I love cooking. I love books. One might think that I love cookbooks… Not so.
Because I learned to cook from watching my mother and grand-mother and having to help peel and chop and stir whether I wanted to or not from an early age, 90% of the time I don’t cook with a specific recipe nor exact measures, except when I bake.
I read cookbooks like people read guidebooks before they set out on holidays to Greece or Paris. Most of the time, these things are a little bit out-dated. Tourists in Rome seek out a quaint little place famous for its pizza and Barolo on the Campo dei Fiori only to find it’s been bought by Apple. The computers, not the fruit. Some guidebooks advertise a place so well that it becomes a victim of its success, like the famous tapas bar in Barcelona, la Cerveseria Catalana, which does indeed serve fabulous finger food, just not to anyone local. We traipsed around the barrio for fifteen minutes before finding it and deciding on the spot that a bar full of foreigners was not our idea of a typical night out in Spain.
So a cookbook, to me, is a guidebook to dinner. I leaf through it for inspiration. I seek out a specific set of proportions. I check out cooking techniques and oven temperatures. Rarely, do I follow an actual recipe.
As always, there is an exception: Ottolenghi.
For those who don’t know who or what Ottolenghi is (there are still people who don’t????), you can go to their website or, better, one of their restaurants in and around London. To make it short, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are two chefs from both sides of the faultline in Jerusalem and their cooking is the Best Thing I Have Ever Tasted. It’s less about dishes as it is about an approach to produce. Look at their cookbook(s), and you will see that there are six pages on their philosophy, their history, their impulse, followed by several pages of lists of their favourite things in the kitchen. It’s glorious!
I use this cookbook so often that it’s getting tatty. I still don’t always stick to the recipe (lack of time, lack of za’atar, weird people who hate coriander), but Sami and Yotam – yes, in my mind we are on first-name terms – have revolutionised my cooking like nobody else.
My favourites? p.41 Chargrilled broccoli with chili and garlic, p.53 Fennel, cherry tomato and crumble gratin, p.114 Roast pork belly. Please note: it’s all affordable. Unlike some very pretty books I have on French cuisine with truffles (love ’em), foie gras (adore it) and other fancy fare, there’s nothing expensive about butternut squash, chickpeas or chicken.
My best, best, bestest present from my hubby last year was the cookbook “Jerusalem”… by the same authors.
Read it and cook.