Jerusalem: Mejadra

It’s lentils.  It’s rice.  It’s fried onions.  It’s like an onion ring salad but rendered guilt free because…it’s got lentils!  And they’re good for you!  No wonder it is ancient and “popular throughout the Arab world” (according to the authors) and that there is actually some consensus that it is the ultimate comfort food.

And it’s pretty straightforward.  Simmer some lentils, then toss thinly-sliced onions with flour and saute in oil.  Next saute basmati rice with cumin and coriander seeds, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon and sugar.  Add water and lentils and cook.  Then bring it all together for a monochromatic yet impossible to stop eating bowl of yum.  It’s the kind of dish that I find myself having one, two, three servings of and still dipping my spoon into as I clean up after dinner.

It’s vegetarian and vegan and just crazy good.  You will find Mejadra on page 120 of Jerusalem.  You can also find the recipe on Serious Eats, in a cute little feature they call “Cook the Book.”  Huh.  What a coincidence.  If I didn’t like them so much I would deploy my team of ruthless copyright lawyers to correct their transparent albeit flattering rip off of my site.

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Jerusalem: Spiced Chickpeas and Fresh Vegetable Salad

There was a lot to like about this salad, like the spiced chickpeas.  However, if you think Yotam and Sami are going to let you just pop open a can you have come to the wrong grotto.  No, this is old school and you are going to soak dried chickpeas overnight and then boil them for an hour the next day.  And if you still feel like you haven’t quite done them justice, fear not, you still get to toss them in olive oil and spices and saute them.

I am far too lazy busy to do a side-by-side comparison of canned chickpeas vs. dried but I will voice profound skepticism that doing it the hard way makes a huge difference.  There, I said it.  Schedule my stoning.

After what may or may not be time well spent with the chickpeas it’s just chopping vegetables and making a vinaigrette.  And here we find the kind of recipe instruction that actually makes me laugh out loud all by myself in the kitchen which makes my dogs cock their heads and wonder if this means I’m going to give up and just feed them all the ingredients: you are asked to chop the cucumber, radish, tomato and red pepper into, wait for it, “2/3″ pieces.”  Of course 1/2″ would be way too small.  Silly!  Yotam and Sami, you will learn, love this kind of seemingly pointless and whimsical precision.  Why else would you call for “2/3 ounce cilantro leaves”?  Who am I, Nathan Myhrvold???

Nevertheless, this salad contains some of my favorite ingredients as well as some wonderful spices and a nice, tart vinaigrette.  Substitute cherry or grape tomatoes when the big ones are out of season.  Please.

My only complaint was that it was kind of a wet mess when it all came together.  I would probably drain the tomatoes and cucumber briefly next time.

Spiced Chickpeas and Fresh Vegetable Salad is on page 56 of Jerusalem and here from the Guardian (and I apologize in advance; you’re going to have to convert grams and take the “h” out of yogurt yourself.  Allow extra time).


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Jerusalem: Hummus

So, believe it or not, people get very heated on the topic of food, particularly when it comes to tales of origin and authenticity.  And poor hummus, such a humble yet deeply satisfying food, makes people just bonkers in Israel.  According to Ottolenghi and Tamimi, dear friends can be driven apart by divided loyalties to hummusias.  I get it.  I have judged people by which Chicago pizza they favor (Giordano’s?  Are you kidding me?  Why don’t you just eat quiche and get it over with?).  And who in the US hasn’t been bored senseless by the never-ending discussions of what constitutes “real” barbeque?

Thus there are many opinions and allegiances regarding hummus.  Ingredients, consistency, temperature, and embellishments are all opportunities to take a stand.   Despite the controversies, Jerusalem presents us with a solid basic hummus recipe that works as a stand-alone appetizer as well as a jumping off point for many other dishes.

