It seems appropriate to look at Jewish cookbooks during this marathon holiday season, and so I picked two older books about Jewish cooking in America for this post: Raymond Sokolov’s The Jewish-American Kitchen and Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. Both books are accurate records of their subject matter: the food is, for the most part, boring and bland, yet filling and exactly what someone raised on such food craves.
The Jewish-American Kitchen is a coffee table type book, primitive by the standards of today. It is over-sized (but not gigantic), with lots of color photographs. Indeed, the photographer even gets his name on the front cover, as does Susan Friedland, who is credited with the recipes. This all raises the question: just what did Raymond Sokolov have to do with this book? There are a couple of short introductory chapters that I assume he wrote: “What is Jewish Food” and “Kashruth and Cookery”; perhaps he also chose the recipes and wrote the recipe introductions. As a book at which to look, this may be Raymond’s book, but as a book from which to cook, this is clearly Susan’s book. The recipes in this book are Ashkenazic recipes; Raymond does mention other Jews in one of his introductions, but based on this book it is not clear that any of them made it to America.
“Health Salad” (page 135) is one of my all time favorite recipes. This salad is made up of salted, rinsed, and drained green cabbage with carrots, scallions, and green pepper, all in a dressing of cider vinegar flavored with a little bit of sugar. There is no oil, just lots of healthy raw vegetables. Health salad as sold in delicatessens often has more sugar, but I prefer only a hint of sweetness to just barely offset the vinegar. Although Susan offers an option of white vinegar instead of cider vinegar, I have never tried white vinegar in this slaw and do not think that I would like it. This slaw is particularly good on toasted cheese sandwiches. [Go to the recipe.]
“Mushrooms, Eggs, and Onions” (page 29) is a dish sometimes described as “vegetarian chopped liver”. The chopped liver similarity is no doubt more obvious when one uses shmaltz, as recommended in Susan’s recipe, to cook the onions and mushrooms before combining them with hard boiled eggs (not possible in a vegetarian kitchen). There is also more of a visual similarity when the onions, mushrooms, and eggs are chopped up more than I chopped mine. But this dish doesn’t have to taste or look like chopped liver; it is good enough on its own, and makes an excellent spread for bread.
I am trying to train myself to like red beets. The trick is to find the right flavors to complement the icky beet flavor, and so transform the flavor into something not so icky. It seemed as if the combination of ingredients in “Beet Salad” (page 131) might work: cooked beets are served in a dressing of sour cream, horseradish, mustard, mayonnaise, scallions, and dill. Although the beet flavor was tamed, this salad didn’t taste like much. Maybe it would have been better with double the horseradish and mustard.
For a vegetarian version of “Lentil Soup with Frankfurters” (page 44), I used vegetable broth and Tofurkey Kielbasa. Along with the carrots, celery, onions, and lentils, this made a filling soup. I used the sausage since vegetarian hotdogs are too wimpy, and I think that the Tofurkey sausages are actually good. Other vegetarian sausages that I have tried sometimes have a taste that I don’t like: too much of something such as sage.
Susan’s “Mushroom-Barley Soup” (page 45) is about as plain as soup can get. There are just five real ingredients: mushrooms, barley, onions, carrots, and celery. Susan does get a little fancy in her choice of mushrooms: porcini instead of fresh mushrooms. According to the writer of the recipe introduction (Raymond? Susan?), the dried mushrooms “bring a whiff of deep forest to every bowl.” It would have been much more interesting to know when and where dried mushrooms appeared in the Jewish-American kitchen instead of being stuck with recipe introduction babble such as “whiff of deep forest”. I made my version of this soup with fresh mushrooms, and used a vegetable broth instead of plain water. The soup was quite acceptable, but it is hard for any mushroom barley soup to transcend “acceptable”.
According to Wikipedia, “the name “varnishkes” seems to be a Yiddish corruption of the Russian ‘varenichki‘, small stuffed dumplings”, a useful tidbit of information to have if one is serving “Kasha Varnishkes” (page 97). For the uninitiated, this dish consists of bow tie noodles and cooked kasha, perhaps with some onions for flavor. Susan’s version is bare bones simple, which is okay since this is simple food. On the other hand, I have made versions of kasha varnishkes pumped up with other ingredients such as mushrooms and garlic, with the kasha cooked in some flavorful broth, that were lots better than this plain version, but still quite recognizable as the traditional dish.
It’s hard to get more proletariat than cabbages and noodles, but this is still a surprisingly good dish. I first put together this combination following Marlene G’s recipe in the University of Michigan Library cookbook, Maize and Bleu (a book that does not seem to have an internet presence). Susan’s “Sautéed Cabbage with Noodles” (page 96) consists of cabbage cooked in butter, added to bow tie noodles, and flavored with caraway seeds. I used egg noodles, and a slightly greater ratio of noodles to cabbage. This was very plain yet very good, and an excellent base for other dishes such as Joan Nathan’s spinach or her leeks (featured below).
