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Jews Cooking in the New World

jbooksIt 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.

sokolovThe 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.

cole“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.]

eggmushxxx“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.

beetszzzI 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.

hotdogsoupFor 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.

mushbarlllSusan’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”.

kashavvvAccording 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.

cabnooIt’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).

joannathanJoan 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.

munsterlasagI 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.

spinachzzzThere 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.]

chardchickI 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.

leeksxxxThe 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!

wwwchallahI 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.


Cole Slaw

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
3 carrots

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.


Spinach Casserole

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
4 eggs
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.

Carol Field’s Italy

fieldbooksI loved Carol Field’s first cookbook, The Italian Baker, the book from which I learned to cook good bread. But that book is for later; at some point there will be a post on the three best bread books in the world (and until then, I will let my readers guess what the other two books should be). In this post we look at two later books by Carol Field, In Nonna’s Kitchen and Italy in Small Bites. Given Carol’s interest in baking, there are a lot of bread recipes in these two books (only one of which I tried), but there is so much more. Carol is a completely reliable guide to Italian food; her recipes are authentic, reliable, and yield wonderful food. Each recipe is placed in context: we learn where Carol found the recipe, where it is made, and its history. Thus the reader of these cookbooks can learn lots about Italy, not just Italian food.

IUntitled 8talian grandmothers are iconic figures in foodie folklore. Carol Field’s book, In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers is probably neither the first nor last cookbook to approach Italian food from this grandmother angle. Carol really does talk to lots of Nonnas and her book includes profiles of grandmothers from all over Italy. There are lots of recipes, many of which are vegetarian friendly. People who like color photographs in their cookbooks will whine about this book as it has no such illustrations. This, however, is probably a good idea, since I suspect mush of this food is not that attractive: it is food that people eat, not food that people stare at.

pestoPesto is one of those foods that many of us make without following a recipe: just toss handfuls of pesto ingredients into the food processor and process. I, however, rarely make pesto, and so when I found myself with a lot of basil, I decided to look to Carol for pesto instructions. I am glad I did; the pesto I made from her recipe was really good, and I was not the only one who thought so. This, despite using some not very good kosher Parmesan, not true reggiano (and I know kosher reggiano exists, but this was not what I had), and using some inexpensive Spanish olive oil, not the Ligurian olive oil that Carol recommends. [Go to the recipe.]

mushpotsoupMinestra di Funghi e Patate” (page 90) would probably have been better without the patates; that was definitately Henry’s opinion, and I am inclined to agree. Or at least I should have used fewer or less floury potatoes. Other than the excess of potatoes, this was a good soup, with lots of mushrooms and marjoram, enriched at the end of cooking with a small amount of sour cream and Parmesan. It was quite flavorful, even with only the water from soaking dried porcini mushrooms as the broth. This soup made particularly good leftovers.

tilapiacfFor some mysterious reason, whenever I try to cook sliced potatoes in the oven in some sort of gratin, they never really cook. Thus when I attempted “Stoccafisso della Cantina Sociale di Valdinevola” (gratin of cod, potatoes, and tomatoes, page 240), I decided to precook the potatoes. However, while the potatoes were bouncing about in boiling water on top of the stove, I actually read the recipe, and saw that the gratin was supposed to be in the oven for an hour and a half. I had been planning to eat much sooner than that, so I foolishly took the partially cooked potatoes off the stove, prepared the dish, and stuck it in the oven for the hour and a half. The dish is simple enough: layers of cod, potatoes, and tomatoes, topped with a bread crumb topping and doused with white wine. When we sat down to eat this dish, the topping was delightfully crunchy, the fish was silky smooth, the tomato sauce was flavored just right, but the potatoes were not quite cooked through. Another hour might have done the trick, but all the other components would have suffered. Next time I cook the potatoes all the way.

tunapastPasta and tuna is a classic combination, whether it is tuna fish casserole with condensed cream of mushroom soup or Carol’s “Pasta alla Palomara” (page 168), translated for us as “Pasta with Tuna, Anchovies, Pine Nuts, and Currants”. The ingredients coexist with a simple tomato sauce. Carol tops her pasta with bread crumbs, which I omitted. I particularly like the subtle sweetness provided by the currants (for which, I admit, I substituted chopped up raisins, but dried Zante currants are just raisins anyway). As long as one doesn’t mind eating pasta, this is an easy, good, and filling dish.


