A Bounty of Books

The latest in Jewish cookbooks offer a journey around the world – starting at the stove.

Green Shakshuka (photo credit: HENRY HARGREAVES)
Green Shakshuka
(photo credit: HENRY HARGREAVES)
From hawayej to kubaneh
Israeli cuisine has never been more popular around the world, with books, films and restaurants focusing on the many Diaspora influences that make up the unique food scene here. But when Moroccan, Persian and Iraqi foods often take the spotlight, the Yemenite contribution can be overlooked.
Sue Spertus Larkey is here to change that with Bone Soup and Flipped Bread, her intensely researched cookbook on Yemenite Jewish cuisine. Some of the community’s traditional foods have gained more prominence on the Israeli culinary scene, and, as the book’s title implies, there are a lot of breads and soups.
Spertus Larkey includes three recipes for the common spice mix hawayej – one for soup, one for tea and another for coffee; and two for s’hug, a red version and a green version of the popular hot sauce.
It is clear from her writing and the recipes that Spertus Larkey spent months if not years slipping in and out of the kitchens of grandmothers, aunts and mothers from the Yemenite community to learn their secrets. She breaks down some of the recipes into many detailed steps, leading cooks through every turn.
This is especially true when it comes to the star of the cookbook, the breads.
There are three versions of melawah – yeasted, regular and filled; and three of lahoh pancakes – made of sorghum, farina or sourdough. The jahnun recipe gets 21 steps, including the folksy “now go clean the living room (let the dough rest 30 minutes),” but it really could have done with many more photos along the way.
But the real star is kubaneh; Spertus Larkey offers six different versions of the yeasted bread, including one filled with meat and another topped with caramelized onions. But unfortunately, due to the layout of the book, they’re all split up randomly throughout. For reasons I can’t understand, the book is arranged via life-cycle events and holidays, as opposed to by type of dish. That leads to both random dispersal and also tenuous connections between recipes and topics.
After all, what does dried pea soup have to do with Hanukka? And the sabaya yeasted layered bread doesn’t seem to have any real connection to weddings.
Plus it is only the third recipe for kubaneh which gives a detailed explanation of the bread and its significance.
As promised, there is also a wide range of soup recipes, including marak regel, bone marrow soup, which simmers for six hours or overnight, and “might almost be called Yemen’s national dish.”
Bayt ar iris is a betrothal or celebration soup, and includes beef marrow, short ribs, oxtail and cartilage.
But no matter the book’s shortcomings, there are fascinating tidbits sprinkled along the way, and a rare English- language insight into the cuisine of Yemenite Jewry. Like how the traditional haroset contains 13 ingredients, since 13 was considered lucky, including dates, figs, sesame seeds and ground pepper.
Spertus Larkey has created an invaluable look at the tastes and flavors of an overlooked community.
Bone Soup and Fliped Bread By Sue Spertus Larkey Gefen 360 pages; $40
Around the globe
There’s no question that Joan Nathan is an expert in Jewish cuisine. She’s been recognized as such over the years by the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, among others.
But while many may associate her with Ashkenazi fare or French Jewish cuisine, her latest book, King Solomon’s Table, proves that she is a true master of the global Jewish culinary world. Crisscrossing five continents and 15 countries, Nathan has gathered up both classic and unheard of recipes from Jewish communities around the globe, including some fusion cuisine that perfectly represents modern Jewry.
The book is divided traditionally, and Nathan hits you with the dazzling array of international Jewish cooking. After all, the options for breakfast include the Azerbaijani kukuka, a sort of frittata; Tunisian brik, a fried pastry; bagels; shtrizlach, blueberry buns of Polish origin which survived and thrived in Toronto; and chocolate babka, the perfect breakfast food if you ask me.
Nathan seamlessly weaves her way from scourtins – olive biscuits from France – to Persian stuffed grape leaves and chopped chicken liver. Along the way, she has stories and anecdotes to share from her many travels and encounters.
The veteran cookbook author – this is her 11th title – offers five recipes for haroset: four hailing from Persia, Italy, Brazil and, of all places Maine (that one has blueberries, cranberries and ginger), and a nut-free variety for those with allergies.
