The old adage that my grandmother repeated like a mantra to soothe me when I was upset about my lack of height does, sometimes, prove true. Leah Koenig’s new cookbook, Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, is a perfect example.
At just about the size of an evening clutch, this elegant little book makes up for what it lacks in stature with its well-curated and varied collection of 25 global Jewish appetizer recipes. It is the first in what will be a series of three companion volumes, each focusing on a slice of Jewish cuisine.
“Each has a personality, but is part of a larger family,” says Koenig, who will author all three. The next two volumes will be one on holiday main dishes and one on baking. All three reflect Koenig’s definition of “Jewish food”: “What Jews eat for holidays or everyday life is global and part of a larger conversation—and this book is a piece of that.” She added that this makes the books “broad and specific at the same time.”
This volume is appealing to the eye as well as to the palate. The photos are all taken against a dark background, much like those in her last cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking. This modern approach contrasts nicely with gold graphics in a design that honors Eastern European folk art or, as Koenig puts it, “looks like the doilies in your grandmother’s house.”
It’s this marriage of old and new, Ashkenazi with Sephardi and Mizrahi, that is Koenig’s strength and what brings so much depth to what might otherwise seem a limited topic. I asked her about the experience of creating and curating a smaller collection of recipes, and her response was to cite the metaphor of kashrut itself: within boundaries, we get creative. She said she simply focused on “what would make an appetizers book shine.”
The recipes in the book really do reflect a global approach to Jewish cooking, as well as a melding of old and new, and in this way, Leah Koenig has made her Little Book of Appetizers shine. I found I was tabbing almost every recipe to try: borscht crostini, beet-pickled turnips, chopped egg and caramelized onion spread, Persian zucchini and herb frittata, fried gefilte fish (!), butternut bichak, lahmajun.
I’ve made the egg and onion spread, which, to me, was the best part of chopped liver, and close to what my mother used to “doctor up” an overly liver-y store bought version. I’ve been using my jar of beet-pickled turnips as a bright note in whatever little bowls of leftovers I’ve turned into lunch.
I’m looking forward to the cooler weather when I plan to try some of her baked items such as the butternut bichak and the beef- or lamb-covered lahmajun, which is a kin of flatbread and inspired by the Jews of Syria, Turkey and Lebanon.
We’ve all had the experience at a dinner where the appetizers are the best part of the meal, but we worry that we should hold back, knowing there’s more to come. With this book, Koenig said she hoped to elevate this course—“They are the star of the meal, but they get short shrift.” In her introduction to the book, she likens appetizers to the “comedian who warms up the crowd before the featured act and ends up stealing the show.”
With this little book in hand, we can let the warm up act steal the show in our own homes.