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The new Jewish kitchen
(article, Leah Koenig)
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Last spring, my mother-in-law gave me a cookbook. A [%amazonProductLink asin=0888302193 "kosher cookbook"] with a bright red cover, it had been published in 1982, the year I was born. I had just been hired to write a kosher cookbook of my own — The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen — so the gift was sweetly fitting.
And hilarious. Food photography in the early 1980s was painfully formal, adding a spackle effect to everything from eggs Florentine to Key lime pie. (According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, that may not have been so far from the truth.) And food writing nearly three decades ago wasn't much better, to judge by this book. The introduction to the meat chapter, for example, asserts without irony that “Man is a meat eater.” The soup chapter, meanwhile, shares this little kitchen gem:
bq. At any family gathering or formal dinner, one of the highlights is surely the moment when the hostess lifts the lid from the soup tureen and ladles the aromatic contents into bowls to serve her eager guests.
Still, while the book made me chuckle, it also got me thinking. Cooking preferences change along with photography habits and writing styles. While I find the book’s recipes for Molded Cheese Loaf and Tongue with Ginger Snaps dubious, at the time they were probably the height of gastro-fashion, or at least familiar enough to find their way into a beloved kosher cookbook. The book is an artifact of its era — if not of what people actually prepared and ate every day, of what they at least aspired to cook and consume.
|[%image eggsflorentine float=left width=300 caption="Eggs Florentine, as photographed for a kosher cookbook published nearly 30 years ago."]|[%image salmoninwinesauce float=right width=300 caption="Salmon in wine sauce from the same cookbook."]|
My challenge in writing a new kosher cookbook, I realized, was not simply to develop recipes for everyday cooking, but also to reflect the contemporary American Jewish palate.
Today’s American Jews, as Jewish communities have done throughout history, eat what their neighbors eat. On holidays, we may be deeply committed to our traditional recipes, such as brisket, latkes, and noodle kugel. But when it comes to daily eating, our palate is decidedly global.
[%image reference-image float=right width=450 caption="Moroccan Orange and Olive Salad"]
We are just as likely (if not more so) to dine on lasagna, pad Thai, or burritos for dinner as we are to tuck into a pastrami sandwich or matzo-ball soup at a deli. And we are right there with our neighbors at the farmers’ market, swooning over that perfect bunch of arugula, mizuna, or watercress.
For home cooks, the culinary range and the diversity of ingredients we enjoy today are undoubtedly exciting. The question is, how do we honor our Jewish culinary heritage while embracing an international diet?
For me, the answer came down to two things: ingredients and innovation. Over time, Jewish cooking has embraced many different ingredients, from foods mentioned in the Torah (pomegranates, dates) to Eastern European flavors (dill, caraway) to Middle Eastern tastes (tahini, za’atar). Integrating these ingredients into dishes is the simplest and most literal way to imbue meals with distinctly Jewish flavor.
[%image tsimmes float=left width=300 caption="Grilled Tzimmes"]As for innovation, I found that changes in technique could revitalize traditional dishes that contemporary eaters would find too heavy, oily, or sugary. My favorite example from the cookbook is the grilled tzimmes. Tzimmes is a syrupy-sweet compote served on Passover and Rosh Hashanah; I translated it for the backyard grill. The resulting dish, with its combination of grilled sweet potatoes, carrots, pears, and apricots, drizzled with a brown-sugar vinaigrette, tastes deliciously authentic and entirely modern.
Finally, some of the dishes I included, like the Moroccan orange and olive salad beloved by Sephardic Jews, needed no changes at all, as they perfectly complemented our current preference for fresh, healthy foods.
My hope is that the resulting cookbook feels decidedly Jewish while still being universal enough that any cook will find something exciting within its pages. I also hope it presents a contemporary Jewish palate that is simultaneously open to the world around it and lovingly committed to its own treasures — a vision for the world, as well as a vision for the plate.
p(bio). Leah Koenig is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Gastronomica, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and The Forward. Her first cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, was published in March 2011.