This past Saturday evening, we hosted the first of two groups of people that won a Middle Eastern feast at a charity auction. To prepare for this event, I scoured my collection of recipes gathered and adapted over the years. Wild rice stuffed grape leaves. Labneh with za’atar and olive oil. Soft, fluffy pita bread.
But I also used this homework phase to explore the contents of Jerusalem, the groundbreaking cookbook by Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian Sami Tamimi.
I liked the idea of two men who could be enemies but who instead cook together and feed others. Breaking bread instead of heads, as it were. But I also loved the look and feel of the cookbook. Resplendent with gorgeous color photos and filled with personal stories, the book is a masterpiece.
Menu planning presented a challenge. I needed to make this vegetarian, but wanted something that wasn’t hummus or falafel or baba ganoush. I wanted new, bold, innovative. I craved uncharted territory. And, to be honest, I wanted to make a splash.
And, boy did I ever get that. My worries that I would grow weary of Middle Eastern food were groundless. The flavors in Jerusalem’s pages were so varied that there was no way we could tire (except for the sheer exhaustion I felt by midnight Saturday, when I collapsed into my warm, cozy bed).
Jerusalem offered pureed beets with goat cheese and hazelnuts; watercress and chickpea soup with rose water and ras el hanout; roasted butternut squash with onions and tahihi; baby spinach salad with dates and almonds; burnt eggplant soup with mograbieh; roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs; semolina, coconut and marmalade cake. And, for a dinner prepared for just the two of us: an absolutely divine chicken with caramelized onions and cardamom rice.
The recipes called for ingredients that brought to mind caravans of colorfully clad camels bearing goods across vast deserts. Orange blossom water, za’atar, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon. Pine nuts, hazelnuts, goat cheese, tahini, dates, figs. The aromas wafting from my kitchen made me feel as if I were strolling through the narrow, vaulted alleyways of the shuk.
But, enough day dreaming; I’m bound to let something boil over or burn. And anyway, it’s time to plan menu #2.