For even the most adventurous home cook, modernist cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy—yes, that of emulsifiers, hydrocolloids and sous vide—can come across as pretty intimidating. So “a rabbi and a lawyer started a modernist kosher supper club” must be the beginning of a joke, right?
About six years ago, Maryland locals Yehuda Malka, a rabbi, mohel and yeshiva high school teacher, and Dan Rabinowitz, an attorney, bonded over food.
The two hot trends at the time were blogs documenting cooking one’s way through a cookbook, like Julie and Julia, and modernist cuisine, the product of food scientists and chefs meeting at conferences in Europe in the mid-1990s to improve cooking through the application of scientific techniques.
Rabinowitz introduced Malka to Alinea, the cookbook showcasing recipes from the acclaimed Chicago restaurant of the same name. Coincidentally, in Takoma Park, Maryland, a blogger was cooking her way through the book, and while she was not Jewish, she noted in a post that she had found beef fat, for rendering, at Max’s Kosher Market.
Light bulbs went off for Malka and Rabinowitz: Could modernist meet kosher?
When Malka finally cracked open Alinea himself and made steak with a deconstructed A1 sauce, he was hooked.
From there, “we would find a new technique or flavor and dive into it to understand the vast food culture that exists outside of our world,” he shares.
Over Labor Day 2010, Malka and Rabinowitz, who was looking to auction off some reserved bottles from his impressive wine collection, hosted 10 to 12 people for a multicourse modernist kosher dinner with wine pairings at Rabinowitz’s house.
After that, Malka says, “Things just snowballed.” While both Malka and Rabinowitz had full-time jobs and family commitments and no professional training in cooking, they had clearly found a sweet spot: modernist cuisine was exploding—the five-volume Modernist Cuisine encyclopedia had been released, Alton Brown and Michael Ruhlman were everywhere, explaining cooking ratios and why recipes work, and there was even a podcast, “Cooking Issues” by Dave Arnold—yet the kosher food world was stuck with steakhouses as its most sophisticated offering.
They established Modernist Kosher, a once-in-a-while supper club, hosting several dinners at a home in Baltimore and other small events in the community and sharing modernist cooking adventures on their blog, ModernistKosher.com.
But how does a cuisine of gels and all different animal products gel with kashrut? “At first, it was a challenge, but then it became all about reframing expectations.” For example, French cuisine uses a lot of butter, especially with meat, to create richness. Malka found that by substituting chicken fat for the butter, he could create the same rich texture on the palate, yet with even bolder chicken flavor.
“There’s really not so much you can’t do [to keep it kosher],” he says. Mac and cheese can get a smoky touch sans bacon bits. One favorite is vegan (and pareve) pistachio gelato. Instead of steeping pistachios in cream, straining it and then churning it, Malka makes a custard of pistachio butter and pistachio oil, stabilized with tapioca starch and xanthan gum instead of eggs. Still, he’d like to see more variety in kosher meats, such as venison and squab.
In the past year, the Modernist Kosher supper club has been put a bit on the back burner (no pun intended). About four months ago, after working as a teacher and then in commercial real estate, Malka made food his focus, launching Satori Kitchen, which, in addition to owning, managing and expanding Wrap2Go, is creating additional high-quality kosher offerings in the DC area, including Shabbat and travel meals. In the upcoming year, he hopes to bring back Modernist Kosher pop-ups through the new business.
On exploring modernist cuisine at home, Malka says, “People feel that this is intimidating, but what’s nice is that you’re looking for a way to [prepare something] that’s foolproof. The technique that modernist cuisine gives you is often the one that’s been tested, the simplest one, so why waste your time with something that’s untested?”
By the way, it doesn’t even require fancy equipment like an immersion circulator, he says, noting that the best tool in his kitchen is his pressure cooker, which intensifies the flavor of so many ingredients.
Still not convinced? “What’s the worst that can happen?” Malka says, “You burn something and try again.”
Top photo: Modernist Kosher’s 48-hour short rib bite with pickled mustard seeds, red cabbage and caraway. All photos courtesy of Modernist Kosher.