The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig brings together the food of the Jewish diaspora, featuring more than 400 recipes from around the world. Simple meals sit side by side with celebratory feast dishes, showcasing Jewish food at its best.
My first impressions on opening this book were mixed. It’s a substantial book, with a good quality hard cover which has withstood the usage test but looks more like a reference book than a cookery book – there are no pictures of food on the cover, and were I browsing in a bookshop I wouldn’t pick this up. The cover doesn’t draw me in and not being Jewish, I wouldn’t think the book is aimed at me.
Cover aside I love that this book has built in ribbon page markers; I think all cook books should have these to help you easily locate the recipe you are making.
On my first flick through I’m disappointed by the lack of pictures; there’s one picture page about every five recipes, whereas I prefer more more pictures so I can see what a recipe’s end result should look like. This is particularly important when making unfamiliar dishes. Each photo page has only one full page image, a lost opportunity to provide reference images for more of the recipes.
This book forced to me to put in more effort than I normally would to pick out recipes that I wanted to cook. I’d normally flick through and pick out those that appeal by browsing recipe titles and images, but that didn’t work with this book, partly because it is much bigger than a typical cookbook with over 400 pages of recipes but also because the lack of pictures of unfamiliar recipes made it hard for me to understand what many of the dishes are.
I spent about 6 hours reading through the book and the background of each recipe before I decided what I’d make.
This is where the book rewards you if you put the effort in, as each recipe has an introduction that gives you the background and history of the recipe, information about the region the recipe originated from, and how it is typically eaten. Where appropriate the introduction also calls out other recipes in the book that would pair well with it. Reading these introductions brings the international diversity of the recipes to life and I soon had a list of over 30 recipes I wanted to make and taste.
The recipes are grouped into categories, which might be more useful if you have grown up eating Jewish food and are more familiar with the dishes; I found a number of recipes in the ‘Soups & Stews’ and ‘Vegetables & Grains’ sections that I would have been equally happy seeing under Main dishes. As I looked at each recipe in detail to understand it this didn’t pose any problems.
The full list of sections includes ‘Introduction’, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Breads’, ‘Salads, Spreads, Pickles & Starters’, ‘Soups & Stews’, ‘Vegetables & Grains’, ‘Fritters & Savory Pastries’, ‘Dumplings, Noodles & Kugels’, ‘Main Dishes’, ‘Cakes, Cookies & Sweet Pastries’, ‘Confections & Puddings’, and ‘Condiments, Spices & Drinks’.
Culture & History
This book offers more than just a collection of recipes. It provides a sense of how Jewish history has influenced the food eaten by different Jewish communities, whilst giving the context of the varying religious rules surrounding food. I really resonated with the piece in the foreword which introduces the concept of tikkun olan and using food to bring people and different ideas together.
I was aware of some Jewish customs but wasn’t aware of the tradition of not eating diary and meat at the same time, explained in the book’s introduction. This custom means the book has an array of vegetarian recipes which I really appreciate.
Cooking The Book
The first recipe I made was Chicken Soup which is often referred to as Jewish penicillin and is the recipe all my Jewish friends told me to start with. Sadly, the end result didn’t live up to the hype. The soup was relatively easy to make; whilst the overall cooking time was quite long you only have to prep at the start and then chop and refine at the end, so the overall effort is low. Whilst this simmered the overwhelming smell was of cooking celery – not the most enticing fragrance! The method did cook the chicken beautifully and it was literally falling off the bone when I removed it from the cooking pot.
The finished soup was pleasant but didn’t have the depth of flavour I was anticipating, in fact when trying it before adding the generous amount of seasoning directed, it had very little taste. The oily finish gave the soup a slick look which reduces its appeal, making it slightly slimy to eat. The recipe made a generous eight portions and froze and reheated well, but once I’ve eaten the last of this I won’t be making it again. That said if I ever want to boil a chicken for beautifully cooked meat, I will remember this method of cooking, as the chicken on its own was moist and tender.
The next dish I made was the Lamb and Dried Fruit Tagine. This slowly simmered stew was fabulous and I’ll definitely be making it again. This recipe is a great example of a number of issues I found with this book. Firstly, it demonstrates how you need to read the detail and not just look at the title as it’s not made in a tagine. Secondly, it requires making of another recipe from the book first; whilst this isn’t true of every recipe there are quite a number that do this, so be sure to check carefully when planning timescales. Lastly, I found it annoying that the page number for the linked recipe was incorrect; although it was only 2 pages out the lack of attention to detail in the editing was a minor irritation.