Now that I know that hummus debating is a national sport in Israel, I feel free to take a passionate yet mostly uninformed stand and say this hummus underwhelmed me.  I attribute it the full cup of tahini required which made the finished product taste like…tahini.  Just tahini.  The lemon, the garlic and the salt all seemed to disappear beneath the blanket of sesame paste.  This may make me sound hopelessly provincial but I prefer the hummus’ I’ve made in the past that have more balanced and interesting flavors and, sorry, use canned chickpeas so can be whipped up on a moment’s notice (vs. having to soak the dried beans overnight and then cook for 20-40 minutes the next day).

But why take my word for it when there’s an argument to be had!  Make it yourself and tell me what you think.  Basic Hummus is on page 114 of Jerusalem and right here in the New York Times.

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Jerusalem: Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur and Yogurt


See, this is why I bought this book.

I knew it would contain recipes for things I didn’t even know I wanted to eat.  Eggplant that has been perfectly seasoned and roasted into submission, topped with a nutty, sweet, briny grain.  Finished with Greek yogurt.  Mission accomplished!

The only ingredient I could not find (or make) in time was the preserved lemon peel and it’s hard to feel badly about that because this dish was so successful it’s impossible to imagine it being any better.

The yummy concoction you smear on your bisected eggplant is chermoula, “a powerful North African paste that is brushed over fish and vegetables, giving them the perfumed aroma of preserved lemon [or not], mixed with heat and spice.”  You will be tempted to chermoula everything that’s not moving after you try it.

The bulgur is easy: pour some boiling water over the grains and let it absorb. I was skeptical that 2/3 cup of water was sufficient for 1 cup bulgur and i was right — I probably doubled it.  Mix in some raisins, herbs, nuts, olives, scallions and lemon juice and you’re ready to spoon it over your tender eggplant and dollop with yogurt.   Keep in mind that the bulgur can easily stand on its own.

The textures and flavors and scents going in this dish all contribute to its appeal and you can see how pretty it is.   Obviously it’s vegetarian but leave out the yogurt and it’s also vegan.

Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur and Yogurt is on page 59 of Jerusalem.  It is also here in The Guardian but it’s written in British so you need to know that an “aubergine” is an eggplant that’s much more fun to say, “yoghurt” contains its vestigial ‘h,’ and bulgur is spelled the way I’ve been spelling it all along, “bulgar.”  Oh and coriander is the same as cilantro and sultanas are raisins with a sexier name.

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Jerusalem: Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice

I am such a sucker for a chicken and rice dish and I know I’m not alone.  Why do we love this combination?  Many reasons: it’s easy (one pot) and comforting, it’s substantial, it’s adaptable ( riso alla pitocca, chicken biryani, arroz con pollo – and Cook’s does a spectacular version with bacon and red pepper – and of course we have to go and do this to it).  I could write a term paper on the popularity and tenacity of this type of dish but I can also tell you what I really think which is: we love it because the rice absorbs the chicken fat making it unctuous and irresistible.  It’s schmaltzy rice and it will own you like a fine RV-made meth.  You will have one serving and then a second.  You will continue to dip your fork back in when no one is looking and yet you will still nibble on it if you’re lucky enough to be doing clean-up that night.

The Jerusalem twist on this version is, as you might imagine, in the spices: barberries (or currants), cardamom pods, cloves and cinnamon. Other than that, it’s your standard one-pot meal.  Saute the onion, then brown the chicken, put it all back in the pan with the rice and boiling water, cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. finish with some fresh herbs (parsley, dill and cilantro) and a little Greek yogurt if you like (I liked but totally forgot to do it).

The flavors are amazing and the smell is out of this world.  Because I had to transport this I learned that once finished you can put the whole thing in a 9 x 12″ baking dish, cover with foil, and reheat.

For a true one-dish meal I would simply throw some frozen peas in at the very end or maybe saute some carrots along with the onion.

Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice is on page 184 of Jerusalem and right here courtesy of the New York Times.

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Jerusalem: Baby Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds

A cookbook with great salads has a good shot at winning me over and this is a great salad.  I rarely eat dates or use them in anything and now I’m wondering why.  Where have you been all my life you sticky little gems?  Their pleasant chewiness is a nice contrast to the other crunchy ingredients here and they are sweet without hitting you over the head with it.  The raw onions were surprisingly mild, due, no doubt, to the fact that they marinate briefly in vinegar (along with the dates).  And how can you not love pieces of pita bread and almonds sauteed in butter?

