Culinary adventures on every page

A new slate of cookbooks provides endless inspiration for getting in the kitchen

'Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,' by Alon Shaya (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,' by Alon Shaya
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An Israeli-ish journey
Shaya isn’t exactly an Israeli cookbook. At times, it’s barely a cookbook at all. It’s a captivating and meandering memoir of chef Alon Shaya’s life – punctuated by more than 100 recipes related to the many stages of Shaya’s life and journey. Many have nothing at all to do with Middle Eastern cuisine, while others are Shaya’s unique take on his exploration of Israeli flavors.
As a cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel is somewhat hard to navigate. Each chapter begins with a story from Shaya’s troubled journey – his move to Philadelphia from Israel at age four, being raised by a single mom with cerebral palsy, his anger problems in school, dabbling with drugs, disconnecting and reconnecting from his family. Each story is punctuated with recipes linked to his journey and travels – including time spent working in Italy, and his first jobs in casinos in Las Vegas and then New Orleans. An index in the back allows easier navigation, but as a book in which to cook from, it’s not the simplest to explore. It’s a decision that categorizes the book as somewhere between truly authentic and self-indulgent.
Yet it may be the first cookbook you read cover to cover. Shaya’s personal journey and path is intriguing and his story is hard to put down.
Of course, many of the recipes encountered along the way – from his time in Italy, his jobs cooking southern food and his high school misadventures – have no connection to Israel. A butter and salami sandwich, for instance, or lobster green curry, buttermilk biscuits, crab cakes and jambalaya.
But Shaya did dabble in Israeli and Jewish food along the way, inspired by his grandparents, and later by a Jewish heritage group he started at the Culinary Institute of America (who were a little taken aback when he suggested they roast a whole pig).
Those recipes are often Israeli-inspired, but far from the cuisine you generally encounter here today. Peach and mascarpone hamentashen sound tasty, if unorthodox. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who fills their burekas with a combination of tahini, dulce de leche and cream of coconut. Among all the definitions of kugel, I haven’t seen one that includes a bechamel sauce made with Cointreau and embellished with bacon. And I don’t think you could find one Yemenite Jew in Israel who puts whey or buttermilk in their stewed chicken.
The later chapters of the book include Shaya’s relationship with John Besh – an awkward note now that the two are locked in a legal battle since the latter was accused of sexual harassment and Shaya was fired from his eponymous restaurant (he’s now branching out on his own). Shaya ends the book without noting how he had to leave all the restaurants behind that he once helmed, turning it into a time capsule of sorts from 2017.
Jewish food from down under
The world of Jewish cooking can often feel heavily centered in New York, so it’s nice to see a cookbook come from another corner of the world. Feasting: A New Take on Jewish Cooking comes straight to you from Melbourne, Australia. That’s where author Amanda Ruben’s deli and restaurant, Miss Ruben, serves up her casual Jewish dining.
Feasting, however, is anything but casual. The colorful book is chock full of fancy, labor-intensive dishes best suited for an upscale dinner party.
The recipes in the book are mostly kosher, though the menu suggestions are not. One recipe calls for anchovies in a chicken dish, and a take on cholent – with farro and chicken – recommends adding stock in the morning after an overnight cook. Those are both no-nos among observant Jews.
What comes across strongly in this book is its decadence. There’s a big focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, which is a positive development. But there’s also a call for a whole lot of pricey ingredients that aren’t everyday eating for many people. Duck eggs, caviar, copious amounts of lamb and veal are far from the norm in most Israeli households.
A recipe for chicken soup even calls for six chicken carcasses, a kilogram of chicken wings, a whole chicken and a kilogram of beef. Poached veal with saffron aioli and quail eggs is clearly a special-occasion dinner.
There are plenty of intriguing recipes, some of which have a more direct connection to Jewish eating than others. The pomegranate and honey-glazed poussin, the chickpea stew with kale, turmeric and tomatoes and the orange and cinnamon kugelhopf caught my eye.
Overall, the recipes tend to have long lists of ingredients and a great deal of steps – suited for rainy-day cooking adventures, but less for everyday eating.
An over-indulgent week
For one week a year, kosher kitchens turn upside down.
Flour is out, of course, but for Ashkenazim the list is much longer, including everything from corn to soy, mustard, rice and more. I’ve always been skeptical for the need for a whole Passover cookbook, after all, it is just a week out of the year.
Meat, potatoes, matza and vegetables – what more do you need? But the market has proven me wrong, and Passover cookbooks abound: this one is even a sequel! And it’s clear that this book is geared to those who like to serve lavish holiday meals and entertain their guests, which is an admirable goal. The book even starts with cute if impractical plating ideas: Good luck eating lamb chops out of a bowl. I’m torn between judging this cookbook as a community project – it’s produced by Yeshiva Me’on HaTorah and compiled by home cooks – and a professional book – it’s published by Artscroll and sells for $30. So I’m going to go with the latter.
I’m thrilled that every recipe in the book is photographed in full, glossy color. But the photos – and particularly the lighting and styling – have an amateurish quality to them. The book is divided up in a straightforward and clear manner, and the recipes are easy to read and follow. It is hard, however, not to see all the recipes for soups and salads and wonder what, if anything, is unique to Passover about them. That isn’t to say there aren’t some nice ideas – like baby bella burgers served inside mushroom caps, potato chip-encrusted tilapia and spinach-potato nests. But one thing that stands out is the incredible amount of heavy, unhealthy, calorie-laden dishes.
