Israeli and Palestinian Celebrity Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi Cook Up a Storm

London-based chefs get together in the Washington Post's kitchen to promote their cookbook.

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Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

“I heard camels like fennel,” said Palestinian-British chef Sami Tamimi, as he sliced fresh fennel bulbs for a fennel and cherry tomato gratin with crumble topping at the Washington Post’s test kitchen a couple of weeks ago. Tamimi was visiting Washington with co-writer, Israeli-British celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi, as part of a quick American tour to promote their new book Ottolenghi: the Cookbook. The book was originally published in Britain in 2008, but was converted to ounces and Fahrenheit only now. After it, came the cookbook Plenty, written by Ottolenghi on his own, as well as Jerusalem: A Cookbook by both chefs. The two books were instant hits in Britain and the U.S., making Ottolenghi a household name on both sides of the pond.

The two were invited by my friend Bonnie Benwick, deputy editor of the Washington Post Food Section, to cook at the newspaper's kitchen and I was glad to join them. And although they seemed surprised at first by the request to roll up their sleeves and start cooking, to our delight they quickly got into the right mood and prepared the fabulous fennel and seared tuna in pistachio crust and papaya salsa dishes from their book.

There's a distinct feel to all of Ottolenghi/Tamimi books. They have that Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base, the emphasis on colorful and fresh produce and bold favors, the extensive use of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic (as they explain in the preface of the book) plus the addition of more exotic ingredients, like sumac, pomegranate molasses and Persian dried limes. All is topped with a strong sense of having fun and breaking with all culinary traditions. If I had to define the new Israeli cuisine, it would be just that, yet the Ottolenghi and Tamimi prefer to avoid this label. "I don't think this [israeli cuisine] describes our food very well," Ottolenghi said. And since the new Israeli cuisine, which is based on fusion of so many traditions and influences, is hard to define, Ottolenghi is probably right. Yet, their recipes come from the same family of recipes you can find in many chef restaurants in Israel.

Ottolenghi, like Einat Admony, who I interviewed here a few of weeks ago, describes his cuisine as an individual interpretation on the Mediterranean kitchen. I’m not arguing with them, but I think this might be one of the answers to the question raised here by my colleague Liz Steinberg in her fascinating article Is Israeli cuisine really the next big thing on the U.S. culinary scene? It would be hard for the Israeli cuisine to become the next big thing when most of the Israeli chefs who make it popular are reluctant to describe it this way.

“I don’t think people perceive us as Israeli chefs, but they’re completely aware of where we’re coming from and how this informs our cooking,” Ottolenghi concluded.

Ottolenghi is a huge international hit. His books are bestsellers in the UK and in America. He has four restaurants and deli branches in London, in addition to the more upscale Nopi. But what about Israel, I asked, how do the Israelis see you? Both chefs admitted they are not as well recognized in their home country. In fact, only one of their books had been translated to Hebrew. Ottolenghi speculated that the reason may be that the food he and Tamimi offer, is “nothing new for the Israelis.”

And how about the Jewish Ashkenazi cuisine? I asked them for the benefit of my Jewish American readers.

“I love gefilte fish. Sami doesn’t like gefilte fish,” Ottolenghi replied instantly.

“I love chopped liver, kreplach and kneidlach,” Tamimi added, perfectly pronouncing the names of the Eastern-European Jewish dishes. “I do a really nice kneidlach, for an Arab.” He added in his excellent sense of humor.

“They are extremely fluffy, he makes the best kneidlach,” Ottolenghi agreed.

As for the near future, Ottolenghi (a former Haaretz news desk editor, by the way) is already working on two new cookbooks. A second vegetarian cookbook that is schedule to come out next year, based mainly on his popular column in the Guardian. The other book will be of recipes from his high-end restaurant Nopi, that Ottolenghi is now “working to simplify the recipes to make them doable for the home cook.”

We all devoured the fennel gratin as it came out of the oven and the beautifully presented thinly sliced tuna with the colorful papaya salsa. And there are many many more of those in the new book.

Roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts, and honey

Reprinted with permission from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 large organic or free-range chicken, divided into quarters: breast and wing, leg and thigh
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
a generous pinch of saffron threads
juice of 1 lemon
4 tbsp cold water
2 tsp coarse sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
scant ¾ cup / 100 g unskinned hazelnuts
3½ tbsp / 70 g honey
2 tbsp rose water
2 green onions, coarsely chopped

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces with the onions, olive oil, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, lemon juice, water, salt, and pepper. Leave to marinate for at least an hour, or overnight in the fridge.

2. Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C. Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Chop coarsely and set aside.

3. Transfer the chicken and marinade to a baking sheet large enough to accommodate everything comfortably. Arrange the chicken pieces skin side up and put the pan in the oven for about 35 minutes.

4. While the chicken is roasting, mix the honey, rose water, and nuts together to make a rough paste. Remove the chicken from the oven, spoon a generous amount of nut paste onto each piece, and spread it to cover. Return to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the nuts are golden brown.

5. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and garnish with the chopped green onions.


Sweet potato galettes

Reprinted with permission from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3 sweet potatoes, about 12 oz / 350 g each
9 oz / 250 g puff pastry or ½ recipe Rough puff pastry page 280
1 free-range egg, lightly beaten
6½ tbsp / 100 ml sour cream
3½ tbsp / 100 g aged goat cheese
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 medium-hot chile, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C. Bake the sweet potatoes in their skins for 35 to 45 minutes, until they soften up but are still slightly raw in the center (check by inserting a small knife). Leave until cool enough to handle, then peel and cut into slices 1⁄8 inch / 3 mm thick.

2. While the sweet potatoes are in the oven, roll out the puff pastry to about 1⁄16 inch / 2 mm thick on a lightly floured work surface. Cut out four 2¾ by 5½-inch / 7 by 14-cm rectangles and prick them all over with a fork. Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper, place the pastry rectangles on it, well spaced apart, and leave to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

3. Remove the pastry from the fridge and brush lightly with the beaten egg. Using an icing spatula, spread a thin layer of sour cream on the pastries, leaving a ¼-inch / 5-mm border all round. Arrange the potato slices on the pastry, slightly overlapping, keeping the border clear. Season with salt and pepper, crumble the goat cheese on top, and sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds and chile. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the pastry is cooked through. Check underneath; it should be golden brown.

4. While the galettes are cooking, stir together the olive oil, garlic, parsley, and a pinch of salt. As soon as the pastries come out of the oven, brush them with this mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Ottolenghi (on the left) and Tamimi at the Washington Post kitchen.Credit: Vered Guttman
Roast chicken with saffron.Credit: Richard Learoyd © 2013
Sweet potato galettes. Credit: Richard Learoyd © 2013
Sami Tamimi with his fennel. cherry tomato and crumble gratin.Credit: Vereg Guttman

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