MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH YOTAM OTTOLENGHI
Well not really. I mean he has a family, children, I am sure a lovely wife. I am a devout monogamist. So let me clarify before the rumors start flying. My love affair is with Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, his food, his ethnicity, his restaurants in London. Like the way I feel enriched by reading Ann Patchett, I am also a hungry cookbook enthusiast. I don’t collect them, but I do have a lot of cookbooks, not as many now since I began my de-cluttering quest, but I kept all my favorites and I consider them gems among my library of great reads.
When I saw his cookbook, PLENTY, in the bookstore featuring grilled eggplant slathered with Middle Eastern yogurt and pomegranate seeds on the “You had me at hello” bookcover, I was hooked. Who was this man who would soon be my kitchen paramour and my bedtime companion?
Truth be told I love to read and as much as I enjoy a great novel, I equally enjoy reading cookbooks from cover to cover. I am the (likely hopeful to the writer) geek who reads the intros because I like to know the author’s food stories. How did they get here? What are the roots of the recipes that follow? Often it is mothers’ and grandmothers’ and great grandmothers’ influence that brought them from their childhood kitchens to their cookbooks and often restaurants as is in Yotam’s case, (I am such a fan of his I feel we can be on a first name basis at this point.) And it is just as true in my own narrative in the kitchen,
Back in the day, when the Food Network didn’t exist and Julia Child was the originator of the solo television female cook on PBS, I used to get Gourmet magazine and read Ruth Reichl’s eloquent descriptions of what would be following in that month’s features. She would often refer to some of her travels and (total cheesy pun intended) I ate it up. I traveled right along side of her as I made my way as a young wife through Gourmet’s complicated recipes. I wanted to master them as some statement that I was a successful cook in my early and amateur kitchen. Ruth in her beautiful writing also opened my eyes to the notion that I could write stories weaving my recipes and food experiences within them as she did in one of my favorite books, Not Becoming My Mother.
So as I traversed the pages of PLENTY trying these unique vegetarian recipes (I am not a vegetarian, but I love all dishes containing vegetables) I fell in love. Then to my delight he, along with Sami Tamimi, came out with a follow up cookbook, JERUSALEM. These recipes filled with the lusciously simple and highly flavored Hummus recipes that are known in Israeli restaurants and homes along with hundreds of others that float me happily back to my too few visits of one of my favorite places on earth. There is a humble quote on page 13, “We draw deep inspiration from Jerusalem and its food but are in no way trying to represent its realities.” I would say in the political landscape Jerusalem finds itself recently, this was some serious foreshadowing. In reality though, Jersualem is always in a hotbed of political debate on any given time in history.
But this writing today is non political as most of mine are so let me get back to my love affair with Yotam and his cooking. I will confess, I have lovingly digested the recipes and the photos of this cookbook, but have only tried one or two. They have been delicious and like my rule about trying on the first piece of clothing in the dressing room, if it looks great, the rest will follow, but if it is a failure then that usually is a premonition of what will follow. Cookbooks are like this for me. If I try the first few recipes and they meet or exceed my expectations, the cookbooks and their authors usually become my go to gurus. Ina Garten immediately comes to mind. I have never made an Ina Garten recipe I didn’t love. She has taught me perfect roast chicken, easy tiramisu, and countless other food combinations that find their way into my kitchen from appetizers to desserts and everything in between. I love her style, her ease and simplicity and her blatant in your face use of butter. I adore, as I am sure so many romantics like myself do, her love for her husband that I, keeping my fingers crossed, hope is as great on the inside as it appears on the outside. The opposite is true for Rachel Ray’s recipes, (my father loved your recipes, Rachel, but sorry Rachel, though I love and admire your entrepreneurial brilliance, I have never had success with your recipes. I should be weary of any cookbooks that don’t contain at least a paltry dessert section. Rachel Ray is not my style anyway. Though I respect her intent, I don’t need the amateur approach she brings to the kitchen. I am kind of past that thanks to my mother and grandmother who taught me early on that whip cream does not come in a can and neither do vegetables.
