The first red flag alert was the “1 1/2 lb/700 g banana shallots” that go into a lamb meatball dish in Jerusalem, the latest cookbook from the adoptive London chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I would have looked up “banana shallots” in the glossary, only nobody had bothered to waste space on one. Some poking through websites and books revealed that English cooks use this name for a newly popular kind of long, skinny onion — not botanically a shallot — with several other monikers like “echalion” and “cuisse de poulet.” How hard would it have been for the book’s North American publisher to explain a term not universally understood by cooks west of the pond?
The truth is that certain kinds of editorial scutwork don’t sell cookbooks. The people responsible for Jerusalem seem to have had other priorities.
The premise — two Jerusalem-born expats, a Jew and an Arab, teaming up to produce great food at a stable of successful London eateries — is honestly heartwarming. What follows is a publicity team’s guess at the recipe for a can’t-miss blockbuster. Not a bad guess, either. It just doesn’t leave room for minutiae like systematic explanations of crucial terms and ingredients, a decent index, or, in the case of the North American edition, the slightest consistency in the act of transatlantic “translation.”
The glory of the book is a splendid collection of about 125 dishes, most loosely or closely based on Jewish and Muslim originals that reached Jerusalem kitchens from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean as well as points further east (Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia). Just about everything breathes an invigorating freshness without self-conscious straining for novelty — something harder to achieve than it sounds. Any cook who loves vegetables, pulses and grains will be kept happy for a long time exploring Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s sunny ideas in those departments. But there’s plenty else, from poultry, lamb and fish dishes to savory pastries and a wide selection of desserts.
The dishes I tried probably are a good cross-section: A beautifully plain mint-accented soup of barley and yogurt, irresistible when served hot, somehow managed to be even better cold. Just as winning was a richer-flavoured soup with freekeh (fire-roasted green wheat) and lamb meatballs. The chopped flesh of a lemon proved a simple but thrilling addition to chickpeas tossed with parsley, scallions and a good dose of cumin. Crunchy fried coriander seeds served the same purpose for marinated sweet-and-sour fish fillets with onion, peppers and tomatoes. A lemony tahini dressing agreeably offset robustly seasoned lamb kofte.
So what’s not to like? To be blunt, the sloppy mixture of overkill and underkill with which the whole project has been carried out. Having assembled some surefire elements of a major hit — evocative title, marvellously engrossing recipes, some personable essays on Jerusalem’s cuisine or cuisines, about 80 splashy photos (by Jonathan Lovekin) of the food, several dozen location shots (by Adam Hinton) of the contemporary city’s places and people — the masterminds behind this production left less marketable elements to shift for themselves.
Consequently, there’s a certain gap between Jerusalem’s aims and execution that won’t stop veteran cooks from finding real riches but that certainly will put up minor or major roadblocks for novices. And not only novices: My one kitchen failure, a Persian-inspired rice pudding, was not just disappointing but atrocious. My guess is that a step in handling the rice got inadvertently left out. Such things happen to the best recipe-writers — but an awful lot else in the book suggests a maddening combination of overzealous fuss and blithe inattention on the part of its editors as well as transatlantic adapters.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s vivid use of fresh herbs brings out the worst in these team members. Recipe after recipe is cluttered with clumsy, rigid diktats like “2/3 oz/20 g fresh mint,” “1/3 oz/10 g flat-leaf parsley,” or — when somebody unaccountably decides to mix volume and weight measurements — “1/4 cup/15 g chopped flat-leaf parsley.” This is the kind of muddled pseudo-precision that gives recipe-writing a bad name. Home cooks in their right minds know that any batch of fresh herbs may be stronger or milder in flavor, and don’t weigh small amounts by the gram or fraction of an ounce.
Not having seen Jerusalem as first published in the UK, I don’t know how closely measurements of ingredients in the original match those in the North American edition. The latter, however, has some doozies — take “1 lb/900 g” of cucumbers in a pickle recipe. (In fact, 900 grams = 2 pounds.) Or the descriptions of a 2 3/4-pound chicken as “large” on page 179 and a 3 1/4-pound counterpart as “small” on page 182.
There are other puzzles, culinary and linguistic. Are the authors really unaware that cardamom seeds can easily be removed from a handful of pods and ground in a mortar with other seasonings for a spice mixture? Can they think that sesame seeds for tahini might be “ground in a millstone” — as if millstones were receptacles and one by itself were capable of grinding anything — or that sabih (an Iraqi-descended free-for-all of vegetables, condiments and hard-boiled eggs) is “mumbo-jumbo served in or on a pita?” English-language editors are supposed to save foreign-born authors from such flubs.
And to return to “banana shallots”: Anyone mystified by that phrase is also likely to have trouble with “Romano peppers,” “anari cheese” and “feuilles de brick,” items apparently more available in the UK than here. Except for the last (which receives a scrap of unhelpful description), none is explained for the benefit of cooks on this continent. But all show up, to no visible purpose, in the index — a monumentally unsystematic affair that sees fit to mention some ingredients (like rose water) but not others (orange blossom water), and gratuitously tips a nod to the author of a stuffed eggplant recipe not used in the book while leaving out the names of at least half a dozen people who really did contribute recipes or information.
Three rousing cheers for all the excellent food in Jerusalem. Would that the concept had more consistently gotten the execution it deserves.