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New Ways or Old With Jewish Food?

Review of Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, by Jayne Cohen (John Wiley and Sons, 2008).

Modern Jews ponder many perplexities, played out in worship, culture and now the kitchen. Cling to tradition, or create a new way for the new world? Reproduce Grandma’s (high fat, high cholesterol) home cooking, or try exotic and often healthier alternatives? And then coax stodgy traditionalists into trying something new?

Jayne Cohen cookbook coverA flood of Israeli and Sephardic cookbooks have brought saffron and pomegranate to the Jewish kitchen, and beloved standards have been forced to make room at the table. Can variations of Jewish food live peacefully in one cookbook? The answer is Jayne Cohen’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, a “Treasury of Classics and Improvisations,” just right for this question, and these times. For the (culinary) orthodox, Cohen includes a basic brisket recipe; for the adventurous, a brisket flavored with Moroccan spices and dried fruits, or stuffed with eggplant and spiced with tomato and saffron.

The book is divided into holiday sections. Under Hanukkah, find a recipe for Spiced Pomegranate Molasses Applesauce and an array of latke variations. For Passover, a Sephardi/Ashekenazi fusion brings Tangy Charoset Bites (cherries, dates and sweet Kosher wine) and a Salad of Bitter Herbs and Oranges.

Cohen provides innovative ways to “lighten up” recipes and other new ideas, like an olive oil schmaltz, or the addition of “meltingly tender cubes of eggplant — to moisten kasha.” Her emphasis on fresh ingredients reinvents the canned grape leaf by wrapping spiced rice in chard. Her kugel options, both savory and sweet, are packed with fruits and vegetables and light on dairy.

Cohen’s showpiece recipes are culinary spectacle. However, some dishes are just too fussy. Labor-intensive Sorrel-Flavored Mushroom Barley soup yields little (though exquisite) broth, insufficient to accommodate barley. Iranian Stuffed Chicken with Fresh Green Herbs and Golden Soup is as hard to perform as heart surgery. Even the index is overly complex and frustrating. Still, riches abound in this cookbook. You’ll just have to look a little harder for them.

Moroccan-Flavored Brisket with Dried Apricots and Prunes with optional Gremolata

8 Generous Servings
Cohen recommends you serve this with her Potato-Leek Matzoh Balls, and I do too. My sister convinced me to try these in place of our usual seltzer and back-of-the-matzoh-meal-box recipe and they were a revelation

1 Tbs. chopped garlic, plus 6 large garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup chopped dried apricots, plus ½ cup quartered (tart California apricots work best here)
3 ½ tsp. ground cumin, preferably freshly toasted and ground
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
A first- or second-cut beef brisket, 4 to 5 pounds, trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel and patted dry
3 Tbs. olive oil
4 cups chopped onion
2 medium carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 Tbs. finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup dry red wine
3 cups beef stock
2/3 cup pitted prunes, quartered
Optional garnish (instead of gremolata): chopped fresh cilantro

For the gremolata (optional)
½ tsp. finely grated peeled fresh ginger
½ cup chopped fresh mint
1 tsp. pressed garlic
Pinch of ground cinnamon

In a blender or mini-processor, pulse the chopped garlic, chopped apricots, 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/3 teaspoon black pepper to a coarse puree. Make a slit in the fat side of the brisket with the point of a sharp knife. Insert a little of the puree into the slit, using your fingers and the knife tip to push it in as far as possible. Insert some of the puree in the same way in slits all over the top, bottom and sides of the brisket, spacing the slits out as evenly as you can. Reserve any remaining puree. If you have time, put the brisket in a large plastic resealable bag or rewrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours, so the flavorings can penetrate the meat.