This isn’t a health-conscious cookbook, and Passover is not a holiday that’s easy on dieters. But the abundance of margarine, eggs, nondairy creamer, sugar and soup powders borders on alarming. One chicken recipe – which ostensibly serves six – calls for a half a cup of margarine, a cup of brown sugar and a cup of maple syrup. Another instructs cooks to dip drumsticks in margarine before crusting them in instant potato flakes. And even the salad recipes are not immune: most include sugared nuts or dried fruit and the dressings are laden down with oil and sugar – one calls for a whopping ¾ cup.
Passover may only be a week long, it’s true. But if you eat like this for a week you might not live to see the next one.
Healthy kosher eats
There are those who would tell you that the idea of a healthy Jewish kitchen is an oxymoron. But Paula Shoyer is here to prove you wrong. She’s a bit of an unexpected choice to write a health-conscious take on Jewish food, considering she’s is best known for her babkas and cookies in her first books on baking.
But even sweet-lovers need to watch their waistlines. So Shoyer’s fourth cookbook has no margarine, no deep frying and a strong shift away from white flour and sugar.
The Healthy Jewish Kitchen is laid out beautifully and clearly, and Shoyer’s voice shines through on every page. In addition to the 80 health-oriented recipes, she provides extra tips along the way, like how to wash, dry and store fresh herbs, how best to grease cake pans and guides for thawing frozen meat.
Shoyer certainly isn’t shy about exploring flavors, and offers dishes likely unfamiliar to many kosher homes, like cold tzatziki soup, feijoada – an adapted Brazilian cholent – and Korean bibimap, among others. She writes recipes for baked schnitzel with a nut crust, buckwheat-flour blintzes and baked latkes with scallions.
Some offerings aren’t too original – do we need another recipe for roasted broccoli or chopped string beans? – but there is also plenty of innovation. I do wish we were granted more photos of the finished dishes though.
Of course, Shoyer didn’t skimp in the dessert section, though she noted that portion size and special treats are the way to go.
Her best known dessert, chocolate babka, gets a makeover with spelt flour and coconut oil, and a gluten-free chocolate cake is made with quinoa (works well for Passover, too). You can tell how much work the author put in to creating this book and recipe testing; it really shows. There’s room in just about everyone’s diet for a little upgrade, and Shoyer is here to guide you.
Rising to the occasion
A book centered around one specific food can be a hard sell. And this isn’t even the first, or second, halla-centric cookbook I own. So I was skeptical, to say the least. But the author has pulled off a book worthy of consideration – and admiration. About half of Rising! The Book of Challah is not recipes or instructions at all, but the musings of the author, Rochie Pinson, a rebbetzin, mother and artist. Pinson explores scriptural texts, hassidic stories and shares her own life tales in breaking down each of the ingredients and steps in the halla-making process.
This is something that will be moving to some and kitschy to others; Pinson does make a lot of references and comparisons to motherhood, which could alienate some readers.
But on to the heart of the matter – the halla. The centerpiece, of course, is the author’s classic recipe, given in full, half and quarter recipes, which is a nice touch. For an art so technical, however, I would have liked to receive grams or ounces in addition to cups. Pinson also breaks down every ingredient, utensil, step and common troubleshooting needs to calm even the most frantic baker.
Once you’ve got the basics down, she offers varieties from spelt to sourdough, olive-stuffed, pretzel, marzipan-filled, deli- adorned and about two dozen more, including vegan and gluten- free. There are also suggestions for using up leftover dough or leftover halla. But perhaps the most arresting portion of the book is the 37 illustrated braiding techniques, which provide step-by-step guides to everything from a simple three-strand braid to an eight-strand wedding halla and a striking halla basket.
One thing’s for sure – it’s hard not to want to put this book down and start kneading.
But back to the food. The recipes range from the simplest – sandwiches – to technical, multi-step undertakings, like labneh cheesecake with pomegranate caramel and orange blossom candied nuts. Shaya isn’t the most user-friendly cookbook around, and his recipes are intensely personal as opposed to regional. But there’s a beautiful story to be read here, and he simply has to tell it through food.
Attention to detail It tends to be pretty clear from just a few pages into a cookbook if it’s a vanity project, or a tome the author genuinely hopes you will cook from. And it doesn’t take long to realize that the UK’s Anne Shooter really wants her readers to get into the kitchen – and find success there.
Clear, detailed instructions, suggestions for substitutions and extra tips sprinkled throughout make Cherish: Food to Make for the People You Love the kind of book that you turn to again and again.
When she’s walking you through the steps for fried fish in matza meal with tartare sauce – a Jewish classic that seems to have stuck around strongest with British Jews – Shooter tells you how to set up your workplace, how to know your oil is hot enough, how to know the fish is cooked through and how to reheat it (and how to make it in the oven if you prefer). In instructions for curing your own fish, she wants you to make sure the tray you select will fit inside your fridge. That’s the kind of attention to detail you’ll find throughout the pages of Cherish.
Shooter gives plenty of attention to the dishes of her childhood, from chicken soup with matza balls to slow-cooked brisket in kiddush wine, stuffed cabbage and chopped liver. But she also explores Israeli flavors from her regular visits, and includes takes from other Jewish communities around the world, including Indian coconut fish curry, Ethiopian doro wat and Yemenite lachuch. I was excited to see a section on one-tray dinners, including za’atar lamb chops with quinoa or stuffed aubergine bake, but sadly many of them require extra stovetop steps first.
Interesting dishes abound, from peach, mozzarella and smoked salmon salad to ground lamb or beef-stuffed artichoke bottoms and halva, pistachio and dark chocolate ice cream. There is also some well-covered ground: how many more recipes for shakshuka or whole-roasted cauliflower does one need? And the inclusion of both whole roasted aubergine with tahini, date syrup and pomegranate; and roasted aubergine with pomegranate and tahini yogurt dressing seems a stretch.
But just about everyone is likely to find something inside Cherish they’ll want to cook for family or friends. And isn’t that the whole point?