Nathan dips into Eastern Europe with a curried beet borscht, Morocco with the harira vegetable soup, and Uzbekistan with lagman, a noodle soup. There is just about no corner of the world left unturned when she shares recipes for defo dabo, an Ethiopian Shabbat bread, and noni toki, a Bukharan dome-shaped matza-like flatbread. Don’t forget keftes garaza, Syrian meatballs with cherries; kiftes de prasa, Macedonian leek and meat patties; or Bene Israel fish curry from India.
Nathan also offers a hamin-cholent hybrid with more than 25 ingredients, including dried plums, roasted chestnuts, eggs, hot dogs, honey and eggplants.
And while the dessert section is on the skimpy side, I’m dying to sink my teeth into aranygaluska – a Hungarian golden pull-apart cake with walnuts and apricot jam. Why? The photo accompanying it is mouthwatering, and makes me all the more unhappy that the book is so scarce in photos, a sadly missed opportunity to make a truly stunning volume.
King Solomon ’s Table By Joan Nathan Knopf 416 pages; $35
Jewish comfort food
Few people who step into one of the two trendy, bustling, identically named restaurants in downtown Manhattan know of the many intertwining cultures that led to its opening.
Husband-and-wife team Maya and Dean Jankelowitz opened their first location in 2012 and their second in 2014, presenting their mixed culinary heritage, from Dean’s South African upbringing – with Polish and Lithuanian Jewish roots – to Maya’s Israeli parents, who came via Libya and Eastern Europe.
The restaurants – and the book – are named for Jack and Freda, Dean’s South African grandparents.
The cookbook isn’t strictly kosher, with a couple of recipes for mussels and a hefty mix of meat and dairy. But they stay away from any pork or bacon use – even offering a recipe for homemade duck bacon with eight step-by-step photos. Their spin on Eggs Benedict is based on a potato latke – instead of an English muffin – and swaps out the bacon for lox.
The book – much like the restaurants – has a fresh but retro feel, with an eclectic mix of recipes and a vibrant vibe.
From green shakshuka with tomatillos and jalapeno to chicken livers on toast (Maya’s childhood comfort food in Israel), the couple and their chef – Julia Jaksic – don’t shy away from tweaking and updating classics.
You’ll also find recipes for Freda’s fish balls with horseradish mayonnaise, alongside mustard-seed crusted tofu, sweetbreads with peri peri sauce and veggie curry with apple raisin chutney.
Chances are there’s something for everyone in here – and photos of every dish.
Jack ’s Wife Freda By Maya and Dean Jankelowitz Blue Rider Press 215 pages; $30
A week without bread
It might be a bit unfair, but I have a slight bias against Passover cookbooks.
After all, the holiday is only one week out of the year, and while there are obviously a great deal of limitations, it’s not exactly an entirely foreign concept.
And just about every Passover cookbook goes with the same tag line as in Naomi Nachman’s Perfect for Pesach: “Passover recipes you’ll want to make all year.” And sure, some of the recipes might be no different from what they would be yearround, in which case I could get them anywhere else. And would anybody really pick up a Passover cookbook in August? Funnily enough, the way many kosher cookbooks offer tweaks for Passover use, this one offers tips for converting recipes for year-round use.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can get to the cookbook itself, which is perfectly cheerful and serviceable, despite the fact that I doubt the need for its existence. The book is bright and well laid out, and the photos – by cookbook author Miriam Pascal – are tempting. But many of the recipes left me with questions: Do I really need another recipe for vegetable soup, or roasted asparagus? Am I actually going to make potato starch-based crepes, then turn them into egg rolls? Can people living in smaller, more remote Jewish communities really find kosher-for-Passover certified salsa, duck sauce, instant vanilla pudding or panko crumbs? Now that I’m done kvetching, there are a number of recipes that caught my eye, like hummus made out of quinoa; seafood cakes from deconstructed gefilte fish; quinoa and mushroom stuffed capons; and zucchini-stuffed chicken. Even this jaded cookbook reviewer might want to try cranberry- glazed turkey and spinach meatloaf; zucchini ravioli or pecan-crusted chicken nuggets.