Unfortunately I was not able to find sumac at the regular grocery store and, frankly, was not entirely sure what I was looking for.  Did I look like a complete idiot standing in the spice aisle when, in fact, it’s some kind of tuber?  Or aperitif?  Luckily, the kids at the store were even more clueless than I was so I left with my dignity in tact.  For a change.

So without time to search other stores or order online I had to omit the sumac.  Luckily, they have it at one of my favorite places on earth (conveniently located close to my office), The Spice House.  Assuming there are some people reading this blog who don’t work at my office, you can order it online!  And if you’re going to buy this book you might as well stock up now because you’re going to need it.

According to the The Spice House:

“Sumac is considered essential for cooking in much of the Middle East; it served as the tart, acidic element in cooking prior to the introduction of lemons by the Romans. Sumac has a very nice, fruity-tart flavor which is not quite as overpowering as lemon. In addition to their very pleasant flavor, flakes from the berry are a lovely, deep red color which makes a very attractive garnish.”

The only thing I will do differently when I make this again (aside from the sumac) is to give the pita a few minutes head start on the almonds when I saute them.  My almonds were getting dangerously close to burnt and I would have liked to give the pita a few more minutes on the stove.

Baby Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds is on page 30 of Jerusalm and right here courtesy of the New York Times.

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The Next Book: Jerusalem: A Cookbook










Let’s put all the wild media speculation and crazy theories to rest and let me tell you how I pick cookbooks to review.

Typically, I look for something relatively new (published within the last year or so), with enough inherent interest that I think many people will be curious about it.  I try not to do the same subject consecutively (e.g. baking, grilling, vegetarian), and I don’t like to repeat authors or publishing entities (Cook’s Illustrated).  I look for books with potentially broad appeal so I tend to steer clear of specific eating regimes (Paleo, low carb, gluten-free).  And you have to allow me my personal preferences and aversions (because I have to eat this stuff): no “diet” books of any kind, nothing too twee or of-the-moment (I am gob-smacked, for instance, that there is an entire book on cake pops.  Really???  If you look up “trendy” in the dictionary there will be a picture of cake pops and those skirts everyone is wearing this summer that are short in front and long in the back), or authors who just rub me the wrong way for reasons best not examined too carefully.






I look for authors I think I can trust either because they have some credibility built on years of cooking, teaching or restaurateuring (ruling out any and all Real Housewives). Sometimes some deluded publisher who clearly hasn’t done his or her homework thinks I’m big time and sends me a galley copy of a cookbook to review (yes, that really happened!).  And sometimes I get caught up in the buzz over a particular book.  Such is the case with Jerusalem.

I had read many positive reviews of this book as well as Mr. Ottolenghi’s previous cookbook, Plenty.  But it was this article in the New York Times that pushed me over the edge. Because when you say things like this…

“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 with “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in the 1980s. “Jerusalem” is the first book in recent memory to join that group, and the first to do it via social media, as well as old-fashioned word of mouth.”

…you have won my attention.

Apparently, people are hosting all-Jerusalem dinners, pinning, hashtagging, instagramming and tweeting the heck out of it and generally giving it a somewhat inexplicable amount of breathless attention.  As a result, it’s selling way beyond expectations for a cookbook of any kind, let alone one written by “unknown” authors. (I love this: in noting the sales phenomenon, Publishers Weekly said Jerusalem is “subverting the conventional wisdom that you need to have a TV show to have a bestselling cookbook.”  Ha ha Guy Fieri!)

It’s the little cookbook that could.  Let’s see what it’s all about.


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Cook’s Country: Grilled Caesar Salad

Oh yeah, I have a blog!

Sorry about that.

Moving on…

I’m not convinced that grilling romaine lettuce “adds a smoky char to a Caesar salad” but I love Caesar salad and any excuse to try a new one is fine by me.  This one was pretty great and I don’t know about you but if I’m going to fire up the grill I usually want to make more than one thing on it if possible.  So grilling your salad along with your main dish (unless salad is your main dish and I’m all for that) is just efficient and thrifty.  And that’s how I roll.  (Shoes don’t count.  In Illinois anyway).