I set about making the tagine for lunch with friends on an overcast and miserable day and it was perfect, particularly as it is all made in one pot so doesn’t generate loads of washing up! Start by browning the meat. Set it aside as you caramelise onions with garlic before adding ras al hanout spice mix, closely followed by tomato paste, lemon juice and then stock. For me this is when the dish started to come to life; once the stock is added, the spice mix and base ingredients combine to create a rich gravy. I tasted this after its hour and half of simmering and I would happily have eaten it as was. However adding the dried fruit, honey and almonds (plus carrots) took this dish up a level, giving it a richness and depth of flavour that made it a delight to eat. The colour changed from dark brown to a warmer, more autumnal-looking dish. I served it over plain couscous and everyone cleared their bowls, followed by requests for leftovers to take home and details of the recipe.
I struggle to find the words to describe this dish – it’s not quite sweet and sour but you get different hits of flavour from each of the elements in this dish, giving the stew real depth and making it a taste sensation. The spices provide richness and warmth, the fruit and honey give hints of sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm, and the tender lamb is comforting. I’ll certainly be making this again, although will reduce the amount of oil I use. I will also give it a try in a slowcooker as the idea of coming home at the end of a busy day to the aromas and flavours in this dish would be a welcome delight.
Ras El Hanout is well described in the book as a regal and complex spice mix. I chose to make it using the recipe provided as I had all the ingredients already and it provided a great opportunity to use the spice grinder attachment for my mixer which has been lurking in the back of the cupboard. That said, with 10 different ingredients, many used in very small quantities, if you don’t already have all of these plus a spice grinder I can totally see the appeal of buying a ready prepared pot of ras al hanout, available in most supermarkets. I now have a jar of homemade Ras El Hanout spice mix and won’t struggle to use it up in the coming months. In fact I’m contemplating making up jars of this as gifts for my foodie friends.
Having invested my time into getting to know this book and understand its contents, I have a few reflections.
Some elements I didn’t like:
- Many of the recipes use large amounts of oil, considerably more than I would normally use when cooking. Going forward I’ll adjust this down to enjoy a healthy version of the recipes.
- I’d have appreciated greater guidance on where to buy lesser known ingredients or alternatives that I could use. Without this, some of the recipes are un-achievable for me.
These were strongly outweighed by the elements I liked:
- The index that allowed me to search by ingredients was great; I often want to cook with items I’ve got left in the cupboard so this was really useful.
- The book uses both the American and English terms for ingredients, avoiding unnecessary confusion.
- I loved the star recipes from renowned guest chefs; these are easily identified by their pale blue pages. I liked the brief history of each chef and their restaurant, alongside the recipe they provided. This has definitely added some restaurants to visit to my wish list when I get to travel to different places.
- Worthy of a second mention are the ribbon page markers, allowing you to easily come back to a recipe you have picked out; I wish more cook books had this feature.
- Each recipe comes with a number of helpful symbols to allow you to see which of the following apply: Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Vegan, Vegetarian, 5 Ingredients or less, 30 minutes or less. I missed this at first, as the symbols are shown on a page after the contents with no explanation, but once I revisited the book I found this a useful reference, although recipes tagged as 5 ingredients or less, or 30 minutes or less, are not common place.
Some watch-outs that don’t fall into either category:
- The number of portions a recipe serves varies from recipe to recipe, from 4 to 10. Bear this in mind and adjust quantities appropriately if you don’t want such large portions.
- This book may be better suited to a more established cook, as you need a fairly well equipped kitchen, alongside a good grasp of basic cooking techniques.
I’m still not sure who this book is aimed at but I’d say anyone who has some experience in the kitchen and is looking for a range of international flavours will find this book a useful addition, if they are prepared to put the effort in. It’s certainly not aimed exclusively at the Jewish community, and will give anyone a good overview of the traditions of Jewish food and the religious rules surrounding it, as well as an appreciation for how each regional Jewish community has added its own personality and been inspired by local culture to formulate it’s own food identity.
Overall was this book worth the effort? Yes! I have made and eaten some great dishes and have a list of those I’m keen to try next. It’s unlikely to be a book I’ll pick up to make a quick dinner, but when I want something different and have the time to plan and cook I’ll use it, especially more when I’m looking for new dishes to entertain with. The nature of Jewish traditions means many of the recipes can be made ahead; perfect for easier socialising. For now I can say the Lamb and Dried Fruit Tagine has already become a firm favourite.
Phaidon have kindly shared three recipes from The Jewish Cookbook for us to publish on Kavey Eats.
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Our guest author Sarah Cowen was provided with a review copy of The Jewish Cookbook by publisher Phaidon Press. The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig retails at £35. Jacket image courtesy of Phaidon. All other images by Sarah Cowen for Kavey Eats.