Tag Archives: Paul Simon

On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler



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Me and ‘Julia’ down with the za’atar

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.

I recently gifted Clare a copy of Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook. A casual remark that we should try cooking a couple of dishes led to a night’s worth of research and a day’s shopping.

Jerusalem, Ottolenghi and Tamimi's latest cookbook.

Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook.

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.

Searing koftas.

Searing koftas.

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.

Pureed beetroot with yoghurt and (the all-important) za’atar.

Pureed beetroot with yoghurt and (the all-important) za’atar.

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

Our Jerusalem feast.

Our Jerusalem feast: pureed beetroot with za’atar, kofta b’siniyah and date and almond salad.

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