Aside from grilling the lettuce and the croutons this is a pretty standard Caesar: mayo (instead of raw eggs), garlic, anchovy fillets (oh don’t be a baby – you won’t even taste them), parmesan.  But did you see how yummy those grilled croutons looked?

Grilled Caesar Salad is from the June/July 2013 issue of Cook’s Country.

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Meatless: Polenta with Poached Eggs and Marinated Artichokes

Let’s not mince words: this was repulsive. Not one of the components worked for me and the combination of all three was a culinary train wreck. I’m willing to take 2/3 of the blame since I can never seem to get polenta right and God knows I can’t poach an egg for love or money. And regarding poached eggs let me just say this: I quit. I’ve decided I hate poached eggs and I’m not just saying that because I can’t make them (although I look like I’m pulling it off in the picture, right?)  They’re pointless.  Hard-boiled or scrambled: pick a side.

As for polenta, I’m not ready to admit defeat. What I always envision when I make it is something smooth and creamy and more like corn-flavored aligot but what I keep getting is a gritty, grainy sludge with an aftertaste that’s maddeningly hard to identify but slightly metallic (gum wrapper? flagpole? car keys?).  I’m open to suggestions here because I like polenta and it’s sort of driving me crazy that I can’t get it right.

Even the artichokes were hopeless in this dish.  I love artichokes and marinating them in olive oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes seemed like a brilliant enhancement but it amounted to nothing.  A big nothing.

I’m sure you’re all dashing to your copies of the book right now so it’s on page 98.  It’s also here on Whole Living.  Yes, yet another blonde hair in the massive coiffure that is the Martha empire.   Good thing she’s not spreading herself too thin and dropping the ball on things like recipe testing and quality control.

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Cook’s Country: Crispy Fish Sticks with Tartar Sauce

I’m sure there were kids in the Midwest in the 1960s who ate all kinds of great seafood.  Maybe they went “fishing” with their parents (look it up, it’s a real thing!) and ate what they caught.  Or perhaps they were urban sophisticates who experienced fine dining early in their lives.  I was not one of those kids.  The combination of non-cooking mom and picky-eating kid meant my experience with fish was strictly this:

How my mother ever got me to eat these I have no idea but I ate them regularly throughout my childhood and learned to “cook” them myself relatively early on.  I actually liked them and looked forward to them.  They were as uniform and predictable as a Katherine Heigl rom-com and they usually turned out just like they look on the package.  I did not, however, eat the tartar sauce — that was asking too much of my limited culinary courage.  Ketchup worked just fine.

I’m sure there are kids (and adults) still eating them quite happily.  If you are one of them I ask you to try, just try, making them from scratch.  Like many convenience foods we consume without a second thought, it’s probably easier than you think and quite delicious.  And this is the kind of dish Cook’s Country was born to take on.

Start with some cod fillets (or haddock, halibut or catfish. I used cod.  Have you seen the price of halibut?) Pat dry, season and cut into stick shapes as best you can. You will then dip them, in order, into flour, egg mixed with mayo, and a saltine/breadcrumb mixture. Then a quick saute in some vegetable oil and you’re done. The tartar sauce is just mayo, minced pickles with a little pickle juice and some capers.

The hardest part was cutting the fillets into the classic stick shape; real fillets just don’t lend themselves to it. Unless the nice people at Gorton’s or Mrs. Paul’s are sourcing some kind of perfectly square breed of fish I think they’re cheating.  There, I said it.  For you, home cook, it doesn’t matter.  Do your best and just try to get them to be similar in size and shape so they all cook at the same rate and you’ll be fine.

These are delicious and well worth making yourself.  Completely do-able on a week night and maybe they will get your picky-eaters to try some fish.  Yes, they can have ketchup with them.  No, they can’t pick the breading off and leave the fish behind.

Crispy Fish Sticks with Tartar Sauce are from the August/September 2007 issue of Cook’s Country.

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