Gourmet without the grind

Cook Leah Schapira claims that good food doesn’t need to take hours to prepare.

Food 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Food 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Leah Schapira is on a mission to demonstrate that cooking does not require one to choose between simple and bland or gourmet and difficult. Rather, Leah’s mantra is that good flavorful food should be made of fresh, common ingredients and cooked in the most effortless manner possible. In honor of the release of her new cookbook, Fresh & Easy, Leah invited us into her kitchen for a candid talk.
Leah wasn’t always interested in food. “I lived on pizza,” she says. “I was a really picky eater. My mother and grandmother are great cooks and were disappointed. So, at eight-years-old, my mother began taking me into the kitchen. She would tell me, ‘You like French fries, now look how they’re made.’ She showed me that they were made from potatoes—so then I must like potatoes too.”
It was because Leah was so particular—not in spite of it—that she became obsessed with food preparation.
When Leah was a newlywed living in Israel, she and a friend organized her first cookbook, Silver Spoons, to raise money for tzedakah.” She continued developing recipes as a food editor, first at Mishpacha, and then at Ami Magazine. Her focus lately has been her newly-released cookbook, Fresh & Easy, and her website CookKosher.com.
“I began dreaming about CookKosher.com in 2004. Then, websites were still quite costly to build,” Leah says. “Cookkosher.com is way for kosher cooks around the world to trade recipes virtually. There are forums so people can discuss their Shabbos menus or ideas for a Hanukka party they’re hosting.”
“There’s also a great need for those who are just starting to keep kosher to learn how to cook kosher,” she adds. “It seems so overwhelming. All the recipes they grew up with usually contain milk and meat or treif. On the site, they can see it isn’t hard. And they have a collection of thousands of recipes to browse.”
Fresh & Easy
What’s unique about her cookbook? Leah explains, “Food is about good food, not about spending a lot of time, money, and effort. People are under the assumption that if something takes a lot of time, uses expensive ingredients, and is difficult to put together, it makes a better recipe. I don’t think that’s the case. Most people feel they don’t have the time or patience to make those gourmet things so they’ll stick to very simple fare, just chicken and potatoes and paprika.”
“I am also lazy, but I make loads of things with lots of flavor. It’s about good, flavorful food that’s easy to make,” Leah admits.
“Someone recently called me to do a food presentation showcasing the elaborate presentation of food. I told them, ‘You have the wrong person.’ At a food demonstration, I would show how to make hummus in five minutes—faster than a trip to the grocery store and much tastier.”
Not just any old recipe
Leah explains three ways how recipes happen, “The first are from other people. I am a home cook. I was never professionally trained, so other home cooks, namely my friends, family, and acquaintances provide me with some of my greatest inspirations.
“I also try to replicate dishes I have tasted at restaurants. Some examples are onion blossoms or spicy fries. I put a dozen or so recipes that are take-out foods that you could make at home, including a sensational sesame chicken that’s better than in the restaurants.
“The third and most difficult way to develop a recipe is when I have to start from scratch. If I need something for an appetizer, I’ll mull it over and come up with something I would want to eat. When I was planning my Succot menu for Ami Magazine, I was trying to figure out what I would like in a side dish. I like sweet potato and I like pastrami, so I combined them with mallawah dough, because it’s thinner and crispier than flaky dough, and a recipe for sweet potato-pastrami pockets was born.”
Shortcut to taste?
Leah does like a shortcut—but not at the expense of taste. “I am not into making things difficult, but there are some things that you shouldn’t cut out—like sautéing onions as this brings out great flavor. Frozen garlic cubes are great and they won’t make a difference in a recipe unless it’s the main ingredient, like in garlic sauce. Hallah dough makes for another great shortcut. Take some off and use it to make pizza or garlic knots.”
Pizza dough is a favorite versatile ingredient of Leah’s. You can buy or use homemade pizza dough for garlic sticks, focaccia, calzones, or garlic knots. They can even be used for quick and easy Hanukka donuts. “There’s nothing like homemade donuts,” Leah admits, “But these are really good too.” Because the dough isn’t as sweet, toss the donuts in a bowl filled with confectioners’ sugar to coat.
Leah says, “I also make homemade falafel balls. I soak the chick peas overnight and grind them in the food processor with other ingredients. It takes about five minutes. Then, I fry seven balls at a time. I freeze the remaining batter. For about 3 dollars and a few minutes, you get 90 balls.”
Company popped in unexpectedly? Leah offers another shortcut, “When I make chocolate chip cookies, I put small scoops of dough on cookie trays and flash freeze them for five minutes so they’re firm and then I put them into bags. Whenever I need some, I grab them from the freezer, put the balls on pans and bake. If I have last minute guests, I’ll take two of those frozen cookie balls, put them in ramekins and bake them for 18 minutes for a cookie pie. Serve it warm with some ice cream for a delicious, quick, and easy dessert.”
For a fun addition to a Hanukka party, cut Hanukka shapes out of wraps and fry for one to three seconds on each side for crispy chips. Serve them with guacamole, salsa, or dips.
“Don’t overcrowd the pot when frying anything,” cautions Leah. “Start with one falafel ball, donut, or latke so that you know the pot is ready. If it takes too long to fry, wait. Things feel very saturated, soggy, and oily if the oil isn’t hot enough. Overcrowding drops the oil’s temperature. As much as I like saving time, when it comes to things like frying, waiting the extra two minutes for the oil to heat up makes a world of a difference.”
With all of these fabulous tips and shortcuts up your sleeve, you wouldn’t mind hosting the family Hanukka get-together in two hours’ notice, would you? Have a happy, tasty Hanukka.