Joan Nathan is regarded by many as the preeminent authority in this country on Jewish cooking. Although I have most of her cookbooks, I have a Joan Nathan problem. I have found her recipes to be uninspired, often unreliable, and sometimes just not that good. My attitude towards Joan did not improve when I read that she was a difficult person for whom to work. Nevertheless, I tried to approach her book, Jewish Cooking in America, with an open mind. I found several dishes that I liked quite a bit and a challah recipe as good as any (and better than most). The book itself is very nicely produced, as are all in the series Knopf Cooks American, a series that I wish Knopf had kept up. Joan combs through old cookbooks and also extracts recipes from all sorts of people in order to present her panorama of Jewish-Amereican cooking (and melting pot that we are, the modifier “American” might as well be dropped). In addition to hundreds of recipes, we are treated to lots of boxed asides on every imaginable aspect of Jewish cooking. After studying this cookbook more thoroughly, I am beginning to see why Joan Nathan has her fans.
“Syrian Pickled Cauliflower” (page 266) is the easiest possible refrigerator pickle. All you do is cut up a cauliflower, a beet, and a few cloves of garlic, and pour over the vegetables a pickling liquid of water, white vinegar, and salt. There’s nothing to heat or cook. The beets turn the cauliflower a fluorescent pink. There is a problem, though: white vinegar is harsh and assertive, so all this pickle tastes like is crunchy vinegar.
I was rather dubious about “Lasagna Served Hadassah Style—Without the Meat” (page 286). Vegetarian lasagna is not that much of a novelty, so what is with the “Hadassah Style”? Instead of mozzarella, this lasagna calls for Muenster cheese, which I initially found quite appalling. But why not? Muenster cheese is a bland white melting cheese, and probably just as appropriate for lasagna as generic supermarket mozzarella. This lasagna turned out to be surprisingly good. There was a fairly high sauce to noodle ratio, which is how I am starting to like my lasagna. Joan tells us to use uncooked lasagna noodles; I used specifically labeled no-cook lasagna noodles and added more water to the sauce. I am afraid that had I followed the recipe exactly, we would have ended up with slightly uncooked noodles. I have had more than one lasagna made by a cook fascinated with the idea of using uncooked noodles, in which the noodles were never really liberated from their uncooked state. But my version of this dish was a saucy bland lasagna, enjoyed by all.
There is not much to “Salonika Sfongato, Lily Modiano’s Spinach and Cheese Casserole” (page 267) but spinach. There are other ingredients: eggs and a generous amount of cheese, and scallions and herbs, but the overwhelming essence of this dish is spinach. Joan calls for either 3 pounds of fresh spinach (too expensive) or 4 10-ounce packages of frozen spinach. I used 3 16-ounce packages, but then increased all the other ingredients too. This dish was excellent eaten with the noodles and cabbage from The Jewish-American Kitchen. As long as the leftovers lasted, I found myself looking forward to noodles and spinach for lunch. [Go to the recipe.]
I was cooking from this book before Rosh Hashanah, and so decided to test-drive a couple of Rosh Hashanah dishes. “Syrian Swiss Chard and Chick-peas” (page 264) is described as a “symbolic dish for Rosh Hashanah”, although the closest I can get to this dish in the list of omens in the Artscroll Machzor is leek or cabbage: with leek or cabbage we pray “that our enemies be decimated”. However, Joan’s chard and chickpeas was quite forgettable. It was no more than the sum of its parts (chard, chickpeas, celery, and onion), and maybe even a tiny bit less.
The failure of the chard and chickpea dish presented a problem: how else could I arrange for my enemies to be decimated? Fortunately, “Prasa (Turkish Leeks with Tomatoes)” (page 238) made the cut, and reappeared on our Rosh Hashanah table. As with the chard and chickpea dish, this leek preparation was not complicated: leeks, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon juice, but these ingredients enhanced each other and came together for an excellent dish, good hot or cold. Take that, enemies!
I will give Joan Nathan credit for not naming her whole wheat challah “Shulamis’s Challah” (Shulamis being the woman from whom Joan supposedly acquired this recipe); instead she names this challah “A Chez Panisse Busgirl Turned Lubavitcher’s Healthy Whole-Wheat Challah” (page 76). This is not a truly whole-wheat challah; instead, it is half white flour and half whole-wheat flour. But somehow the formula worked out quite well. The challah rose nicely and was not too dry, as too many challahs tend to be.
Adapted from Raymond Sokolov and Susan Friedland, The Jewish-American Kitchen
½ medium cabbage
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 green pepper
1 bunch scallions
Shred the cabbage. Combine with the salt. Let the cabbage sit for 30 to 60 minutes. Rinse the cabbage, drain, and squeeze dry.
Combine the sugar and vinegar. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Chop the green pepper and scallions; grate the carrots. Combine everything: cabbage, vinegar, and the other vegetables.
Adapted from Joan Nathan, Jewish Cooking in America
3 16-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach
3 tablespoons butter
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 bunch dill, thick stems removed and chopped
1 bunch parsley, thick stems removed and chopped
1½ tablespoon chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons milk
½ pound feta cheese
½ pound cheddar, grated
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350º. Oil a casserole dish.
Thaw the spinach, then squeeze dry. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the scallions and cook for a minute, then add the spinach, dill, parsley, and mint. Cook for a few minutes. Add the milk, feta, and cheddar. Beat the eggs, then combine with the spinach. Put this mixture in the casserole dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top of the spinach. Bake for about 45 minutes.