The ebullient, multitalented food blogger/photographer (and Juilliard-trained percussionist) Molly Yeh has been a contributor to the Forward’s food section for years. Her first cookbook, “Molly on the Range,” comes out October 4. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Molly about the book, what she recommends we make from it for the High Holidays and how she expresses her identity — and reaches across cultural boundaries — through food.
What recipe best expresses who you are?
I think that the scallion pancake challah displays the best of my two main influences, which are my dad’s Chinese side and my mom’s Jewish side. I feel so lucky to have those two cuisines running through my veins, because you get so many carbs and it’s so tasty and comforting. I love that I have this right to sort of use both of those cuisines however I want and come at them in any way that I want. If I were a loaf of bread, this would be me.
What’s your perspective on expressing your identity through food?
It’s my favorite way to do it. Food is my favorite way to explore other cultures; it’s my favorite way to explore my own culture. Learning about my heritage through food is the language that I speak, and I think a lot of people know that language.
What are your thoughts about mixing the modern and the traditional in recipes?
I think it’s a wonderful way to introduce people to new foods. So, for example, last year I didn’t go home for the holidays. I often try to go home for the holidays, but last year I was here and I’m one of the only Jews in Grand Forks [in North Dakota], and it’s a busy, crazy time of year. With the sugar beet harvest, [my husband] Nick has overnight shifts in the fields, sometimes it’s from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. — this year it will be 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. — and then he has to stay after and fix up tractors.
Last year, the Sussman brothers [chefs Max and Eli] did a hotdish in their book. It’s basically a subset of a casserole that’s very unique to the Upper Midwest. It’s often covered with something like tater tots or french fries; there might be some kind of cream soup and vegetables, and always a starch. So I made a brisket hotdish. It’s a one-pot, easily reheatable, portable meal. The Midwest people around here, Scandinavian descendants, could grasp on to this idea of a hotdish, and I was bringing in my people’s food of a brisket — speaking my language and their language at the same time.
Challah, for example. I say it’s like a pull-apart egg bread, and they love it. Or putting cardamom in it, I love that — it’s so central to Middle Eastern cuisine and also Upper Midwest cuisine, because of the Scandinavian influence.
What are you making for the High Holidays this year?
My book comes out on October 4, and Rosh Hashanah is the 2nd and 3rd, so I’ll be in New York and my mom’s coming in for the launch, and we have some relatives on the Upper East Side, so we’ll probably go knock on their doors.
What recipes would you recommend from the book for Rosh Hashanah dinner?
The seduction challah, which has millet and sesame seeds and all sorts of good stuff, and honey in it, too — that’s a beautiful bread for Rosh Hashanah. It comes out beautifully if you make it in the round swirly shape.
What would you think of serving the hummus with meat all over it for a fun centerpiece of a modern holiday meal.
Absolutely. I think especially now, when hummus is everywhere and people in the States are finally figuring out the tricks to making really good, creamy, rich hummus. It’s moving away from this food you eat with chopped carrots and celery when you’re trying to be healthy. I love it that people are understanding that it’s now this nice big sit-down meal.
I’d love for a Rosh Hashanah meal for people to do it with all the salads that go with it. I’ve served it as a main dish with salads, maybe homemade pita and falafel. If you put all that time into soaking the chickpeas and boiling them, it definitely deserves that central spot on the table, and not just as an afterthought appetizer.
What recipes would you recommend from the book for breaking the fast?
In my town there are no bagels whatsoever. We just got a great bagel place in Fargo, an hour and a half away. I have a bourekas recipe in the breakfast chapter that has an everything-bagel topping. We eat it with scallion cream cheese and scrambled eggs. I use store-bought puff pastry and sprinkle the everything-bagel topping on top, and you get all the flavor of eating a bagel, even though the texture is buttery and flaky, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Those can be made in advance and frozen and baked. You can freeze them raw and throw them in the oven, or I’ll bake off a batch and then reheat them in a toaster oven.
What’s the coolest thing in the cookbook?
Six years ago I dressed up as a schnitzel for Halloween, so I partnered with an illustrator named Lisel Jane Ashlock, and she drew a pattern for the Halloween costume. So if anybody else wants to dress as a schnitzel for Halloween, they know how to now. I’m so excited about that.
Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner