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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
With Rosh Hashana approaching, change is in the air. It seems as if everyone is turning toward self improvement. But hold off on the musar books for now. I'm searching for inspiration in Susie Fishbein's latest tome: Kosher by Design, Short on Time.
The kitchen was never my area of expertise. I am more likely to set off the smoke detector than to whip up a soufflÃ©. Still, when Fishbein came out with her latest cookbook, I was intrigued.
Kosher by Design, Short on Time offers the promise of gourmet cuisine and an aesthetic experience, minus the time-consuming fuss. It's an artful combination of creative recipes, helpful instructions and beautiful color photographs - precisely the ingredients that have catapulted the New Jersey mother of four into stardom.
It also started me thinking: If this is the season when transformation becomes reality, perhaps I could master the art of cooking a banana-caramel cream pie like the one pictured on page 277.
Such sentiments are just the reaction Fishbein hoped to elicit in those who peruse her books. "Anybody can do this," she said encouragingly. And, for a moment, I'm convinced she's putting extra emphasis on the word "anybody" for my benefit.
Fishbein's philosophy is that kosher cooking should be delectable for the diner and aesthetically pleasing to the eye without being a laborious task.
I recall the time I nearly set my kitchen on fire while grilling hot dogs and wonder whether such a feat is possible.
She invites me to her Livingston, New Jersey home to discover the joys of cooking. I trek out there with high hopes of uncovering the hidden life of Susie Fishbein. Perhaps this woman, who has become a virtual industry of kosher gourmet cooking, actually has a secret stash of brownie mixes, frozen foods or Wacky Mac.
She greets me at the door and I'm overtaken immediately by a wonderful aroma. I realize she has baked cinnamon buns. She puts one on a pretty ceramic dish and invites me to partake. I take one heavenly bite and immediately forget all of the unkind questions I had rehearsed.
Fortunately, it does not stop me from snooping around her spacious and beautifully decorated kitchen. As she pulls out her favorite cooking gadgets, I hunt for evidence of frozen onion rings, chicken nuggets and other forbidden fruits of the connoisseur.
I poke my head out of her cabinets in time to hear Fishbein announce that every cook must own a good knife set, sturdy cutting board and an immersion blender.
I pull out a drawer hoping to reveal the contraband and instead find 100 jars of spices whose names I don't recognize. I throw open a cabinet, anticipating a supply of cake mixes, and discover a food processor, Mixmaster and toaster oven.
All the while, she's explaining how important it is to have cooking supplies within reach, so she's not hunting for measuring cups or pepper while "I'm elbow deep in flour." She shows me her pepper mill and salt shaker right near her sink. "You have to be comfortable in your kitchen because you spend so much time here."
She laughs at those who store tightly connected measuring spoon sets in drawers. "They have to rummage for it and can only use one spoon at a time," she said. I grimace, recalling my own set buried in my kitchen drawer. She points to a tall jar of utensils on her counter. "I always keep a few sets of separated measuring spoons here so I can use them as I need them," she said.
I duck into one last drawer before we head off into the sunroom. Not one shred of fish sticks or Minute Rice. Susie Fishbein is the real deal.
I sit down to launch my interrogation.
Yes. Fishbein is quite aware that her fans have dubbed her the Jewish Martha Stewart. But she cringes at the comparison. "Martha Stewart is about growing your own organic tomatoes for your salad and preparing for Thanksgiving dinner six months in advance," she said. In contrast, Orthodox women pull off Thanksgiving dinner every Friday night, she said.
Fishbein attributes her success to the fact that she does not try to be a perfectionist who spends days preparing her meals. Instead, she calls herself "an everyday cook" who loves to share her passion for cooking and entertaining.
"I'm not trained; I don't have a cooking degree. That's why my books are popular. There are no tricks." She tests all her recipes in her kitchen so she didn't purchase commercial appliances. She filled her kitchen with the typical appliances of every home so that the recipes will come out the same way they will in every other kitchen.
"When you cook with my recipes, it will look just like it does in the picture," she promised.
Fishbein concocted the idea for her latest cookbook while traveling to various communities across the US for her cooking demonstrations. Many of the women she encountered revealed their guilt about feeding their families unhealthy food because they were too busy to prepare a healthy, home-cooked meal. "We all want our families to eat healthy," she said sympathetically. "But when we're busy, we rely too much on take-out or frozen foods."
As the mother of four, Fishbein, said, she knows what it's like to return home from work to an empty kitchen and a crew of cranky people who anxiously ask, "What's for dinner?"
Her latest cookbook was a response to that question. It is filled with recipes one can depend on when there are minutes to get dinner on the table. The book includes hearty soups, protein-laden salads and easy desserts. Fishbein offers tips on what can be prepared ahead of time.
While her first books were about entertaining and pulling out all the stops, this book is aimed at busy people who need to cook healthy meals quickly, she said.
But it doesn't mean sacrificing aesthetics. Some readers might be surprised to find table decorating ideas, tips she provides in her other books. For Fishbein, it's a matter of principle. Just because you are short on time, doesn't mean you need to be short on style, she insists.
Naomi Nachman, a cooking teacher at the Five Towns Jewish Community Center, said that Fishbein "has created a unique niche in the kosher world. Her cook books are well-written, are illustrated professionally and are easy to follow for both the experienced as well as the amateur home cook."
She added that Fishbein's cooking demonstrations are "delightfully practical, entertaining and educational. She not only focuses on the dishes, but also how to present them."
Until 1995, Fishbein was a fourth-grade teacher at an Oceanside, New York public school. "I loved teaching," she said. "I thought I'd be a teacher forever." But when she was asked to edit a community cookbook, she discovered her calling. She decided to pursue cooking as a career. She was hired by Grand Central Station Terminal's Food Court to write a cookbook. Unfortunately, the funding for the project fell through after September 11.
Crestfallen, Fishbein found herself telling the sad story to a Jewish bookstore owner in Monsey. He told her she should be writing a kosher cookbook for Jewish readers and arranged for an interview with his friends at the Artscroll publishing company. At first, the rabbis there weren't sold on the idea. But Fishbein, a persuasive and articulate woman, convinced them she could produce a cookbook that would sell.
"You may not love me now," she told them as she signed her contract for the first cookbook, "but one day you are going to."
Kosher by Design, published in 2003, sold more than 90,000 copies and was one of the most successful books ever published by Artscroll. It has crossed over into the mainstream and many non-Jewish consumers have purchased it.
Other cookbooks followed. Kosher by Design Entertains and Kosher by Design - Kids in the Kitchen, which features recipes Fishbein cooked with her mother when she was growing up. Some of the dishes - such as the carrot muffins - are ideal for adults who want to put something together quickly and easily. Together, those three books sold more than 200,000 copies.
Her next project is Kosher by Design Does Passover, which will be published in time for Pessah. After that, she will publish Kosher by Design Lightens Up, geared toward more healthy recipes.
The books have made Fishbein such a household name, you can't even hire her for a lecture or cooking demonstration - she's booked until 2009.
Before I close my reporter's notebook, I have one more burning question: "What do the children of a chef eat for dinner?"
On days when she's testing recipes for her books, her children have to eat whatever she makes, said Fishbein. Sometimes that means they have to eat poached salmon in champagne. "It's not always easy," she admits.
I try to elicit sympathy for these poor children who are forced to dine on gourmet cuisine, but I'm strangely unsuccessful.
Fishbein wisely created a kids's choice night so that on one night a week, her children can choose whatever dish they like, whether it's pizza, chicken nuggets or eggs. Sometimes, she admitted, they choose Wacky Mac. My heart leaps and I sigh with relief.
They are normal kids. And Fishbein is a normal mother. How did I not realize that sooner? I return home having gained many life lessons. As I dance into my house, I vow to change course.
Nobody is more excited about my interview with Fishbein than my husband, who has secretly been dreaming that I will transform into a gourmet cook.
He greets me at the door. "So, did she teach you anything new?" he asks eagerly.
I thought for a moment about everything I had taken in that day. "She said that gourmet cooking doesn't have to be hard and anyone can do it," I announced.
"Really?" he said, sounding pleasantly surprised.
I handed him Kosher by Design, Short on Time. "All you need is a good cookbook to guide you and you'll do great," I reassured him. "Susie said anybody can do it!" I set the table with my best china and waited with high hopes.
This is, after all, the season of transformation. And I had found the perfect recipe for improvement.