptoms of “Jerusalem” fever appeared on New Year’s Eve: A friend rushed over at a party, breathless, her eyes bright.

“We have to do an all-‘Jerusalem’ dinner!” she panted, then immediately called dibs on making the chicken with clementines and arak.

“Jerusalem: A Cookbook” was written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, chefs who grew up on opposite sides of the divided city – Tamimi in the Arab East, Ottolenghi in the Jewish West. Both left Israel decades ago, live in London and are hardly celebrity chefs.

The book’s recipes are traditional in Jerusalem, or loosely inspired by the city, gathering influences from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish cooks who live there, with flavors from almost everywhere else: Iran, Poland, Syria, Italy. Many have long lists of ingredients, including spices like sumac and za’atar. Chickpeas, lamb, eggplant and eggs turn up over and over again.

None of this would suggest a formula for instant cookbook success.

But soon there were other symptoms of “Jerusalem” fever. A sudden influx of emails regarding cardamom pods. Conversations over cubicle walls about where to find freekeh.

“Jerusalem,” published in the United States last October by Ten Speed Press, already has 200,000 copies in print, with an additional 210,000 copies in print in Britain.

More than 3,000 cookbooks are published each year, according to Bowker, the publishing industry’s tracking authority. Very few of them sell more than 35,000 copies, and those that do are usually driven by authors who are chefs, celebrities or both.

Most cookbooks disappear without a trace. And, as many home cooks can attest, even the copies that are sold tend to languish on the shelf without being used.

Not this one.

“I took it out from the library as many times as I was allowed to,” said the Rev. Raewynne Whiteley, rector of an Episcopal church in St. James, N.Y. “And there were still so many things I wanted to make that I was forced to buy it.”

Cooks have been throwing “Jerusalem” potlucks, passing around tips on where to buy fresh tahini in Minneapolis or in Manchester, England, and using the book as a spark to ignite new cookbook clubs, monthly gatherings of cooks who may know each other only online.

American food lovers are not only cooking from “Jerusalem.” Many of them are cooking their way through it, as cooks did with “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in the 1960s and “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in the 1980s.

Social media sharing

So what makes one cookbook essential and another dispensable?

First, of course, there is the food. Like those earlier books, “Jerusalem” seems like an open door to a new realm of flavor. The recipes are full of sun, accented with salt, and rife with crunchy and creamy contrasts. There are new grains, greens and spices to explore, and fistfuls of garlic, capers, feta cheese and other familiar ingredients from around the Mediterranean.

But food alone can’t explain the success of a cookbook like “Jerusalem.”

“Some books just manage to fit into their time,” said Marvin Taylor, the director of the Fales Library at New York University. “Is it a coincidence that ‘The Joy of Cooking’ was a best-seller in 1931, two years after the stock market crash, when suddenly thousands of American women had to cook for their families?”

Changes in how people cook can be driven by changes in technology (producing a hot title like “Microwave Gourmet,” by Barbara Kafka, in 1987) and by social shifts, too. “Entertaining,” the glossy book that made Martha Stewart a household name, appeared in 1982, just as the women’s movement was learning to embrace its domestic side.

For “Jerusalem” fever, social media sites have been a hot zone. Sarene Wallace and Beth Lee, friends and food writers in California, spent so much time talking about the book that they started a Facebook page devoted to it. In a modern version of home cooks swapping tips over the fence, the two established #tastingjrslm as a hashtag across Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest so that lovers of chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice all over the world could compare photos.

The Web was once expected to spell death for cookbooks. Recipe-aggregator sites like AllRecipes and Epicurious seemed to ensure that books would soon go the way of iceberg lettuce and instant coffee. But new technology gave cooks the ability to form communities online, sharing photos and tips, which in turn has breathed new life into the cookbook industry.

Virtual cookbook clubs have sprung up on websites like Chow. A group blog called Tuesdays With Dorie took off in 2006, when Dorie Greenspan’s book “Baking: From My Home to Yours” gave home cooks the I-want-to-make-everything itch.

In the Triangle, a Facebook group called Wok Wednesdays took off after a visit from Grace Young, author of the book “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.”

Middle Eastern appeal

Trying to contain Arab and Jewish traditions in one book is inherently controversial. But the religious and geopolitical complications seem to have been trounced by the pull of the book.

