A first flirtation with Ottolenghi

My very dear friend Christine, whom I’ve known since we were 11, gave me a beautiful new cookbook for Christmas/birthday – Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. I hadn’t even heard of Ottolenghi until last June when I was in London having dinner at the flat of another very dear friend, Henni. She showed me one of his earlier books, Plenty (which focuses entirely on vegetables), and told me he was basically ‘so hot right now’ in London, although she didn’t use those exact words! I’ve since discovered that his eponymous empire so far comprises three take-away shops in Notting Hill, Kensington and Belgravia (some with a few seats), a restaurant (plus shop) in Islington, and a brasserie (called Nopi) in Soho. If you know London you might surmise from this list of the city’s most thoroughly desirable areas that we’re talking about something quite upmarket here, and you’d be right. It’s not for nothing that they say on their website, “We like to think of ourselves as the haute couture of the food-to-go world”. I’ve yet to visit a single one of these outlets (which will be rectified on my next trip) but the descriptions I’ve read and the pictures on the website (and in the books) all speak of the most beautiful, sensual, vibrantly coloured and boldly flavoured food, all handmade from scratch from the best raw ingredients with the greatest of care and passion. Presentation is a big part of it too: the shops are well-known for their highly enticing window displays, a pyramid structure of platters and cake stands piled high with the prettiest tarts, meringues, cakes and pastries. I wish I could nick a few photos from the website but I think that might be a bit naughty so I’ll direct you there instead: ottolenghi.co.uk

So, in the last week I’ve made three dishes from Jerusalem, his latest book, which as you might guess focuses on food from this city. The first was a very good basic hummus recipe and the second was roasted chicken pieces with fennel, clementines (or, at this time of year, oranges) and Pernod, which I marinated one night and cooked for friends the next – a delicious and simple entertaining dish as all it needed was 45 minutes in the oven and some rice and green veg to go with it. The third recipe I attempted was for a late post-food-shop breakfast last Sunday which I practically inhaled, it was so delicious, and I can’t wait to make it again. I facebooked about it at the time, so excited was I, and had requests (including from Christine, the giver of the book) for the recipe, so here it is…

Shakshuka is, according to the book, originally a Tunisian recipe which has become very popular throughout Israel. There are many variations on this egg dish, the following being the one for summer and early autumn, with potatoes used in winter and aubergines in spring. These quantities will feed two to four people, depending on hunger levels. (I made half the amount and ate the lot myself, which was quite piggy!)

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Dice two large red capsicums (peppers) into 0.5cm dice and sauté in two tablespoons of olive oil along with two tablespoons of harissa paste, two teaspoons of tomato purée, four cloves of garlic, finely chopped, one teaspoon of ground cumin and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, over a moderate heat for about eight minutes until the capsicum has softened. Add five large very ripe tomatoes, chopped, or two tins of chopped tomatoes, bring back to simmering point and cook for a further ten minutes, creating a thick sauce. Check for seasoning and then make eight little wells in the sauce. Take four eggs and four yolks and drop them into the sauce, one in each well. (When I made it I used all whole eggs but less of them). Simmer for eight to ten minutes until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny – covering the pan with a lid will hasten the process, if you want to do that. Remove from the heat and allow to settle for a couple of minutes before spooning onto plates and eating with buttered toast or bread. Enjoy!

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

French onion soup

On Sunday I made French onion soup, which I’ve been hankering after for a few weeks now, and I must say it was rather delicious. In the past I’ve used a Delia Smith recipe but this time I wanted to try out a fabulous book of Mr T’s called The Prawn Cocktail Years by Simon Hopkins and Lindsey Bareham. Leafing through this book, complete with evocative pictures, I float nostalgically through my childhood fed on spag bol and cauliflower cheese, when going out for dinner meant prawn cocktail, steak and chips, and black forest gateaux! Ahhh, them were the days. The main difference between the two recipes, apart from slight variances in quantities, is that Delia adds half a teaspoon of sugar to the onions to help them caramalise, something that the prawn cocktail duo regard as the action of ‘cowboys’. Well, Delia, that’s you told!

I very thinly slice 2kg of brown onions in front of the telly in the sitting room, because that’s where the heater is, and then start to gently cook them in my favourite Le Creuset casserole in 75g of butter. Once they’ve sweated for 15 minutes on a very low heat with the lid on, the instruction is to take the lid off, turn the heat up slightly and continue to cook them for 45 minutes, stirring regularly, until they are golden brown and sweetly caramelised. Perhaps ambitiously, I Skype my brother and two-year-old nephew while all this is going on, so have to excuse myself every five minutes to ‘go and stir my onions’. Fortunately they are very understanding, especially little Fraser who is already a keen cook with his plastic kitchen set and wooden groceries.

I’ve just started the roux to thicken the soup (Delia doesn’t do that in her recipe – maybe she thinks that’s just for cowboys!) when I get a call from Mr T who has a puncture in one of his bicycle tyres and needs rescuing from Pyrmont. Far be it from me to deny a husband in distress so I turn off all the burners and go… Half an hour later I’m back to my soup. Whisking two ladles-full of hot beef stock (I use shop-bought from a carton) into my roux (25g butter, one tablespoon flour) it quickly forms a lovely silky, thick consistency and I whisk it back into the remainder of the litre and a half of stock. 150ml of dry white wine goes into the onions and is left to reduce and evaporate, perfuming the kitchen with delicious smells. I get the urge to pour a glass for myself which surprises me after a couple too many the night before! The thickened hot stock then goes into the onions, is brought to the boil and simmers for 15 minutes. Checking the seasoning I add a few ground of black pepper but no salt, and omit the suggested three tablespoons of cognac in case it’s a bit too much for Mr T’s alcohol-averse palate.

Now, the recipe demands that the croûtes are made by baking or grilling 16 slices of day-old baguette drizzled in melted butter and sprinkled liberally with grated Gruyère cheese, then allowing them to cool before being paved atop the soup in its pot, covered in yet more cheese, and once again melted and blistered under the grill. I decide this is more work than is truly necessary, and I intend to freeze most of the soup (or so I think), so I lightly toast two slices of white sourdough, rub both surfaces with raw garlic, grate on Gruyère and pop them under the grill for a couple of minutes – voilà, croûtes pour deux! I ladle the soup into hot bowls, float the croûtes on top and we tuck in in front of the box. It’s so good, so hearty and rich and sweet, that we can’t resist another spoonful with another hastily assembled croûte on top. So much for filling up the freezer!

(Sadly, in my food-induced bliss I completely forget to take a photo.)

Update 11 June 2012

I have just eaten the last of the onion soup from the freezer and this time I remembered to take a photo before I tucked in!

French onion soup

French onion soup, chez Mr & Mrs T