Preheat the oven to 275°

Scrape any puree that may have seeped out off the surface of the meat. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven, oven proof casserole, or flameproof roasting pan large enough to accommodate the meat snugly. (If using a roasting pan, you may need to set it over two burners.) Add the brisket and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Sear to caramelize the meat, but don’t let it develop a hard brown crust, which might make the meat tough or bitter. Transfer to a platter fat side up and set aside. (Or sear under the broiler: place the brisket fat side up, on a foil lined broiler pan, under a preheated broiler. Broil for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Move the meat around as necessary, so it sears evenly.)

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Add the onions and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until softened and gold. Add the whole garlic cloves, carrots and chopped ginger, and sauté 3 minutes. Add the remaining cumin, coriander and cayenne, and stir 30 seconds. Add the wine and boil, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the pan bottom, until the liquid is reduced almost to a glaze. Add stock and bring to a simmer.

Spread any reserved apricot mixture over the brisket, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and add the meat to the pan. Cover (use heavy-duty foil if you don’t have a lid) and oven-braise 3 to 4 hours, or until fork-tender, basting with pan juices every half-hour. About 30 minutes before you estimate the meat is done, stir in the quartered apricots and prunes.

Cool the brisket in the pan sauce, cover well with foil and refrigerate overnight. Scrape off all solid fat and discard. Remove the brisket from the pan and slice thinly across the grain.

If you are using the gremolata, combine the ingredients in a small bowl.

Bring the gravy to a boil. If it is too thin, boil down to desired consistency. (You can also thicken the gravy by pureeing some of the pan solids with a little pan liquid in a food processor or blender. Return this puree to the pan of gravy and bring to a simmer.) Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the gremolata, if desired.

Return the sliced brisket to the gravy in the pan and simmer until heated through. If you are not using the gremolata, sprinkle with the cilantro.

Roasted Apple-Walnut Noodle Kugel

6-8 servings

Walnut, avocado, canola or your favorite oil, for greasing the pans
6 large or 8-10 medium sweet, flavorful apples (such as Royal Gala, Golden Delicious or Braeburn; about 3 pounds), peeled, cored and quartered, or cut into sixths if large
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
2 cups unsweetened apple juice
½ cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup pitted prunes quartered
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
4 ounces medium flat egg noodles (not the twisted spiral kind, which won’t absorb as much of the liquids and flavoring)
½ cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated, or mace
4 large eggs, separated
½ cup graham cracker crumbs (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a large baking sheet or very shallow roasting pan with lightly greased foil and on it spread out the apples in a single layer, rounded sides down (so that most of the sugar will be trapped and melted in the curve, rather than sliding off onto the pan). Sprinkle with the brown sugar and lemon juice and roast in the middle of the oven until lightly browned and just tender, 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the variety of apples. Turn the apples over halfway through the cooking process, and spoon the accumulated syrupy juices over them. remove the apples from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350°F. When the apples are cooked enough to handle, cut into large chunks.

Grease an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan (or other shallow 8- to 10-cup baking pan) thoroughly.

In a wide, heavy medium saucepan, combine the apple juice, granulated sugar, prunes, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and continue cooking over high heat, stirring occasionally, until reduced by about half. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

Bring 2 quarts cold water and 1 teaspoon salt to a rapid boil in a large saucepan. Add the noodles and cook until tender. Drain well. In a large bowl, combine the noodles, prune mixture, roasted apples, walnuts, cinnamon and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks well until thick and light, and stir into the mixture. In a clean bowl, beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold about one third of the whites into the batter, then fold in the rest.

Turn the batter into a prepared pan and smooth the top. If desired, sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs.

Bake the kugel for about 45 minutes, or until it feels firm, the sides pull away slightly and the top is lightly browned. Let cool completely to set. You can eat it at room temperature, but to really savor the toasty apple flavors, warm the kugel until heated through. It may not cut neatly, and perhaps it will appear somewhat messy on the plate, but it will taste divine.

Dana Kletter

Dana Kletter is an award winning fiction writer, journalist and musician. Her work has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Boston Phoenix, San Francisco Chronicle and Independent Weekly. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and currently lives, writes, teaches and occasionally sings in Ann Arbor.


Author: Dana Kletter