Books: Bringing home the turkey bacon

From a reprint of the first US Jewish cookbook to DIY deli cuisine, a battery of new recipe books offers a twist on tradition.

Rosh Hashana Food (370) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Rosh Hashana Food (370)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
It doesn’t matter how many cooking shows I watch, culinary magazines I receive in the mail or food blogs I’ve bookmarked, I still love flipping through cookbooks for recipe ideas and inspirations. Over the past year, a variety of kosher or Jewish cookbooks has crossed my desk, each presenting their own unique viewpoint and take on ground that is already well covered.
When faced with such a pile, it is hard not to see trends and patterns emerge. In fact, every cookbook reviewed in this article has a version of chicken soup in it, and all but one include a recipe for chopped liver. Traditional Jewish – especially Ashkenazi – food is making a comeback, though upgraded and refined for the 21st century.
In fact, it is those cookbooks that are specifically targeted at a religious audience, and written by Orthodox Jewish women, that most attempt to steer clear of the Ashkenazi classics, and offer more inventive and upmarket cuisine.
But seasoned and inexperienced chefs alike, no matter what their approach to the kitchen, will find something to love among the newest crop of kosher and Jewish cookbooks.
The New Jewish Table By Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray St. Martin’s Press 352 pages; $35
Written by an interfaith couple who own a restaurant in Washington, The New Jewish Table is an embrace of its contradictions, entertaining yet simple, and a pleasure to flip through. The authors do not define it as a “strictly kosher cookbook,” but they do designate each recipe as meat, dairy, parve or “mixed,” their gentler way of saying treyf, or nonkosher (there are no recipes that call for nonkosher ingredients such as shellfish or pork, and almost every “mixed” recipe offers substitutions to make them kosher).
The book is divided by seasons, with sections for fall, winter, spring and summer, then within each season into brunch, starters, lunch, dinner sides and dessert. It has a strong emphasis on seasonality, which Ellen says comes from the time she spent living on a kibbutz. The book is peppered throughout with anecdotes of the couple and their lives, from when they first met to each of their entrances into the food world – hers on a press junket in 1988 to Israel to write about the country’s wines (when she introduced him to her Jewish family. They bonded over deli) – and their lives together running the restaurant, which has been open since 1999.
The recipes tend to be simple but interesting: pumpkin risotto with mascarpone cheese, honey-glazed chicken thighs with bulgur pilaf, quinoa salad with figs and mint – and none calls for particularly hard-to-find ingredients.
The photos – most of them full-page, are simple yet inviting, but unfortunately illustrate only about 50 percent of the recipes.
Jewish traditions show up in recipes for baked gefilte fish, vegetable kishka, ricotta cheese blintzes, borscht and even whitefish salad on toasted bagel with havarti cheese, among others.
These recipes are generally topped with an anecdote by Todd about his introduction to the dish, and how he adapted it to his own tastes.
“How many times did I puree country- style chicken livers, onions, Marsala wine, and garlic in a blender, put it on a little piece of toast... only to discover from Ellen that I was making chopped liver all along,” he writes above the recipe for chopped liver with sweet marsala onions.
Todd’s influence also comes through with recipes for his mom’s Indian summer gazpacho with pesto croutons, pistachio- crusted loin of lamb with roasted garlic jus and grilled yellowfin tuna skewers with rustic tomato sauce.
This book is perfect for those looking to bring Jewish classics into the 21st century as well as try new things.
Jewish Traditional Cooking By Ruth Joseph and Simon Round Kyle Books 240 pages; $29.95
This book is subtitled “over 150 nostalgic and contemporary Jewish recipes,” and it contains just that – classic Jewish dishes alongside modern dishes like grilled asparagus souffle, sweet potato tortilla with salami and spicy eggplant and coconut curry. Of course, traditional Jewish – particularly Ashkenazi – recipes play a strong role, from chopped liver to borscht, gefilte fish, p’tcha and potato kugel, but classic Israeli fare comes into play as well, including felafel, “DIY shwarma,” majadra and shakshuka.
The book’s British authors aim to bring about the nostalgia of classic Jewish cuisine – both Ashkenazi and Sephardi – though they focus much more firmly on the former. About half of the pages are printed with a textured tea-towel background, which is interesting but makes some of the recipes hard to read. The book is divided simply by courses in the meal, plus sections on bread, Passover and pickles and preserves.
The recipe titles and descriptions verge on being kitschy, but the instructions are straightforward and easy to follow. The photos are simple and unadorned but incredibly appealing.
