Jake Cohen celebrates the joys of “Jew-ish” cooking
Depending on your heritage. Jewish food may be your bubbe’s brisket, babkas and latkes or the shakshuka, bourekas or dolmeh recipes your family brought over from Iraq. In his cookbook “Jew-ish,” subtitled “Recipes from a Modern Mensch,” food writer, editor and test kitchen director Jake Cohen puts a fresh spin on classic dishes from the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish traditions, accompanied by engaging personal anecdotes as well as tantalizing photos taken by Matt Taylor-Gross.
Over a hundred recipes reflect both Cohen’s Russian-Polish-German roots and the Mizrahi foods his husband Alex, an Iraqi Jew with family from Iran, grew up with. The recipes often fuse both into something new, like latkes made with saffron, and a variation of tahdig, a traditional Persian rice dish, that substitutes sweet potatoes for crispy rice.
“My goal in this book is to help preserve. inspire, and celebrate Jewish food and identity,” said Cohen. “There’s something for everyone Each recipe comes from a really unique, beautiful story.”
Beyond the usual categories, there’s a pantry list of essential ingredients and holiday menu suggestions illustrating how recipes can work together. Cohen tested each recipe a minimum of three times over a period of three years, right up to the photo shoot that was completed just before the pandemic hit. Many dishes, including latkes, originated with his maternal grandmother, whose Polish-Jewish parents hid her in a convent during the Holocaust. His mother-in-law, Robina, taught him to make Iraqi specialties like kubbeh, and a sweet and sour beet stew. There are step-by-step instructions on how to bake challah.
“If you buy this book, it’s worth it just for my challah recipe,” Cohen said.
Growing up in Bayside, Queens and Melville, Long Island, Cohen always had an interest in cooking that intensified when he began hosting dinner parties during high school. “They were never great, but I really fell in love with the idea of cooking for others, the power of hospitality,” he said.
His family members were “holiday Jews. We would go to temple on the High Holidays and had two Passover seders.” Shabbat was not part of the equation, but he and his husband began celebrating it as a couple, hosting Friday night dinners for family, friends and guests.
“I became obsessed with this ritual that is rooted in self-care, and focused on recharging and reflecting, disengaging from the world and extending gratitude, making this time special and breaking bread with people you love.That focus is what drove the book,” Cohen said.
Another motivator was the concept of dayenu: whatever you do is enough. “You’re too exhausted and order from your favorite Jewish deli? Dayenu. I don’t pretend I’m cooking every meal from scratch every Shabbat. Last Passover I made the brisket but ordered matzo ball soup. The options are endless and they’re all beautiful. Whatever you do is great.”
In this pandemic year, Cohen’s Shabbats have been scaled down, with his mother, sister and her fiancé joining him and Alex for dinners.
“It’s a very ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ setup, where I’m in the same apartment building as my mother and my sister” in Long Island City.
Cohen and Alex, who met via the Hinge app six years ago and married in September 2018, in both civil and Jewish ceremonies, don’t keep kosher at home and consider themselves secular Jews. “But I do find an immense responsibility and beauty in preserving Jewish ritual and recipes that have transcended the diaspora,” he said.
Although his real-world Shabbat guest list is limited, Cohen posts cooking demonstration videos on Instagram to share with his 326,000 followers.
“It’s like this virtual community of everyone is partaking in the same meal,” he said. “This is the perfect time to celebrate with loved ones and to start exploring your cooking abilities as well.”
Not surprisingly, Cohen is thinking about his next book. “There’s so much more that I have missed from both of our families in terms of preserving recipes, exploring Jewish food, and exploring family recipes in general,” he said. “So there will be more of that.” He’d also like to host a cooking show, and has a fantasy of retiring to the Hudson Valley and opening a bakery café with Alex one day.
He hopes that “Jew-ish” readers take away more than delicious recipes.
“I’d like them to take a hard look at themselves, how they identify, and every aspect of their lives,” Cohen said, “whether it comes to queer, religious, or any other type of identify and find pride in it.”
“Jew-ish: Recipes from a Modern Mensch” will be published Mar. 9, but those who pre-order can receive a digital Haggadah that Cohen curated with @onetableshabbat featuring prayers, quotes, poems, and recipes from the book. On March 11 at 12 p.m. EST, Hadassah will present a Passover cooking webinar with Jake Cohen.
See Jake Cohen’s recipe for Crispy Persian Rice?