Never have something in your home that you do not either believe to be beautiful or know to be useful. That was one of the few principles that William Morris believed should be a universal law, and Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun: Recipes and Secrets from the Palestinian Kitchen is certainly beautiful. The cover design is so beautiful that I wanted to kiss it; the pictures inside are mouthwatering and gorgeous in equal measure… but is it useful?
First, a disclaimer: if you’re the type of person whose cooking is largely restricted to a few set piece events then you are going to disagree, violently, with how I assess cookery books. I come to it from the perspective of someone who does essentially all the cooking in my house, while doing a fairly busy job, and who believes that a good cookery book is one with recipes that you can make happily and well at the end of a working day.
I am highly suspicious of any cookery book in which the bulk of the recipes involve you to marinating something for 48 hours or similar, or require an excessive number of gadgets to prepare. I am outright opposed to ones that pretend that none of the great labour-saving devices of the 20th century, like processors and blenders, exist and which call on busy people to mash up things by hand over long hours. And I don’t like recipe books that assume a spice rack roughly the same size of my flat. If that’s your sort of thing, you should take any recommendations I make with a pinch of salt, doubtless one that you crushed yourself, by hand.
Zaitoun, happily, is a working cook’s book. It doesn’t expect the reader to make their own za’atar (a combination of sumac, sesame seeds, salt and za’atar itself) by hand, though it does have a handy recipe for how to make “almost za’tar” if you run out midway through, and a preferred brand of the stuff, which is always helpful. There are a few recipes that require prolonged marinating or a longer run-up, but most of these recipes can be made at the end of a long day’s work, and made well.
There are a few unnecessarily convoluted recipes – the hummus recipe requires you to soak dried chickpeas overnight in cold water, when you can achieve the same result with a simple can of tinned chickpeas, which Khan uses freely elsewhere in the book – but for the most part, this is a recipe book that you can happily use day-to-day.
The recipes are interspersed with Khan’s recollections of her travels in Palestine, which follow (I think) some kind of geographical trajectory. I found these interesting but their relation to the rest of the book – helpfully ordered by courses, beginning with starters and winding towards desserts – was occasionally somewhat confusing.
More annoying are the serving suggestions. Recipes for starters – Mazzeh – are intended to serve “four to six people as part of a spread”. Khan never sees fit to inform the reader how many dishes your spread should comprise, which is a little daunting the first time out. After experimentation I concluded that “a spread” compromises at least three dishes assuming that your guests aren’t fussy and won’t leave any of them. One of the good things about Zaitoun is that it is designed for an ordinary oven in an ordinary kitchen, but that also means that the quantities don’t quite match. The flatbreads recipe produces six flatbreads, which isn’t anywhere near enough to do all the dipping that a spread of hummus, broad bean and dill, aubergine and tahini dips will require. The falafel recipe goes to the opposite extreme, leaving you with 20 – 20! – pieces of the stuff.
But while the quantities are a bit of a lucky dip, the quality is not: the recipes are consistently easy to follow and good to eat. The salads in particular are great and the number of store cupboard ingredients is eminently manageable. It all adds up to a book that is both beautiful and useful.
Zaitoun is published by Bloomsbury Books and is on sale now.