“Would You Make This?” is a sporadic column where personal chef Alix Wall evaluates a new cookbook by making some of its recipes, sharing them with friends and asking what they think of the results.
I have to admit that I had no idea who Jamie Geller was before receiving “Joy of Kosher: Fast, Fresh Family Recipes” (published October 15, William Morrow). When I read she’s known as the kosher Rachael Ray, I thought “okay, so she’s meant to appeal to the masses who don’t like to cook much, and don’t mind relying on some pre-packaged ingredients to get out of the kitchen faster.” That’s exactly right. Geller refers to herself as The Bride Who Knew Nothing, and says she can’t get out of the kitchen fast enough. That sounds a bit odd for someone who’s since become a kosher food celebrity, but never mind. Her books are for people who don’t love to cook, but need to feed their families, and want to do it reasonably well.
Every kosher cookbook has its multiple versions of roast chicken, brisket and kugel, as this one does. And, I skipped right over the sugary kugels and anything with marshmallow. Let’s see how the kosher maven handles some dishes not traditionally found in a kosher cookbook, I reasoned. Which is how I came up with fish tacos, corn cilantro cakes and cherry pies.
I warned my friends, a Bay Area power couple (their description), that we’d be eating an unconventional Shabbos meal of fish tacos. They were game.
While Geller’s corn cakes call for frozen or canned corn, amazingly, fresh was still available in our farmers markets, which is another reason I chose this dish to try. Also, I liked that it went along with my taco theme. I chose the cherry pies not only because I can never get enough cherries, and didn’t know one can buy them frozen.
The corn cakes involve mixing corn kernels with corn meal, a bit of flour, some optional hot sauce, eggs and a few other ingredients and then lightly frying them and serving them with an avocado “aioli.”
When I brought them to the table, the first word that came out of everyone’s mouth was “bland.” Even with the hot sauce in the batter, they just had nothing to them. Mike said they reminded him of the dreaded “vegetarian cutlet” served to the one vegetarian while everyone else is eating fatty pastrami at a kosher deli. While Jamie recommended serving them with a slice of grapefruit or mango, I chose mango, which caused Anthony to remark that a mango salsa would have been a much more interesting topper than the avocado “aioli.” He thought it was a “major shanda” that she would call avocados, jarred mayo and salt whipped until creamy in the food processor with no garlic “aioli” in the first place. Paulie simply said “There’s no zip in this trip.”
I had made some tomatillo salsa as well, and with generous amounts of that, we could enjoy the corn cakes somewhat, but everyone was in agreement: Would You Make This? No way.
The blacked tilapia tacos are presented in the book as pieces of fish with a multi-spice rub, served in a tortilla with a cabbage slaw accented by apple and cider vinegar, and avocado sour cream sauce.
The spice rub called for two teaspoons of cayenne. While I like a lot of heat, I’ve also been overzealous with cayenne before, and I started with half a teaspoon, which turned out to be the right amount. The recipe said to fry the tilapia for five to six minutes per side, which raised another red flag. I ended up cooking them about six minutes total.
Unfortunately, the tacos didn’t fare any better. Mike did point out that perhaps it was unfair, to ask a group of fish taco-loving California residents to judge a recipe by a woman who has probably never eaten a real one, but we were all sorely disappointed. The apple prompted Mike to say “If you wished your taco tasted more like charoset, this is the way to go, and Anthony, too, said “Is she trying to make an Ashkenazi version of a taco?” While Paulie thought the cider vinegar added an interesting flavor, he said “this is the most bizarre taco I’ve ever had.”
The avocado sour cream sauce was the one element of the taco we liked. With a bit of lime juice and cumin, it was a nice addition, but again, we relied on my salsa to make these more palatable. Would You Make This? All of us: no, though we agreed that a person who has never eaten a real fish taco might not know the difference. The cherry pies are meant to resemble those from a frequently visited fast-food restaurant in her non-observant youth – I think McDonald’s is supposed to come to mind – and are made by tossing frozen cherries flavored with bourbon, sugar, vanilla and corn starch into store-bought puff pastry.
Before we got to them, though, we took a break, and took turns reading Jamie’s anecdotes about her family out loud in our best Long Island accents.
Mike felt like the book was all over the place, trying to be fancy, family-friendly, simple and overall, just trying to do too much. He called the family anecdotes and numerous photos of her kids “the cookbook version of someone who overshares on Facebook.”
Anthony found her whole “I don’t know how to cook” shtick and the way she talked about her “Hubby” self-deprecating, completely retro and unflattering for a modern Jewish woman. “She should just say I didn’t used to cook, now I do, and own it,” he said. “She’s like a Betty Drapowitz. It’s not 1960.”
Finally, the cherry pies. The liquid from the filling ran out of each one, creating a bit of a mess on the baking sheet, and I had quite a bit of filling left over, but despite that, we enjoyed them. I was afraid I would overwhelmingly taste the cornstarch, but I didn’t; and the bourbon was a cool adult twist. Even though Mike called them “fancy pop-tarts,” we all agreed that it was the evening’s winner, but of course, it’s hard to go wrong with puff pastry and vanilla ice cream: Would You Make This? We all said yes.
Cherry Bourbon Hand Pies
Flour, for rolling out the pastry
6 cups frozen pitted cherries, thawed and drained
1 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons Maker’s Mark, or your favorite bourbon
1⁄4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt
One 1-pound package puff pastry (2 pastry sheets)
1 large egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water
8 teaspoons turbinado sugar
1) Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour your work surface.
2) Combine the cherries, sugar, bourbon, cornstarch, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl. Working with one pastry sheet at a time, roll out to a 12 x 10-inch rectangle on the lightly floured surface. Using a pizza cutter, cut the pastry into four 6 x 5-inch rectangles. Working with one rectangle at a time, brush the edges lightly with the egg wash and place 3 to 4 tablespoons of the filling on one side. Fold the dough over so the short ends meet, forming a 5 x 3-inch packet. Seal the edges by crimping with a fork, cut 3 small horizontal slits down the middle to vent, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pastry sheet and filling.
From the book JOY OF KOSHER: Fast, Fresh Family Recipes by Jamie Geller. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jamie Geller. William Morrow Cookbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.