“Lots of people who think of Middle Eastern food go immediately to hummus, but this food just looks so alive,” Wallace said, referring to the bright, messy photos that illustrate nearly every recipe.

“Jerusalem” fever has apparently not spread to Israel, where pride in the local foods and restaurants is booming. The book has not been published in Hebrew, one of the reasons it is more popular in Belfast than in Beersheba.

“Israelis are very patriotic and proud,” said Naama Shefi, an Israeli food writer in New York. “I think that Israelis don’t like it when someone who left years ago is in a position to define what is Israel.”

U.S. expatriates, however, have fallen on it with delight.

“It’s such a relief to be able to go to the shuk and not feel like an idiot,” Aaron Goodman, who moved from Philadelphia to Jerusalem in 2010, said of the open-air market. “And to finally have recipes for all the delicious food I’ve seen around me. Especially the meatballs.”

Chicken With Caramelized Onion And Cardamom Rice Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012).

3 tablespoons sugar 2 1/2 tablespoons barberries (or currants, golden raisins or unsweetened dried cranberries) 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided 2 medium onions, thinly sliced 2 1/4 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, or 1 whole chicken, quartered Salt and freshly ground black pepper 10 cardamom pods Rounded 1/4 teaspoon whole cloves 2 long cinnamon sticks, broken in two 1 2/3 cups basmati rice 2 1/4 cups boiling water 1 1/2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped 1/3 cup Greek yogurt mixed with 2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)

PUT sugar and scant 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan and heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, add barberries and set aside to soak. (If using currants or golden raisins, you could skip this step.)

HEAT half the olive oil over medium heat in a large saute pan with a lid. Add onions and cook 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion has turned a deep golden brown. Transfer onions to a small bowl and wipe pan clean.

PLACE chicken in a large mixing bowl and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons each salt and black pepper. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and use your hands to mix everything together well. Heat saute pan again and place chicken and spices in it. Sear chicken for 5 minutes on each side and remove from pan. (This is important, as it partially cooks the chicken. The spices can stay in the pan, but don’t worry if they stick to the chicken.) Remove most of remaining oil as well, leaving just a thin film at the bottom.

ADD rice, caramelized onion, 1 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Drain barberries and add them as well. Stir well and return seared chicken to pan, pushing it into rice.

POUR boiling water over rice and chicken, cover pan and cook over very low heat for 30 minutes. Take pan off the heat, remove lid, quickly place a clean tea towel over pan, and seal again with lid. Leave dish undisturbed for 10 minutes.

ADD herbs and use a fork to stir them in and fluff up rice. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot or warm with yogurt mixture if you like. YIELD: 4 servings.

Basic Jerusalem-Style Hummus Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012). 1 1/4 cups dried chickpeas 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons light tahini paste 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 4 cloves garlic, crushed Salt 6 1/2 tablespoons ice-cold water

PUT chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with cold water at least twice their volume. Soak overnight.

DRAIN chickpeas. In a medium saucepan, combine drained chickpeas and baking soda over high heat. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 6 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 to 40 minutes, skimming off foam and skins that float to the surface, depending on the type and freshness. The chickpeas should be very tender, breaking easily when pressed between your thumb and finger, but not mushy.

DRAIN chickpeas. You should have roughly 3 cups. Place chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add tahini, lemon juice, garlic and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Slowly drizzle in ice water and mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.

TRANSFER hummus to a bowl, cover surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If not using immediately, refrigerate until needed, up to two days. Remove from refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

YIELD: About 2 cups.

Baby Spinach Salad With Dates and Almonds Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012).

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced 3 1/2 ounces dates, preferably Medjool, pitted and quartered lengthwise Salt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided 2 small pitas (about 3 1/2 ounces), roughly torn into 1 1/2-inch pieces 1/2 cup whole unsalted almonds, coarsely chopped 2 teaspoons sumac 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 5 to 6 ounces baby spinach leaves 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

PUT vinegar, onion and dates in a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt and mix well with your hands. Marinate for 20 minutes, then drain.

HEAT butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add pita and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring all the time, until pita is golden. Add almonds and continue cooking until pita is crunchy and browned and almonds are toasted and fragrant, about 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat and mix in sumac, red pepper flakes and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside to cool.

WHEN ready to serve, toss spinach leaves with pita mix in a large mixing bowl. Add dates and red onion, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the lemon juice and another pinch of salt. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately.

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings.

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