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Kosher Cookbooks Have Come a Long Way, Baby

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 “Our Table: Time-Tested Recipes, Memorable Meals” by Renee Muller (Artscroll).

It goes without saying that kosher food and kosher cookbooks have come a long way. While those who keep strictly kosher do not have access to certain gourmet ingredients that the rest of us do, many chefs in the kosher world continue to up the ante, and Renee Muller can be included in this group.

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Given that Muller is a food stylist (a relatively new field in the frum world, according to one web site chat with the author that I found), one can be assured that the food photography in this book is gorgeous (the images were taken by Daniel Lailah). There is a full-page photo for every recipe.

Muller was a stay-at-home mom who loved to cook, when she submitted a few of her personal recipes to a contest and won. With her victory, she was offered the opportunity to be a recipe columnist for Ami Magazine (a religious women’s publication), and in pursuing that she became aware of her talent for styling the food she made.

Though she now lives in the religious enclave of Lakewood, New Jersey, Muller was raised in Lugano, Switzerland, and has a European sensibility about food. Italian is her first language.

Given that this is an Artscroll publication (Artscroll mostly publishes prayer books, — and traditional ones at that) it is written for a very specific audience. So it isn’t all that surprising that HaShem is the first one thanked in the acknowledgements. Also, in the introduction Muller writes: “My neighbors were my cousins, my classmates my family. Some through blood, others through friendship. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, BT, or FFB — it didn’t matter. The community was warm, everyone belonged.”

That she does not define what BT or FFB mean indicates that this book is not expected to be read by anyone outside the religious community (they are abbreviations for “Baal Tshuva,” meaning someone newly religious, and “Frum From Birth,” someone who always has been) and that is a shame, because this cookbook could stand up to many others, and perhaps even convince skeptics that kosher food can indeed be as delicious as anything else.

For this taste test, my friend Robin and I cooked four recipes together, and then shared the results with my husband Paulie, her husband Matthew and their six-year-old daughter, Marnina.

Here’s how it played out.

We started the evening with butternut squash cream soup, and this name threw me off right away, since there’s no cream at all in it, though it is pureed.

Butternut squash soups are a dime a dozen, but this one was different enough to make me want to try it. In addition to the squash, the soup has plenty of onion (four!), garlic, carrots and celery root, with a can of tomato sauce that gives it a nice hit of acidity. And while optional, Muller suggests adding a bit of black garlic at the end — and I love black garlic.

Robin’s husband Matthew really liked how the tomato neutralized the sweetness of the squash, making it feel somewhat Italian (and this was before he knew about the author’s background). Robin really appreciated how the celery root flavor came through on the finish, and called the flavor profile “well-balanced.” We tried the soup with a dollop of yogurt on top; some preferred it with, some without. Our one complaint was that it was weak on the seasoning; even the paprika and other spices didn’t come through, nor did the black garlic. More could have been added, though we found the soup to be tastier the next day (as soups of this sort often are).

Next we had a frico salad with candied sweet potatoes. A frico is cheese that’s fried or baked until crisp, and in this case we used shredded Parmesan put onto a baking sheet in the oven. The sweet potatoes were also roasted in the oven after being tossed with olive oil and silan (Israeli date syrup). I chose two recipes with silan, since I already had some). Though the recipe called for the sweet potatoes to be finely diced and roasted for an hour and a half, we found this to be way too much time — they would have burned to a crisp. We took them out after half an hour.

The salad contained lettuce, apple slices, the sweet potatoes, pecans and the frico, with a dressing made of more silan, vinegar, mustard and mayonnaise. I admit I don’t love super creamy dressings, so I substituted olive oil for some of the mayo. I was curious as to why the recipe just said “vinegar” and “mustard,” without offering specific types, but Robin, who knows more about kosher laws than I do, said it was because most of the varieties of vinegar and mustard out there aren’t kosher (most Dijon mustards, for example, have vinegar in them, and most vinegars are problematic in the kosher world).

We used cider vinegar and Dijon, figuring it would pair well with the apple, but we felt the proportions were a bit off. Marnina didn’t love the dressing, declaring it spicy, while Matthew thought many would find the mustard taste overpowering. Overall, the fricos provided a necessary salty element, otherwise the salad would have been a bit too sweet for me. My husband Paulie felt spicing up the pecans would have helped rather than leaving them plain.

Silan, lemon and mustard salmon was the highlight of the meal. Although those three ingredients would probably be enough, there was plenty of chopped garlic in there, too. Together with the lemon and soy sauce, this prevented the marinade from being too sweet (we used stone-ground Dijon, which was also a great decision, but probably isn’t available to those who keep strictly kosher).

The recipe called for marinating the salmon and then baking it. It did not say whether to bake the salmon in the marinade or take it out; we baked it in its liquid. Perhaps next time I would bake it separately, and then reduce the liquid down into a thicker sauce.

“Food that is both sweet and savory is not my go-to, but I’d go to this,” said Matthew. Both Matthew and Marnina thought some might find the garlic a bit overpowering, though.

“I taste the garlic a lot,” Marnina said.

We all thought this was a wonderful treatment of salmon, and would make it again. For dessert, we made deconstructed lemon meringue pie, which in this case means that meringues were made and crumbled up in a glass, a lemon curd was spooned and topped with fresh berries and pomegranate seeds.

We used butter and real whipping cream rather than margarine and non-dairy whipped topping in the lemon curd (I assumed this recipe was written to go with a meat meal).

This was a fun dessert to make, and Marnina was able to pipe the meringues out of the plastic bag on her own. The meringues were a bit too sweet, but with the tartness of the curd, they balanced each other out. Robin noted that the curd was a bit too runny, and we wondered whether that was because we didn’t have time to put it in the fridge after it cooled down.

The dessert section of “Our Table” is quite impressive overall, with plenty of holiday desserts including a some good ones for Passover.

This book describes itself as being filled with fairly simple but creative kosher recipes, and that’s exactly what we found it to be.

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

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