Many of the recipes are simple classics that you may already have in your repertoire, like mushroom barley soup, meatballs in tomato sauce and an almost quizzically simple recipe for egg salad. But recipes like roasted butternut squash risotto, Persian spiced lentil patties and onion layered focaccia caught my eye, and make this a book I’ll keep on the shelf.
Kosher by Design Cooking Coach By Susie Fishbein Mesorah Publications Ltd.351 pages; $36.99  The eighth in Susie Fishbein’s Kosher by Design series, this cookbook seeks to teach the fundamentals of cooking – to allow anyone to put together a meal with the ingredients in front of them and no recipe on hand.
To that end, each section – appetizers, soup, salad, poultry, meat, fish, pasta/eggs, side dishes and dessert – begins with a “game plan,” with some basic techniques on preparation and ingredient selection that can be used across the recipes. Guides on how to carve a whole turkey or chicken (with detailed step-by-step photos) and the different cuts of beef and various organ meats seem particularly helpful.
Like most of Fishbein’s books, Kosher by Design Cooking Coach eschews traditional Jewish fare, aiming instead for dishes with more international flare, like nori-wrapped salmon with wasabi ginger sauce, osso bucco soup, orange teriyaki steak salad, chestnut-stuffed turkey London broil, Vietnamese burgers with peanut sauce, baked coconut brown rice pilaf and hazelnut crumbtopped banana Nutella bread.
There is also a “playbook” at the start of the cookbook that lists ways to recycle leftovers from many of the recipes into new and exciting dishes, like using chicken salad in a burrito, turning leftover shiitake asparagus salad into a stir fry, or chili burgers into sloppy joes.
Every recipe gets a full-page photo, most of which are pleasing, but there is a great deal of repetition of the same camera angles or composition throughout the book, and some are too close up or not entirely in focus.
This book would be ideal for a kosher cook looking to try out different cuisines, or somebody new to the kitchen looking to build their skills and repertoire.
Jewish Cookery Book: On Principles of Economy By Esther Levy Andrews McMeel Publishing 224 pages; $24.99If you have any questions about the recipes in this book, don’t try contacting Esther Levy – she’s been dead for at least a century. The Jewish Cookery Book was first published in 1871, and, according to the publisher, was the first and only the second written in English.
It was written to assist European immigrants new to American kitchens and way of life.
History buffs and those who are happy to experiment in the kitchen will love this book, which was republished as part of the American Antiquarian Society’s historical cookbook series.
“From the days of our mother, Sarah – when her husband bids her ‘make cakes’ for his celestial guests – Jewesses have not disdained attending to culinary matters,” Levy writes in her preface.
Even if you don’t intend to use any of the recipes – from pickled salmon to potted ox tongue, giblet pie, and toad-in- a-hole (chicken stuffed with veal and baked in the center of a batter), the book is a fascinating insight into the lives of American Jews in the late 19th century.
There are notes on how to arrange the table for each meal, how to make sure your housekeeper has not cheated you out of money when you sent her to the butcher, and how to make elderberry wine. There is even a paragraph on how to fatten up your chickens with rice and milk before killing them.
Hesitant cooks will find it difficult to follow instructions like “add sufficient flour to make it thick” or “bake in quick oven” without instructions as to how hot or for how long. Obviously ahead of the trend, Levy includes sections on pickling and preserving as well as a seasonal guide to produce and meat. The sections on “diet for invalids” and “medicinal recipes” are the most intriguing, though when she writes “a perfect cure for a felon” she unfortunately means a remedy for a finger infection, not a lawbreaker.
Still, if you’re adventurous enough, you can host your own 19th-century dinner party with Levy’s help – and invite me! Chic Made Simple By Esther Deutsch Feldheim 384 pages; $36.99
Billed as part cookbook, part coffee-table book, Chic Made Simple aims to bring “the IT factor to kosher cooking,” but unfortunately falls short.
While many of the photos are beautiful and appetizing, just as many are taken from terrible angles, are out of focus, poorly Photoshopped or bizarrely styled. In the most egregious example, a clump of pasta illustrating penne vodka simply floats in midair next to a sprig of basil improbably sprouting from a mortar and pestle – and Deutsch describes herself as a food stylist.
In addition, on multiple occasions photos are used twice in the book to illustrate multiple recipes – in some cases the dish that the recipe is for is barely seen in the photo, obscured by food from another recipe.
Deutsch bills herself as a self-taught cook “who has never taken a single culinary class” – which might explain why her recipe for tri-colored mashed potatoes includes margarine and Tofutti- brand fake sour cream. She labels another recipe “roasted fingerlings and brussels sprouts with sage brown butter” then calls for margarine – which cannot actually brown – and onion soup mix in the ingredient list.
