Modern Jewish Cooking, the latest cookbook by Leah Koenig, hit the shelves just before Passover and features recipes from around the world as well as some very practical standbys to help guide you through not only holiday, but also everyday cooking.
I first met Koenig when she was the founding editor of the Jew and the Carrot and working for Hazon. Koenig has written for all kinds of publications since then and remained focused on exploring Jewish food roots and experimenting with new approaches to Jewish cooking. She is also the author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen.
I would have loved to sit down with New York-based Koenig at Russ & Daughters or another famous Jewish food institution, but instead I caught up with the busy new mom by email, which was still fun!
Jewish Food Experience: What a year for you! New baby, new cookbook. Mazel tov! How has the rollout of the book been going?
Leah Koenig: Thanks! So far it’s been pretty good! Jewish cookbooks tend to be published right before Passover or Rosh Hashanah because that’s when people’s minds are naturally focused on Jewish food. Modern Jewish Cooking came out in mid-March, and it was really wonderful to hear from people who tried out dishes for Passover like the Red Wine and Honey Brisket, the Gefilte Fish in White Wine and Herb Broth, and the Spinach Matzo Lasagna. People can be particularly tough critics on Passover, so I loved hearing that the recipes resonated with them and their guests.
JFE: Were there any surprises with what you wound up eating in real life during Passover since it was probably a busy time for you?
LK: I’ve been making homemade macaroons for the past couple of years. The tinned ones are just so awful—they taste more like their canister than a cookie. But when macaroons are good, they are an ideal Passover dessert. It turns out, homemade coconut macaroons, which in Modern Jewish Cooking I dress up with orange zest, chocolate and cinnamon and almonds, are incredibly simple to make and super delicious.
JFE: What food are you most excited to try out on your little one? Have you chosen a first food?
LK: I know things will likely change later on, but Max, who is nine months old, is an enthusiastic eater. He particularly loves avocado, sweet potato and winter squash of all kinds, roasted beets, and mashed pear mixed with cinnamon. Recently we started experimenting with giving him ground beef (kosher and sustainable, of course), and his eyes lit up. Naturally, I guess!
JFE: This year is the shmita (sabbatical) year for Jewish farmers. On our farm we are taking a partial break and trying to notice and enjoy more wild and perennial crops. It opens up all kinds of possibilities and gels with current trends—they have dandelion greens in my mainstream supermarket this spring! Have you thought about any recipes using wild plants in your area?
LK: A few years back my husband and I went on a foraging trip a little north of [New York City] with Wild Man Steve Brill (he’s worth checking out if you haven’t heard of him). It was so eye opening to learn how many plants we pass every day without a second thought—bay leaf bushes, wild garlic, berries and mushrooms of all kinds—that are actually edible and delicious. I don’t have a chance to incorporate wild plants into my cooking too often, unfortunately. One less familiar plant, which is picked wild in some places like Romania (but typically cultivated here), is sorrel. I love its lemony, bright flavor, and I love that it is part of the Jewish food canon through the rustic spring soup, schav. I make a slightly more sophisticated sorrel soup in Modern Jewish Cooking, which gets topped with spicy harissa (North African chile paste). It’s one of my favorites and a real seasonal treat.
JFE: The recipes in your new book are amazing. Food really does connect people to our history, each other and,when we write down new recipes, the future. Which pieces are most important to you as a writer? Do you think food is key to Jewish continuity? Ecology? Drawing in new people?
LK: For me, they are all important and part of the same story. But I think one of my personal goals is to demonstrate that Jewish food is not fixed or static; it is alive and ever evolving. And believe it or not, that’s always been the case. With all the nouveau delicatessens popping up around the country, a renewed interest in Middle Eastern Jewish cuisines and home cooks really connecting to traditional Jewish dishes in new ways, it is such an exciting time to eat Jewish—whether or not you come from that background!
JFE: Which recipes work best among first time Jewish food eaters or an international audience?
LK: Modern Jewish Cooking is a very global book because Jewish cuisine is incredibly global. It’s not just about the Eastern European dishes that Americans typically think of. There are Jews living and eating in so many different countries around the world. Mexico, India, Ethiopia, Italy, Israel, South Africa… So I’d advise people to just read through the book, cook whatever inspires them and make it their own!