MY wife can cook.
I, on the other hand, can nervously follow recipes, agonising over the vaguer directions while whimpering supplications to the food gods. In the past we have given each other a wide berth in the kitchen, unsurprisingly. Until now.
Then, before I knew it, I was standing in my pristine apron at the countertop clutching a spatula and feeling like I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Now, I’m not hopeless in front of a burner. I have pulled off one meal in the recent past and I manage to produce edible combos of protein and carbs for myself most weeknights.
In the absence of consistent proof I like to think that my culinary talents are merely untapped, as opposed to underwhelming. My underlying fear is that they may be both.
Doubts aside, I’d have to pull my weight. My wife, busy with her share of the duties, had no intention of watching over my shoulder as I chopped veg, mashed koftas and tossed some pine nuts into the pan to roast.
Not that she needed to. Halfway through I was beginning to enjoy my new role as sous chef, and reckoning I’d cracked the code of Middle Eastern cuisine.
Chef Ottolenghi can rest easy, however.
I’m a word fiend, a book hound. As the pine nuts gently roasted I started reading up on the history of za’atar, a spice central to the dish and to Jerusalem itself. The plant (known as hyssop in the West) has been picked in the wild, in the hills surrounding the Old City, for millennia.
Its all-pervasive presence is common to both Palestinian and Israeli cuisine. According to Ottolenghi and his co-author Sami Tamimi, its smell “encapsulates the soul” of Jerusalem. By the time I’d learned this much about za’atar another aroma had infested the kitchen, that of burning pine nuts.
Ignoring repeated verbal warnings that these little seeds can go from golden to incinerated in seconds I’d spoiled the batch.
My wife stood opposite, exercising (with some difficulty) one of her many virtues, patience.
Lesson learned, stick to the recipe, not the history. This may be why Paul Child was rarely spotted lingering around chopping onions while his wife was reinventing American cuisine.
Luckily my Julia was focusing on the food, making the jewel in the night’s crown – a pureed beetroot with yoghurt and the all-important za’atar (the condiment not the herb alone, in this case). We served it up with kofta b’siniyah (a beef/lamb mix, served with tahini and the take-two pine nuts) and a date and almond salad.
What followed was an experience of the aromas and tastes of Jerusalem that no words on a page could conjure. Much of it was down to the spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sumac and za’atar.
They combined perfectly, no one overwhelming another. A bit like our first joint venture into the kitchen, I’d like to think.
Just don’t mention the pine nuts, though.