Other recipes, like deli-roll sushi, “pastrami potato kugelettes” and roasted asparagus wrapped in pastrami and served with a dipping sauce that consists of teriyaki sauce, sesame seeds and scallions – illustrate a limited palate and inventiveness.
Still, some recipes, like coconut couscous with scallion lime syrup and mango, roasted corn and sausage soup, halibut in balsamic honey butter sauce and nectarine and plum crostata, show some promise and creativity.
The book will likely appeal to fans of Deutsch’s column in Ami magazine and women who are looking to play around with the presentation of their Shabbat and holiday food.The Mile End Cookbook By Noah and Rae Bernamoff Clarkson Potter 224 pages; $27.50
While many have decried the death of the Jewish deli over the past several decades, Noah and Rae Bernamoff not only opened their own Montreal-style deli in Brooklyn in 2010, they’re also bringing DIY delicatessen fare straight into your home with The Mile End Cookbook (named for their restaurant).
The book has two parts: Do-It-Yourself Delicatessen, with sections on smoked meat and fish and making your own pickles, garnishes, filling and condiments; and To the Table, with more straightforward recipes for breakfast and brunch; sandwiches and salads; mains, soups and sides; breads; and cakes, cookies and sweets.
In the DIY section, be prepared for recipes that take at least two weeks, from curing to smoking and steaming, as well as ingredients that may be hard to source, like collagen casings or apple wood chips (they provide some buying guidelines, but those seeking kosher ingredients and of course residents of Israel will have a tougher time). Adventurous cooks will be thrilled with a recipe for lamb bacon, and might even tough out the six-day process.
Duck and maple sausage, corned beef, pickled eggs, tartar sauce, sauerkraut and gizzard confit also make appearances in the DIY section.
In the more standard recipe section, the book still sticks with classic deli fare, like smoked whitefish salad, lox on latkes, veal schnitzel, kasha varnishkes, tsimmes and rye bread, all building on the components from the first half of the book, though you can obviously buy many of the ingredients instead. There are even recipes for matza and of course hamentashen, mandelbrot and rugelach.
Though there are detailed instructions on assembling a smoker and slicing smoked meat, photos or even drawings would have been particularly helpful – like the nine photos illustrating how to form knishes.
The book is perfect for anyone who’s ever longed to build a backyard smoker or pines for the days when pickles were sold out of barrels on street corners across Manhattan. Photos from the restaurant and around New York and essays from food personalities make it a book that’s a pleasure to read as well as cook from.
Celebrating with the Kosher Butcher’s Wife Sharon Lurie Struik Publishers 224 pages; $28.95
In her second book, Sharon Lurie seeks to bring her take on kosher cuisine to all the Jewish holidays. Celebrating with the Kosher Butcher’s Wife is divided up based on the Jewish holidays, from Shabbat to Pessah, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Succot, Hanukka and Purim.
The recipe names are corny and sometimes not particularly descriptive, like “some like it hot” salmon salad, “Thai me down” chicken or “matz ado” about nothing.
Throughout the book, the tone is extremely informal and jokey – more like an emailed recipe from a friend than a published cookbook – with the author telling jokes and anecdotes about her extended family members.
At some points she compares the colors in the food to a new lipstick shade, says a recipe is as “fiery and spicy as an Xrated film,” or instructs the reader: “Please don’t skip this one saying, ‘Oy! Too patshkedik.’” Exclamation points abound, including when her instructions for grilling chicken say you should baste them regularly, since “you don’t want them to look like a bad instant tan job, all white in the creases!” Her informal tone even extends to the serving sizes, like “serves 6-8 (depending on how hungry everyone is)” or “God help anyone who asks for seconds!” The book is very heavy on meat dishes and desserts, with just a handful of recipes in between.
Nevertheless, the section on Passover will no doubt be intriguing to many kosher cooks who are always hunting for new ideas then, and recipes for “Shabbat creme brulee,” Thai salmon fishcakes, Tuscan ribs and zucchini mushroom latkes with za’atar aioli caught my eye. Though I could have done without a recipe for roasted beans that calls for green beans, olive oil spray, salt and pepper.
Many of the full-page photos are nice, but some are so over-styled that the food gets lost in the adornments, and less than half the recipes have accompanying images.
Since the book is primarily published for a South African audience, Lurie often calls for ingredients that are native to there or simply not available in Israel, like biltong, Ina Paarman tikka curry coat and cook sauce or Manischewitz creamy wasabi horseradish sauce.
The book is ideally suited for anyone missing their South African roots or looking for a dozen new interesting ways to serve beef to their guests.