I have my grandmother’s original Betty Crocker recipe book that has every staple you could imagine, worn buttery and torn pages especially of her Christmas cookies, pies and pancakes that I still use today way more then fifty years later. I also use my great grandmother’s Libby Hillman cookbook that was passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me and still has a very pragmatic plastic clear book cover on it to protect it from all future food stains. Gotta love the Depression conservation mentality. I wish this had been instilled in me along with my love of food. Maybe my next life I will be the frugal fanny of my great grandmother’s generation.
So like this past Sunday when I was reminded of my deep admiration for Ann Patchett as I read her opinion piece in the Sunday Times, I opened the paper yesterday morning and lo and behold in the Wednesday NYT food section, there is a happy piece by my pretend kitchen partner, Yotam himself. Not only was I transported into my pantry to pull out the aforementioned cookbooks, but I was sent back in my travel reflection time machine to last January with my son and cousins in London on our last night eating at where else, OTTOLENGHI! One of our highlights of the many foodie stops on our week in glorious London. It did not disappoint. So when I spotted his sweet take on brunch and weekend morning eating in his writing this morning, Slow Down, It’s the Weekend, I gobbled it up. I identified with his comments about weekday rushing and weekend not rushing and the joy of a great breakfast. I realized I had all of the ingredients in my cabinets to try his Maple Cardamom Saffron Sticky Buns. (Totally honest though and I am sorry Yotam and all of the purists out there, I did not have the fresh vanilla bean or the cardamom pods so I made due. I hope you will forgive me. I also had no saffron threads so I used cinnamon instead, please do not think less of me). I had the time because I have been still waking up at 4am. I had the yeast too. Now yeast and I have not had very good luck. I consider myself a great baker, but yeast is its own character and as many times as I have attempted to make things with yeast, I am seldom satisfied with the bricks I end up with. So as a result, needless to say, I don’t often move in the yeast direction. But today, the first morning my son is back from college, I fantasized about the freshly baked moist buns wafting their scented aroma up to my son’s bedroom almost forcing him awake. There are the realities of motherhood and the fantasy world of motherhood surely and this sticky bun making experience could go either way. I trust Yolam as previously stated, but I am slightly intimidated by yeast and like our pets and their intuitive ability to pick up our energy, yeast too picks up this vibe and the end result is the energy you put into it.
So here I sat at 9am waiting for the dough to rise in the draft free space. My fantasy was that they would rise as Yolam said they would. The reality though is that this would be unlikely because the dough never was soft and elasticky as my cooking guide said it would. I mean relationships can’t all be perfect all the time. I refused to admit defeat though, whether they rise to the double size he promised or not, I will still bake them so at least the smell will reveal that I tried. That my intention for this first morning my son has returned expecting something home cooked from his mother, is a good one. But I still walked down to Bristol Bagels and picked up his favorite bagels and cream cheese as a back up just in case. If these did not work out, I already knew I would try again because I know Yolam will not let me down. I forged ahead and followed the recipe rolling them into the balls, continuing on though frankly still loaded with self-doubt. I refused to give in and I can’t stand throwing away food so there is the depression influence as I my mind began considering what I could turn the potential failures into so as not to throw them away. Within five minutes, though, the aroma became intoxicating and as they continued to cook, I took another look at the black and white photo of them and I realized that their bumpiness actually matched the photo! Be still my beating heart, could this turn out to be a success? As I made my way to the stovetop to make the maple cardamom buttery glaze, my son made his way downstairs and all was well in my world. I pulled the buns out and brushed the tops excited to take my first bite and to watch Michael. Success indeed. And as I watched the nine of the buttery delights dwindle to two throughout the day, I fell deeper in love with my man Yotam and I can’t wait to try the next one.