TORONTO - Maple syrup — that quintessentially Canadian ingredient — is a favourite in the kitchens of two chefs transplanted from Jerusalem to London, England.
In fact, chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his business partner and co-chef Sami Tamimi sell syrup from a Quebec producer in their online store.
"We love using it. We've always been big consumers of maple syrup," said Ottolenghi during a visit to Toronto to promote "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook."
"We like it a lot because we like to add some sweetness to dressings or any dish to balance out sharpness or heat and maple is good because it's got a little flavour but not too much flavour. Like if you add honey, it takes over," he said.
"It blends with the flavours and it's got this little bit of caramel feel," added Tamimi.
"Ottolenghi" is actually their first book, published originally in the United Kingdom in 2008, and now reissued in North America. "Plenty," a collection of vegetarian fare, was published in 2010 in the U.K., and came out the following year in North America.
The two said they were elated over the huge success of their third book, last year's "Jerusalem: A Cookbook," which captured numerous awards, including the International Association of Culinary Professional's cookbook of the year.
The recipes in that volume are based on the food the chefs grew up with on opposite sides of the divided city — Ottolenghi in the Jewish west and Tamimi in the Arab east. The two settled in London years later where they eventually met and became business partners.
A new introduction to put the cookbook "Ottolenghi" into perspective of the years that have passed was the only change made from the 2008 edition.
"It's basically the same because I didn't feel there were any adjustments that needed doing," Ottolenghi explained.
"This is in essence the food that really represents what we serve in our restaurants the most. Although it's been quite a few years since we wrote it, these are key recipes that are still very much on the menu."
Their Ottolenghi eateries and high-end restaurant Nopi blend almost equally sweet and savoury, representing each of their specialties — Ottolenghi trained as a pastry chef and Tamimi specializes in savoury dishes — and feature Mediterranean cuisine that's rich in flavour and colour.
Writing "Jerusalem" went more quickly and smoothly than "Ottolenghi," which represented a huge learning curve for the duo, who were unfamiliar with writing recipes and spent a couple of years compiling the book.
"This was quite challenging," said Tamimi. "I remember the first few recipes I did at home, like how do you do that? When you're at the restaurant, you just add things and make things."
"You have to stop and think about it even when you add a pinch of salt" and write it down, noted Ottolenghi. "You might need to know how much you put in."
It wasn't only the 140 recipes — there was layout, design, the cover and photos to take into account.
"We were kind of a little bit terrified and excited at the same time," said Ottolenghi. "We were taking ourselves extremely seriously. ... We had gatherings every Friday night at Sami's house.
"He would cook a few dishes and we would all taste them and have a discussion about the flavours. We thought it was the biggest thing ever to do a cookbook, so we were certainly serious."
But it became unrealistic to meet so often, Tamimi added, so they started exchanging and testing recipes.
"We're still busy and 'Jerusalem' took less time," Tamimi said — with Ottolenghi interjecting "because we were better at it" — as Tamimi continued, "We didn't have all the pastries in 'Jerusalem.'"
Ottolenghi pulled out all the stops for the sweets section of "Ottolenghi," which includes decadent chocolate cakes and brownies, along with orange polenta cake, caramel and macadamia cheesecake and various teacakes, cupcakes and muffins. The photos will make the reader drool.
"They're a little bit different, but they're manageable," he said. "Even the macarons, there's no need to pipe them, just spoon them. We really tried to make it very achievable and doable.
"People say to me, 'I never dared try to make macarons, but when I did try it failed, but with yours it worked,' so that's a compliment," said Ottolenghi.
A section of tips is geared to help those who fear baking.
The Ottolenghi trademark is vegetables prepared simply but with strong flavours, and this book doesn't disappoint, with recipes featuring crunchy cucumber salad, grilled asparagus, snow peas, eggplant, squash, cauliflower and tomatoes.
Along with maple syrup, their favourite ingredients include: lemon, garlic, pomegranate, yogurt, tahini, feta cheese, pink peppercorns and sumac, a spice made from the crushed berries of a small Mediterranean tree.
"It's one of these Middle Eastern seasonings that we tend to use quite a lot," said Tamimi. "We like the colour as well (dark red). It's very sour like lemon. We tend to use it for everything almost — sweet and savoury."
Most of the recipes in "Ottolenghi" are straightforward.
"It's food that's very good for entertaining because many of the recipes, 80 or 90 per cent, are things that you can prepare in advance and just serve at room temperature or just stick in the oven and serve straightaway, which is because much of our food in the restaurants is intended for people to help themselves," said Ottolenghi.
The pair are working on a vegetarian cookbook slated to be published next year and they're also scouting locations for another restaurant in London.