Why ambiguity is key to kosher cooking

Because our food has been passed down from mother to daughter, there is actually no such thing as a definitive recipe.

By Denise Phillips, September 24, 2009
Mushroom and barley soup: a delicious combination, whichever version you use - and there are many

Mushroom and barley soup: a delicious combination, whichever version you use - and there are many

Cooking and good food are central to Jewish life. Our calendar is studded with a glorious variety of festivals and holidays. Some of them are serious occasions; others are more fun. But they all have one thing in common — a celebratory shared meal with a signature dish chosen for its religious connections. And behind each one is a Jewish mother, a matriarch capable of creating classic, delicious meals at a moment’s notice on a regular, almost daily basis.

Ask a Jew for their view on a classic Jewish recipe and they are likely to include chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish and lokshen pudding. Where have these Jewish-mother classics come from? What is their heritage and link to the religion?

History and geography have been a huge influence on Jewish cooking. Over the past thousand years, Jews have settled in every corner of the globe and cooked local dishes, adapting them to suit kashrut. After living in one place, Jews may have moved on by choice, through forced exile or by decree, but each time they have taken with them the style of cooking and recipes of their adopted homelands.

Most Western European Jews are Ashkenazi — coming from Poland, Russia and Austria — and we continue to cook foods associated with these cultures such as soups, stews, stuffed vegetables and starchy, sugary warming dishes good for comfort during the Siberian winter months.

Particular soup classics include borscht and mushroom and barley soup; these were made with ingredients that were both plentiful and cheap when times were hard and food was sparse.

“And thou shall teach them diligently to thy children and thy shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way …” appears not only to apply to the laws of the Torah but also what to eat.

We are a people which passes down our recipes. Jewish mothers have always talked about how the food should be prepared — and often argued over whose recipe was the best.

For this reason, recipes have evolved with the addition of a little of this and a little of that to the extent that even a true Jewish mother’s classic such as chicken soup does not have a definitive recipe.

Each family will have their little secret ingredient. When I got married, I had fish ball training from my mother-in-law so that her traditional recipe would never be lost. And only recently my mother bought me a new mincer so that the chopped liver would be the right texture; she said I could not be a true “Jewish Mama” without it!

My tip is to cut a whole onion in half and leave the skin on in the stock. This adds both colour and flavour. Also use carcass bones and giblets — not the boiling chicken, as it has little flavour.

Mushroom and barley soup also has more variations than you can begin to imagine. My version of the Polish classic has been updated with the addition of dried porcini plus some kiddush wine or sherry.

It makes a pleasant change to chicken soup for a family gathering. Adding the giblets subtly incorporates flavour without salt.

Mushroom & Barley Soup

Will freeze. Can be parev. Preparation Time: 15 minutes plus 1 hour to soak barley

Cooking Time: 1 hour and 5 minutes
Serves: 8-10 people

● 200g mushrooms – sliced
● 20g dried porcini – soaked in a little hot water
● 4 chicken wings, 2 turkey or chicken necks and heart – mix of giblets
● 2 onions – peeled and roughly chopped
● 2 potatoes – peeled and cut into cubes
● 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
● 3 carrots – peeled and shredded
● 3 stalks celery – roughly chopped
● 200g/1 cup barley – soaked for 1 hour in hot water
● 2 cloves garlic – peeled and finely chopped
● 3 litres water plus 3 tablespoons vegetable/ chicken stock or 2 cubes
● 2 tablespoons sherry or kiddush wine
● Salt and freshly ground black pepper – to taste
● Garnish: sprigs of parsley

● Heat the vegetable oil in a deep saucepan.
● Sauté the onions, garlic, potatoes and celery for 5 minutes.
● Add the giblets, chicken or vegetable stock and barley. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
● Add the mushrooms, carrots and porcini with the soaking liquid.
● Continue to simmer for a further 30 minutes. Remove the giblets. Add the sherry or kiddush wine. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
● To serve: garnish with sprigs of parsley

‘Jewish Mama’s Kitchen’ by Denise Phillips is published by Octopus books at £9.99

Last updated: 11:18am, September 24 2009