Taste Testing ‘100 Best Jewish Recipes’

This is an occasional column in which the writer evaluates a new cookbook by making some of its recipes, sharing the dishes with friends and asking her guests what they think of the results. She recently cooked her way through “100 Best Jewish Recipes: Traditional and Contemporary Kosher Cuisine From Around the World,” by Evelyn Rose with Judi Rose (Interlink Books).

Anytime you put “best” in the title of a book, you’re already in trouble. That’s what I was thinking as, with suitably high expectations, I perused my review copy of “100 Best Jewish Recipes” by Evelyn Rose with Judi Rose.

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I still had a recent “Taste Test” in mind, the one where I reviewed Marlena Spieler’s “Jewish Festival Food,” which had me wondering just how many more recipes for chopped liver, latkes and brisket the world needed. (Yes, they’re all in there, and none of them are particularly different from any other recipes I’ve seen for those dishes.)

This book left a similar impression.

As we ate a dinner cooked from its recipes on a recent Shabbat — some dishes spectacular; some not so much — my guests, my husband and I reflected on the fact that with so many great Jewish cookbooks already in existence, authors these days ought to find a niche if they’re going to put out a new one. Two examples from last year that come to mind are “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” by Amelia Saltsman and “Modern Jewish Cooking” by Leah Koenig.

As my guest Anthony noted, “If they’re going to put out a Jewish cookbook, there should be a mandate to do something interesting with it.”

But maybe it’s different in England.

I say that because in the introduction I learned that Evelyn Rose was considered “the doyenne of Jewish cooking for over half a century,” with her book “The Complete International Jewish Cookbook” continuously in print since it came out in 1976. (A new edition came out in 2011 called “The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook.”)

Rose was the food editor of the London Jewish Chronicle for more than four decades, certainly making her an authority on the subject of Jewish food. But on this side of the pond, where we have such luminaries as Joan Nathan, Evelyn Rose has a much lower profile.

Since Rose died in 2003, her daughter Judi decided to winnow her mother’s massive collection of international Jewish recipes to just 100. She says that these were her mother’s best-loved recipes, both by her mother and her fans.

According to her daughter, Rose knew that Jewish food was not limited to the Ashkenazi favorites; that Jewish food came from any country in which Jews lived. This book reflects that, with recipes coming from Turkey, Egypt and even corn fritters from Indonesia, with the headnote saying they were chosen more because they can easily be made parve than because they are specifically Jewish.

But as I flipped through it, the Ashkenazi recipes tended to dominate, with my eyes glazing over a bit at the herring, kugel and knaidlach. While I love two out of the three just fine, I don’t need any more books telling me how to make them, and the recipes for the classics looked no different than those in the cookbooks I already have.

My greatest disappointment was in the dessert section. As I have said before, I simply will not make a dessert using margarine; as I feel we’ve moved beyond those days, and there are enough other ways to make parve desserts without it. Unfortunately the parve desserts all called for it, so given that it was a meat meal, and our guests that night were kosher, I chose a recipe in which I knew coconut oil would make a great substitute. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Overall, the appetizer kicked things off amazingly well and the dessert ended on a high note with a few meh notes in the middle, making it the perfect bell curve of a meal.

Here’s how it played out.

For the appetizer, I chose an avocado egg pâté, in which avocados and hard-boiled eggs are blended with scallions, parsley, salt and a bit of mayo to make a vibrant green spread.

Not only was it incredibly easy to make, but it made for a fantastic and unusual first course.

Before our guests arrived, I dubbed it Jewish guacamole, while our friend Mike called it Mexican chopped liver.

My husband Paulie loved how light and fluffy it was. That consistency made it especially delicious on my challah, but it would have been equally good on crackers or I could imagine it being wonderful on a dark bread like pumpernickel.

Mike likened it to a light green pillow, proclaiming his love for it by asking, “Who decided to do this and why don’t they have a medal?”

So despite all my earlier kvetching, this recipe was pretty outstanding, and the dish was unknown to all of us.

Next, I chose what’s called a Haimishe Winter Soup, though I left out the optional soup bone, since I didn’t have a kosher one, and didn’t feel the need to serve two meat courses.

That could be considered a mistake.

The soup consists of different kinds of legumes, reminding me of one of those Manischewitz soup mixes my grandmother used to make. Perhaps I chose it for nostalgia’s sake. Even though I jazzed it up with some parsley oil to give it a dash of bright green and fresh herbal notes, it was fine, but not better than that.

A squeeze of lemon helped it some, but for the most part, Mike’s husband Anthony felt it was more Berkeley than Belorus.

Paulie said that on the one hand, it qualified to fit into the Berkeley hippie gruel category, if only it contained turmeric, cayenne or cumin.

Mike was on fire with the comments, not only saying, “Remember the butternut squash soup revolution? This seems like it’s from 70 years before that,” and also noting — cue the “I’ll sit in the dark” voice — “It feels like we’re saving the planet by eating this modest soup.” Yup, that about sums it up.

For the entrée, I chose a Greek-Jewish lamb fricassee, mainly because I had some kosher lamb stew meat in the freezer that needed to be used and because it wasn’t a typical Ashkenazi recipe. In it, lamb chunks were braised with onions, mushrooms and green beans, in a sauce made of white wine and a bit of flour.

While the dish was perfectly adequate, I had problems with the recipe as it was written. For instance, most braises call for the meat to be browned, and then removed from the pot, with the aromatics then cooking in the fat from the meat, which is later put back. Not here.

The recipe had me sauté the onions and garlic first, and then brown the meat in the pot. By the time I added the wine to deglaze the pan, the onions and garlic were close to burning. Also, the recipe calls for two tablespoons of dried mint. While you add half of the mint to the flour, salt and pepper that coats the meat, it never says when to add the rest of the mint. I chose my moment, and even though I worried it would be overpowering, we didn’t taste the mint at all.

I liked this dish better than the rest; though admittedly, I’ve had lamb stews that I’ve enjoyed much more, so I probably wouldn’t make this one again.

Having recently made Persian rice for another dinner recently, I felt ready to take it on here, but the version I made from this book completely failed. While I tried Rose’s method to get the prized tadjik or crispy crust on the bottom, it was a miserable failure. Even the three cardamom pods placed in it didn’t flavor it much.

With dessert, I felt limited both by the parve choices and so much margarine. As I said earlier, I felt best about substituting coconut oil in the apple crisp, since I do that all the time (and dare I say it? It’s just as good as butter). My guests agreed wholeheartedly.

Mike said his heart had sunk a bit when he walked in and saw the apple crisp sitting out, as it’s one of those desserts that’s way over-served in these parts, and often the apples are too soggy or the topping is too virtuous to be sufficiently dessert-like. But this one proved the doubters wrong. The combination of brown sugar, oats and flour (and salt, which I added, even though the recipe called for none), made for a crisp that was “texturally astounding,” said Paulie.

The brown sugar was key in this recipe, as it caramelized perfectly with the perfectly toothsome apples.

After wondering whether the world needed one more traditional Jewish cookbook, I guess the answer I came up with was yes, if — as this one did — it contains a few pleasant surprises.

Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in Oakland, California, and the author of the blog TheOrganicEpicure.com.

Taste Testing ‘100 Best Jewish Recipes’

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