The pick of the crop

Six new cookbooks explore ingredients from saffron to schmaltz, s’hug, star anise and a schmear.

Pitta bread and bagels 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Pitta bread and bagels 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The New Persian Kitchen By Louisa Shafia Ten Speed Press 208 pages; $24.99
Louisa Shafia, the product of a marriage between an Ashkenazi Jewish librarian mother and a Muslim father from Tehran, wants the world to discover Persian food. Cloaked for years by what she calls “a veil of political animosity,” Shafia has used her book to present both traditional Persian dishes and original dishes that include classic ingredients and techniques.
Though the recipes in the book are not kosher, Shafia notes that many times yogurt in meat dishes can be omitted without compromising the dish or can be replaced with olive oil.
She includes a brief history of Persian cuisine and an introduction to some of the more obscure ingredients, from sumac powder to khorma (dates) and golab (rosewater).
The book is divided into the classic sections of starters, soups, salads, entrees, grains and sweets, with extra chapters on stews and casseroles, a Persian staple; beverages; and pickles and preserves.
Shafia seamlessly integrates recipes like winter squash fritters with rose petals, cold pistachio soup with mint and leeks, and lamb meatballs with mint and garlic with short reflections on her life, such as why the cuisine is known as Persian, not Iranian, the role of Jewish food in Iranian cuisine and Islam at the dinner table.
The 75 unique recipes also include spicy tamarind fish stew, rhubarb and rosewater sorbet with rice noodles and roasted stuffed artichokes with mint oil.
The Book of Schmaltz By Michael Ruhlman Little, Brown and Company 192 pages; $25
It’s certainly a bit surprising to hear that a non-Jew would devote an entire cookbook to schmaltz. But Michael Ruhlman, the award-winning author of more than a dozen cookbooks, is as enthusiastic about his “Love Song to a Forgotten Fat” as any Yiddishe grandmother.
Ruhlman, who considers himself a “pro-fat proselytizer in a fat-phobic land,” is seeking “not simply to give schmaltz back, guilt-free, to the Jews, but to give it to American home cooks far and wide.”
The book came about after his interactions with his neighbor Lois, a 78-year-old native of Cleveland, Ohio, with memories of her mother’s heavy-handed schmaltz cooking.
The book begins with an 11-page illustrated guide to making your own schmaltz. It is then divided into two sections, the traditional recipes, including potato kugel, knishes, kishke and, of course, cholent, all laced with the eponymous fat. Every recipe is accompanied by a color photo, and some, including cholent, have multipage illustrated instructions, perhaps the only place the phrase “cholent mise en place” could appear.
The second half of the book, contemporary recipes, includes dishes such as schmaltz-roasted potatoes, Parisienne gnocchi with spinach onion, and poached egg and, in the most unsettling recipe I’ve seen for a while, oatmeal cookies with dried cherries.
Ruhlman notes at the beginning of the book that three of the recipes are not kosher, though he offers a potential substitution to convert one to kosher.
While heavy on transferred nostalgia and with a fairly narrow scope, The Book of Schmaltz is an entertaining read. At times the book feels slightly padded out, which is not entirely surprising since its first incarnation was as an iPad app. In fact, in his blog post announcing the app, Ruhlman said it was a topic “so focused, [that] it didn’t seem like a bigbook idea.”The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home By Nick Zukin and Michael Zusman Andrews McMeel Publishing 272 pages; $27.99
Though the death of the classic Jewish deli has been proclaimed many times over the past decade, more and more deli cookbooks are appearing on bookstore shelves, most recently The Mile End Cookbook, which was published last year. Now comes The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, a fun, colorful cookbook that combines 100 recipes with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
The book begins with the “building blocks” of Jewish deli food, including recipes for dill pickles, kreplach dough, Russian dressing and, of course, schmaltz.
Then it dives right into classics like knishes, latkes, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, matza ball soup and four recipes for borscht. The full-color photos are beautiful but too infrequent.
Some recipes have a modern twist, like summer chicken salad with peas, radish and mint, or honey-sweet apple cabbage slaw, while others made me cringe, like a salad of leftover chopped up latkes held together with sour cream, or French toast made with slices of chocolate babka.
The book is not kosher, though most of the recipes are naturally so. However, a few, including pastrami cheese fries and cheddar and pastrami scones, mix milk and meat, though no recipes contain non-kosher ingredients.
Unlike most classical kosher delis, the book tries to emphasize seasonality by offering spring, summer, fall and winter varieties of many deli classics, including blintzes, chicken salad, brisket and rugelach.
