Good Enough to Read

By | Aug 03, 2016

by Susan Barocas

Something has happened to cookbooks in the past 20 years or so. They have moved from the kitchen to the coffee table and even to the nightstand as more and more have developed captivating narratives to go along with the recipes. Cookbooks have become pleasurable reading even for people who don’t often find their way into the kitchen. This seems particularly true of Jewish cookbooks, whose stories are effective vehicles to connect past and present, preserving history and culture and building Jewish identity.

This trend can be traced back to 1994, when Joan Nathan’s award-winning Jewish Cooking in America, which used food to examine Jewish history and culture in America, sparked attention in literary as well as culinary circles. Two decades later, three new offerings promise to carry on the tradition of cookbooks that make for good reading as well as good eating.

Israel Eats (Gibbs Smith, 2016, 240 pages), written and photographed by Steven Rothfeld, is a gorgeous exploration of the “culinary language of Israel.” Israeli food has been gaining international respect and recognition in recent years, as evidenced by an award-winning duo of cookbooks, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem (2012) and Michael Solomonov’s Zahav (2015). Israel Eats completes this trifecta of must-have contemporary Israeli cookbooks.

Rothfeld and his collaborator, chef and author Nancy Silverton, came to Israel’s table relatively recently. After Rothfeld’s first trip to Israel in 2010, he became passionate about exploring and tasting what was “cooking up on top of the layers of civilization that are still smoking.”

Rothfeld guides his book’s journey from one end of the country to the other with a nontraditional structure that divides the recipes geographically. Each section is introduced with descriptions, observations and anecdotes about the people, places and, of course, foods from each area. From appetizers on through to desserts, Rothfeld moves seamlessly from olive grove to kitchen, vineyard to restaurant, focusing on the best regional recipes and accompanying them with illuminating short stories.

The recipes are easy to follow (even the few that are more complex) and call for  readily available ingredients. Many of the dishes reimagine classics such as challah with olives, anchovies and oregano (pictured on the cover), stuffed cabbage cake and salmon roll with pickled fennel. Encompassing the true diversity of what Israel eats today necessitates including non-kosher ingredients in a few places, such as falafel shrimp with eggplant spread, an inviting twist on a classic for those not concerned with kashrut.

It’s unusual for someone to do the photography for their own cookbook, but Rothfeld’s expertise from years spent as a travel and food photographer produced drool-worthy pictures, bringing together the food, landscape and people in this delicious Israeli love letter.

Combining the popularity of Israeli food with another hot trend, the healthy Mediterranean diet, Joyce Goldstein’s newest book, The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home (University of California Press, 2016, 468 pages), enables readers to make the connection between Mediterranean cuisine and its Jewish traditions in an encyclopedia of information and recipes.

Now 80, Goldstein is a culinary luminary—an award-winning chef, restaurateur, consultant and author of more than 20 cookbooks—whose love affair with Mediterranean food began long before hummus was available in most grocery stores. Her introduction focuses on the various Jewish communities of the Mediterranean, most of which are made up of Sephardic Jews who can trace their ancestral roots to Spain and Portugal. Goldstein teases out the strands of Roman Jews from Italy, Maghrebi Jews from North Africa and Mizrahi Jews in the Middle East, each with their own cultures and flavor profiles.

With some 450 recipes, more than double the number of most cookbooks today, there is unfortunately no room for photographs of the enticing dishes. The book’s traditional structure, however, with sections on appetizers, spreads, salads and desserts makes it an easy-to-use reference. Each section is introduced by essays incorporating history, food traditions and other interesting notes. Mixed throughout are recipes perfect for various Jewish holidays.

Overall, the recipes are manageable and the writing clear and concise, with helpful notes illuminating each dish. The book’s final pages, with pantry ingredients and an extensive bibliography, are useful resources. The only challenges of the book come from design choices—recipe names in too pale a color and type that is undesirably small, making it hard to read the book while also cooking.

Goldstein says that “Old World food in a New World kitchen” has come to define her culinary path. To her, “it is not enough for recipes to be true to their country of origin; they need to satisfy and reflect the flavor qualities and foods that are enjoyed today.” Her newest book makes it easy to go beyond matzah ball soup, brisket and all the usual Eastern European dishes to the healthy, flavorful foods of the Mediterranean Jewish table.

On the theme of imbuing food with meaning as well as flavor, A Taste of Torah: Recipes, Divrei Torah and Stories to Enrich Every Shabbat, by Aviv Harkov (Gefen Publishing, 2016, 216 pages), views cooking as an activity for the whole family as well as a path to Jewish knowledge. This uniquely Jewish cookbook imaginatively pairs Torah and food to explain the weekly parshah (Torah portion) beginning with Genesis, where a black-and-white cookie recipe complements a discussion of God separating light and darkness.

Harkov is a self-taught cook, baker, caterer and food writer. The cookbook grew out of her desire to follow (with less stress) the rabbinic directive to women to take charge of educating their children about Torah and creating a special Shabbat in the home each week. Her solution was to create a book that provides a recipe, an inspiring quote, a discussion of Torah for older children (ages 10-15) and a short, easy-to-read story for younger ones (ages 4-9), all based on each week’s Torah portion. The book’s table of contents is wisely done in two ways, listing recipes by Torah portion as well as the more traditional cookbook structure.

Although this is a cookbook aimed at children and families, it is not a children’s cookbook, nor is it only for Shabbat. The recipes are surprisingly varied, with more sophisticated flavors. Milk-and-honey potato bake, for example, is a complex taste twist on potatoes au gratin, seasoned with nutmeg, allspice, purple onions, garlic and honey. The golden filo package pictured on the cover, tied with a delicate chive ribbon, is a meat-stuffed beggar’s purse, easier to make than the beautiful result suggests.

It’s always good to get children involved in the kitchen. In fact, children—or “sous chefs,” as Harkov calls them—can do even more than the suggestions Harkov provides alongside each recipe. Children can always add ingredients, stir, mash, measure and even chop, with age-appropriate tools and guidance.

Today’s Jewish cookbooks contain far more than tips for perfecting your bubbe’s brisket. They offer a unique lens on Jewish experience, containing stories of the Jewish people as told through a rich and varied palate. As such, they make a more than welcome addition to the Jewish canon. 

Susan Barocas is a food writer, who served as guest chef for three White House Seders, and the founding director of the Jewish Food Experience.

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