Tasting Jerusalem: Cooking with Barberries

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By Emily Paster

Those of you who have been reading my blog lately know that I am obsessed with the new cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Imagine what it is like to eat at my house where I serve tabbouleh several times a week, tweaking the recipe a bit each time. My husband went to Israel once as a teenager, and I don't think he ever expected to eat this much Middle Eastern food again in his life. But he's actually being a good sport about it. It helps that the food I make from the book is consistently delicious.

After I posted my review of Jerusalem, I learned that two food writers, Beth from the blog OMG! Yummy and Sarene Wallace from 805 Living magazine, had created a virtual cooking community centered around the book. Each month, the group selects a different ingredient used in Jerusalem and asks the members to cook one or more of the recipes that feature that ingredient. The participants then share their experiences on their blogs, on Facebook and on Twitter using the hash tag #TastingJrslm. Naturally, I was excited to join this community and share my love for Jerusalem with other cooks.

The ingredient that Beth and Sarene picked for March is barberries. Barberries are definitely one of the more unusual ingredients called for in Jerusalem – they are not something that one can find easily at the grocery store. Rather, finding barberries requires a trip to a Middle Eastern market…or the Internet, which is where I found mine. If you can't find barberries, the authors of Jerusalem suggest using dried sour cherries, which you will need to chop, or currants soaked in lemon juice.

What are barberries, you may ask. Barberries are a small berry that, in their dried form, are prominent in Persian cuisine. They resemble a currant or a dried cranberry, as you can see here. Barberries have a distinctive taste that starts sweet but ends on a very tart note. As an example, when Zuzu popped one of my barberries in her mouth, she started to say, "I like it" but before she could finish the sentence, her face puckered as if she had bitten into a lemon. I couldn't help but burst out laughing.

I found that I loved the astringent quality of the barberry – not perhaps to eat out of hand, but as a featured ingredient in a dish so that the sourness of the berry is modulated by other flavors. The most famous dish featuring barberries is probably the Persian rice dish zereshk polow, which is also known as "wedding rice." That celebratory dish features almonds, pistachios, barberries, orange peel, raisins, butter, sugar and saffron to create a complex, sweet and sour taste.

There are four recipes in Jerusalem that incorporate barberries:

  • Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice, pg 184 – 5
  • Yogurt and Herbs with Lamb Meatballs, pg 198-9
  • Fava Bean Kuku, pg 38 – 9
  • Pistachio and Mixed Herbs, with Saffron Rice, pg 104 – 5

I made the Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Cardamom Rice, which is an absolutely delicious, one-dish meal in which the chicken and rice are cooked together. It requires some prep work at the outset, but then the chicken and rice simmer on the stove for 40-60 minutes, which gives you plenty of time to clean up, set the table and make a side dish. Or just sit down with a glass of wine. I love dishes that allow you to do most or all of the work in advance so that you are not rushing around at the last minute. This kind of dish is also ideal for entertaining.

To make this dish, you begin by soaking the barberries in a simple syrup – an easy step which I did first thing in the morning. As dinner time approached, I sauteed two, thinly onions in olive oil over low heat for quite a while until they got very soft and golden. While this step also requires some advance planning, once the onion are in the pan, all that is required from the cook is an occasional stir. So go about your business while the onions gently caramelize.

Once the onions have achieved that heavenly state of caramelization, you remove them from the pan. In a bowl, you toss the chicken pieces — thighs, breasts or a mix — with two cinnamon sticks, some whole cloves, ten cardamom pods and salt and pepper and olive oil. You then sear the chicken in the same pan that you cooked the onions in — one pan to clean up, people! — so that it gets brown on both sides. Then you take the chicken out and put the onions back in, adding the barberries and 1 2/3 cups rice. You return the chicken pieces to the pan, pour boiling water over the whole thing, cover it and simmer until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through. The recipe instructs you to simmer the chicken and rice for 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it steam, covered, for another 10 minutes, but I just left the pan simmering for an hour and everything turned out beautifully.

In the final dish, the chicken was cooked through and juicy. The rice was tender except for the crusty bits from the bottom of the pan which added a nice crunch and the onion just melted away, infusing the whole dish with their sweetness. The barberries added color and a pleasant tartness to cut through the sweetness of the onion and the spices made everything incredibly fragrant. If there was anything we didn't enjoy about this dish it was the pieces of cinnamon stick and the cardamom pods, which were unpleasant if you happened to bite into one. Other than that, the dish was yet another wonderful recipe from my new favorite cookbook. I would definitely make it again.

Now I can't wait to read about what the other Tasting Jerusalem members make with their barberries. Have you ever participated in a cooking club, online or in real life? What was your experience?

Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of "Jerusalem: A Cookbook" by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ten Speed Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to omgyummy.com, following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, and liking our Facebook page.

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