Book Review: From figs to freekeh to feta

The latest crop of cookbooks urges home cooks to experiment in the kitchen – and eat their vegetables!

Lamburgers in pita with lemon-tahini sauce from ‘The Modern Kosher Kitchen.’ (photo credit: GLENN SCOTT PHOTOGRAPHY)
Lamburgers in pita with lemon-tahini sauce from ‘The Modern Kosher Kitchen.’
By Yotam Ottolenghi
Ten Speed Press
352 pages; $35
If you could crown the most buzzed-about cookbook of the past year, it would almost definitely be Jerusalem. Well, now 50 percent of that culinary duo is back with Plenty More, a follow-up to the 2011 ode to vegetables, Plenty.
It is arranged not by courses but cooking/preparation method; chapters include tossed, steamed, mashed, fried and grilled, to name a few.
Yotam Ottolenghi fans will likely need no introduction, but this note at the beginning of the book really sets the tone for what’s to come: “Unless otherwise specified, all salt is table salt, pepper is freshly cracked, eggs are large, parsley is flat-leaf, olive oil is extra-virgin, peppers are deseeded, lemon and lime pith is to be avoided when the zest is shaved, and onions, garlic and shallots are peeled.”
What follows, of course, is a celebration of the bounty of produce and its incredible versatility, from caramelized fig orange and feta salad to spicy chickpea and bulgur soup, sweet-and-sour leeks with goat’s curd and currants, and honey- roasted carrots with tehina yogurt.
The pictures are all beautiful, but many show a half-finished or still-cooking dish when I would have preferred to see the finished recipe. The difficulty level ranges from a simple tossed salad to a rice salad that calls for five separate pots (but at least offers an apology for the dish washing).
While not all ingredients are easily available in Israel, most are obtainable and if not, replaceable. Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern roots are on strong display with ingredients like tehina, pomegranates, eggplants, kadaifi, figs and more. I’ve personally bookmarked the cannellini bean puree with pickled mushrooms and pita croutons, and the eggplant kadaifi nests.
While most of the book is savory there is still a small section on sweets, with gems like apricot, walnut and lavender cake and halva ice cream with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts.
By Ronnie Fein
Fair Winds Press
208 pages; $24.99
Ronnie Fein is no newcomer to the cookbook world, but she still manages to keep her offerings modern and inventive.
Her latest book, Modern Kosher Kitchen, is filled with interesting and varied dishes that just happen to be kosher.
From seared tuna steak sticks with wasabi sesame dip to cream of beet soup with pumpernickel crumbles or freekeh salad with chicken, mango and sugar snaps, Fein keeps you turning the pages to see what else is coming. I was, however, disappointed with the ratio of photos in the book; only about a quarter of the recipes came illustrated.
In her efforts to be innovative and hip, Fein often uses ingredients that even I – the cookbook-obsessed, Food Network- watching, culinary magazine-loving reader – hadn’t heard of: including sambal (a spicy Asian condiment), kamut (a wheat species) and baharat (a Middle Eastern spice mixture). Many ingredients are also simply not easily available to the Israeli audience, from sriracha to kale to blueberries.
But Fein provides serving suggestions and variations that will make the majority of the recipes workable anywhere.
I was excited to see a section labeled “budget meals,” often an overlooked notion in kosher cookbooks – though with veal and lamb presented in the chapter, the budget was obviously stretched. Still, I’m eager to try out a handful of recipes, from roasted lemon rosemary potato salad to braised short ribs with squash to dried fruit and lemon oatmeal cookies.
By Mitchell Kowitz
Red Portal Press
160 pages; $17.95
Have you ever sat in the synagogue pews and wondered if the cantor could make a good brisket? Then Kosher Cuisine for a New Generation is the cookbook for you.
Though Cantor Mitchell Kowitz’s enthusiasm is felt throughout, the book fails to come together cohesively or offer any real innovation. The recipe headnotes are forced and almost laughable: “The popularity of starters is stronger than ever” or “The entree is the main course of the meal.” The recipe for sweet-and-sour sauce is a jar of grape jelly and a bottle of chili sauce cooked together.
Moreover, the vast majority of recipes are very basic – like “grilled chicken breasts,” “simple cooked vegetables” or “broiled garlic sole.” The more daring recipes left me feeling a bit concerned: pepper steak with bananas, cucumbers and rum, or lox and sour cream quiche.
Kowitz’s one unique twist is the music pairings he provides with each recipe: a kitschy but entertaining take for those who like their dishes with a side of schmaltz. A recipe for spinach and mushroom quiche is paired with “the theme song from the cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man,” spiced rice and beef gets matched to “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Frank Sinatra and grilled snapper gets “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Despite the upbeat tone and concerted effort, only a very inexperienced cook will find anything to try here; though marketed “for a new generation,” it is decidedly outdated.
By Amar’e Stoudemire and Maxcel Hardy
Harper Collins
304 pages; $27.99
If you’re wondering who Amar’e Stoudemire is, then you’re probably not a basketball fan. But if you’re a Jewish hoops enthusiast, you’re surely familiar with Stoudemire, the New York Knicks power forward who discovered his Jewish roots a few years ago and has since made several trips to Israel and professed to keep “mostly kosher.”
His cookbook, Cooking with Amar’e, put out with his personal chef Maxcel Hardy, follows that dictum: The recipes contain no pork, lobster, shrimp or crab dishes, though there is one for pan-seared scallops. A scant handful of dishes call for both meat and dairy ingredients, though most could be adapted for kosher audiences.
Hardy told this reporter earlier this year that after Stoudemire discovered his Jewish roots, “At first it was just kind of making sure we bought kosher products and tried to keep kosher as much as possible. As the years have progressed, we’ve been more attuned to doing Shabbat dinners, Passover and Rosh Hashana.”
The recipes in the book run the gamut, ranging from sweet-potato waffles to roasted vegetable and goat cheese flatbreads; grilled strip steak with horseradish cream and sauteed mushrooms; and Caribbean pan-seared snapper escovitch. There’s plenty here for amateurs and more experienced cooks to enjoy.
By Leah Schapira and Victoria
Dwek Artscroll
128 Pages; $15.99
The latest installment in Artscroll’s “Made Easy” series does not disappoint, continuing the simple, straightforward and helpful approach of the first three books (Passover, starters and sides, and kids’ cooking). Dairy Made Easy’s sections include breakfast; starters and sides; soups, salads and sandwiches; pizza; pasta; and, of course, dessert.
The book begins with “make your own ingredient” instructions, including homemade marinara sauce and ricotta cheese, a nice touch for those who like to do everything from scratch, or enjoy a rainy day project.
None of the recipes are particularly groundbreaking, but they’re all interesting and approachable, from herbed pull-apart bread to grilled cheese toast salad, cauliflower garlic bites to broccoli spring rolls. A few jumped out as musttries, like honey pomodoro pizza, caramelized onion calzones and chocolate croissant rolls.
Though it could be argued that dairy recipes are more difficult to make “light,” the collection amassed here seemed particularly heavy on calories – more special-occasion foods than things I would want to make on a regular basis.