How do you review a cookbook? You can read through it, but I think the best thing to do is actually cook from it. From the time that Leah Koenig’s latest volume, simply titled The Jewish Cookbook, came into my house that’s just what I have been doing.
Given that The Jewish Cookbook offers up 425 recipes – 400 by Koenig and 25 contributed by celebrity chefs including Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov – this is no small undertaking.
The recipes are wide-ranging and multicultural, coming from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, the US, Latin America, Israel, Ethiopia and more, and reflect a variety of cooking styles.
“Ours is a borderless cuisine,” says Koenig, with most Jewish foods adapted from host countries and tweaked to conform to the demands of kashrut.
For a recent example, Koenig points to the chipotle pepper, cilantro and white onion seasoned matzo ball soup eaten by the Ashkenazi Jews of Mexico City.
I haven’t yet tasted it, but thinking about it makes my mouth water. So far I’ve prepared Koenig’s tehina, Moroccan carrot salad, baba ganoush, chraime fish, honey and thyme roast chicken, brisket of beef, apple shalet and vegetarian cholent. With the exception of the cholent, which flopped because I deviated from Koenig’s instructions, all the recipes have been keepers, elevating my already not-bad Shabbat meals to gourmet status.
It’s no wonder The Jewish Cookbook has scored rave reviews in Bon Appetit, Forbes, Food & Wine and Kitchen, and that Koenig spends her days flying around the globe giving cooking classes.
Koenig is a genius in the kitchen, using fresh ingredients, especially plenty of fresh garlic, kosher salt, cracked pepper and fresh lemon juice. Her recipes are delicious and surprisingly easy to make – no need to visit exotic food stores or sites. And best of all, they come out right! That’s because Koenig is a self-described “fastidious” recipe tester. Kudos to her. There’s nothing more frustrating than following a recipe and having it flop because the cookbook author didn’t do his or her job!
Although her recipes are stylish, Koenig happily incorporates convenience ingredients like canned beans, canned tomatoes and even onion powder, which I purchased for the first time in my life on her recommendation. She’s right. It does enhance flavors, especially of meat.
Born in Chicago in the early 1980s into a family she describes as “not very practicing” Jewishly, Koenig grew up in the Pop-Tarts era with a mom who shopped for produce and maple syrup in farmers markets before that became fashionable.
Koenig waxes nostalgic over her mother’s fork-tender brisket, homemade latkes, matzah balls made with rendered chicken fat and a unique rosy applesauce made with unpeeled red apples. As a child, Koenig stayed away from the kitchen. That was her mom’s domain, but at Middlebury College, she found her cooking chops while living in an environmental studies cooperative with 17 roommates who cooked for each other.
After graduation, Koenig spent time working for the Jewish environmental group Hazon, which brought her into contact with Jewish organic farmers and meat breeders. From Hazon she segued into food writing and cookbooks.
Her largest book so far, The Jewish Cookbook, published by Phaidon Press, a specialty publisher known for its elegant volumes, is stylishly laid out and beautiful, though a larger font, process pictures and sample Shabbat and holiday menus would have made it more user friendly.
Still, at the end of the day, a cookbook is about taste and here Koenig scores big time.
The Jewish Cookbook is Koenig’s sixth volume and I hope that we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.
THE JEWISH COOKBOOK
By Leah Koenig
432 pages; $49.95