Sample page

Sample page

Italy in Small Bites is not so much a cookbook as a book of food ideas—the sort of ideas that come immediately to those who grew up in Nonna’s kitchen, but which the rest of us have to learn on our own. If one is looking for exciting recipes, this is not the book to leaf through, but if one is just looking for something simple and good to put on the table, this is the ideal book. As we should expect from the author of The Italian Baker, there are quite a few bread recipes, including recipes for pizza and foccacia, as well as recipes and ideas for what to do with the bread. There is a chapter on polenta, and a chapter of egg dishes. There are a number of salad ideas, and a final chapter on desserts (perhaps the least inspiring chapter). My only complaint about this book is that it is unattractive. Recipe ingredients are printed over a solid tan background with ragged edges, and there are useless little drawings throughout in the same ugly tan color.

mozzballsmballscelery“Bocconcini di Mozzarella Marinata” or “Little Bites of Marinated Mozzarella” (page 37) are the sort of food that I expect to see, ready-made, in cheese sections of upscale groceries. But these are too easy to make: you just add mozzarella balls to olive oil, with salt, red and black pepper, and garlic. Once you have made your marinated mozzarella balls, you can just pop them into your mouth, or use them in salads, such as “Insalata di Mozzarella, Noci, e Sedano,” translated as “Marinated Mozarella, Walnut, and Celery Salad” (page 38). I found this combination underwhelming; walnuts, celery, and mozzarella balls have no particular affinity for one another. These mozzarella balls would sit more happily in a standard lettuce based salad.

peppersoup“Acquasale” or “Sweet Pepper Sauce” (page 60) consists of roasted red pepper blended with onion and garlic cooked in olive oil and tomatoes. Instead of roasting my own peppers, I took the easy way out and used jarred roasted peppers as well as canned tomatoes. Carol suggests several uses for this sauce, and I opted to turn it into a soup by combining the sauce with an equal volume of broth, thus making “Zuppa di Acquasale,” aka “Sweet Pepper Soup” (page 73). With pre-roasted peppers and canned tomatoes, this soup had a very high taste to trouble ratio, and was a nice twist on the usual red tomato soup.

DSC_0323Once tubes of polenta began appearing on grocery shelves, I quit making my own polenta, and there has been no looking back. Breaking open one or two of these tubes, slicing the polenta, topping with a sauce, and baking in the oven, then serving with a salad, is one of the easiest ways I know to put a filling and relatively nutritious meal on the table. For “Polenta ai Funghi” (“Polenta with Wild Mushrooms,” page 72), Carol tops polenta with “Condimento ai Funghi,” or, in English, “Wild Mushroom Topping” (page 62). This is a tomato mushroom sauce flavored with sage. Although Carol did not mention cheese, I could not resist topping my polenta and sauce with cheese. This made a satisfying dish.

cheesebreadI could not leave these cookbooks without trying at least one of the bread recipes, and so I made “Pizza di San Lorenzo in Campo,” or “Cheese Bread from Le Marche” (page 224). This is a very rich bread, full of eggs, olive oil, and cheese, and yet it does not taste at all greasy. I baked my bread in cute little loaf pans, and used the egg glaze so that my loaves would be nice and shiny. I liked this bread a lot; the dough underwent some magical transformation on its way to morphing into baked loaves, a transformation of the type that challah dough often fails to make. [Go to the recipe.]



Adapted from Carol Field, In Nonna’s Kitchen

3 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
1 cup basil leaves, packed
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Blend all the ingredients together. Store in the refrigerator with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface.


Cheese Bread

Adapted from Carol Field, Italy in Small Bites

1 tablespoon yeast
6 tablespoons water
4 eggs
3 egg yolks
¾ cup olive oil
3¾ cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
7 ounces grated cheese (your choice)
1 egg for glaze (optional)

Dissolve the yeast in the water; mix in the eggs, egg yolks, and olive oil. I made the dough in a heavy duty mixer; you could also do it my hand, or could probably use a food processor. If you are using a mixer, put the flour and salt in the bowl of the mixer. Add the liquid, and knead with the dough hook until the dough is smooth. Add the cheese gradually while kneading with the dough hook. Knead with the mixer for about a total of 10 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then cover and let the dough rise. You may simply let the dough rise until doubled, or after it has started to rise, put the dough in the refrigerator overnight.

You can make two normal sized loaves or four small ones. Line the bottom of your bread pans with parchment paper and grease the paper and the sides of the pan. Separate the dough into as many parts as you have pans. Flatten each piece into a rectangle, then roll up and place in a loaf pan. Cover the loaves with a towel and let them rise until doubled.

Preheat the oven to 425º at last 30 minutes before baking. If desired, beat the egg for the glaze, and brush all over the tops of the loaves. Put the loaves in their pans in the oven, ideally on a baking stone. Bake until done, 30 to 40 minutes. Let the loaves cool in their pans for a few minutes, then remove them from the pans and let them finish cooling on a rack.