The book is co-written by Nick Zukin, part-owner of the Portland, Oregon, deli Kenny and Zuke’s, and thus borrows heavily from its menu. But other innovative delis around the country are profiled in its pages, including Caplansky’s, Mile End, Stopsky’s and Wise Sons, adding a welcome sense of community in the deli world.
Nosh on This By Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel The Experiment 288 pages; $19.95
At least one in 150 people in Israel has celiac disease, the inability to digest gluten, and even more have an intolerance for wheat products. So this book, subtitled “Gluten-Free Baking from a Jewish-American Kitchen,” will find a welcome audience. Divided into chapters such as cookies and macaroons, pies and tarts, bars and brownies and donuts, the book contains more than 100 gluten- free recipes, ranging from lemon zest macaroons to cherry chocolate cupcakes, apple pomegranate tart and caramel banana bread with cranberries. There’s also a section titled “Out of a Box,” with ways to make the best of a gluten-free cake mix. Classic Jewish recipes are prominent throughout the book, including mandelbrot, kichlach, chocolate babka, rugelach and hamantashen, as well as six halla recipes.
A savory chapter includes recipes like potato latkes, pineapple raisin noodle kugel and halla corn bread stuffing.
The majority of the recipes in the book are based on the authors’ recipe for a gluten- free flour blend, made from a mix of brown rice flour, white rice flour and tapioca starch. The recipes are innovative and unique, from apple upside-down cake with honey pomegranate syrup to sweet potato pumpkin butter pie, dark chocolate apricot rugelach and banana maple pecan glazed donuts. The color photos, many of them full page, are beautifully styled and photographed, but the printing has, sadly and inexplicably, turned many of them grainy.
Overall, Nosh on This is a well-executed niche book, though I would like to have seen at least one cheesecake recipe.
Balaboosta By Einat Admony Artisan 288 pages; $29.95
Einat Admony has created a book that has me reimagining classic Israeli comfort food as haute cuisine.
Admony, who is known to American audiences for appearing on two different Food Network competition shows, is an Israeli-born chef with Iranian and Yemenite roots who now lives in New York, where she owns three restaurants.
The book, subtitled “bold Mediterranean recipes to feed the people you love,” offers recipes running the range from kids’ schnitzel fingers to ricotta, pine nut and honey bread pudding or beef tartare with harissa.
The recipes for oysters, mussels, shrimp and octopus are a bit jarring alongside those for halla, burekas and kubbe soup, but you get the feeling Admony has created a book showcasing how she really eats day to day. That idea is reinforced by her personal essays, seamlessly woven throughout the recipes, discussing her life as a busy mother, her role as an Air Force driver (and occasional cook) in the IDF, how she got over her first break-up with a plate of sufganiyot and how her father takes s’hug to every restaurant they go to.
The chapter divisions are unorthodox: “Fancy-schmancy: Restaurant-worthy dishes,” “The first cut is the deepest: Foods that comfort” or “Kidding around: Recipes to feed your kids,” but they work as logical groupings. While one chapter is titled “Thinking about home: Mostly Israeli recipes” – which includes felafel, sabich, sambusaks and homemade Krembo – there are touches of Israel found in just about every chapter, from ptitim, shakshuka, chamusta soup and fried olives with labane to herbed meat kabobs and stuffed vegetables.
The dish featured on the cover is beautifully composed, despite being a fairly simple recipe of instant couscous topped with almonds and raisins. That juxtaposition exemplifies the book: deceptively simple food done well.
The Modern Menu By Kim Kushner Gefen Publishing House 160 pages; $39.95
Flipping through The Modern Menu, I can sense the book Kim Kushner wanted to create: something sleek, sophisticated, clean and modern. But what comes across in the look of the book is something trying very hard to accomplish that but falling short of the mark.
The clean, white pages get boring as do the all-white dishes and accessories in the photos. Many of the images are beautiful, but others employ odd photography techniques – such as sprinkling the food over the page or shooting it at odd, unappealing angles – that are repeated too often.
The chapter titles are also a bit silly, with names like “nourishing,” “piquant,” “gutsy” or “delectable.”
But on to the food. Kushner offers mostly fresh and interesting recipes with unique pairings of flavors. Recipes like chicken with pumpkin, figs and honey or tequila London broil with mango chutney are intriguing, and I bookmarked the crunchy curry cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate and the plum crumb cake with star anise to try soon.
A couple of recipes seem a bit pointless, like dates stuffed with walnuts (two ingredients) or a celery root salad with celery root, walnuts, oil, salt and pepper.
But overall, Kushner’s approach to food is original and innovative.