It’s not just restaurants putting a modern spin on Jewish food. Cookery books have been at it too.
The latest book in the ‘modern Jewish’ trend is the small but perfectly formed Little Book of Jewish Appetizers by US food writer, Leah Koenig.
“It’s the first in a series of three books” she explained over the phone from her Brooklyn home. “The next two will be about holiday (festival) feasts and Jewish baking — I’m already working on the holiday feasts book.”
Several haimishe staples have been brought into the 21st century. Was she worried about taking tradition too far? “I think it’s ok to play with food, so long as it’s done with integrity. I believe Jewish recipes have changed over the years as they’re handed from generation to generation. There’s a sense that our food hasn’t changed and that we’re bastardising it now, but I do think it has evolved over the years.
“I like to find a way of updating dishes, even simple changes that make a difference to the flavour. It doesn’t have to be drastic — I add onion powder to my potato kugel, for example.”
Koenig has played with several Ashkenazi recipes. Her chopped liver is vegetarian (“You can find plenty of regular chopped liver recipes”) made with eggs, mushrooms and kidney beans. Borscht ingredients are deconstructed onto crostini. Gefilte fish makes an appearance in its fried form.
“I didn’t know you could eat it chopped and fried until a few years ago” she admits. “We only have the boiled version here, but one of my bosses — Nigel Savage who runs US Jewish food and sustainability charity, Hazon — is English from Manchester, and explained how it can be prepared in the UK. He shared his mother’s recipe.”
She has mostly left the Sephardi-influenced dishes alone. “I tend to be more inventive with Ashkenazi food as I’m more familiar with it. Also, Sephardi foods are a bit novel as they’re newer here.” However, she has tweaked the more familiar Sephardi dishes — hummus has added sweet potato and smoked paprika for instance.
Why did she choose starters? “They are an obvious idea for the first book as they open the meal and I feel the appetising course is an underappreciated part of the Jewish meal. Main dishes like brisket and roast chicken get all the attention.”
Appetisers have long been a part of the Ashkenazi menu — the Yiddish term is forspeisn (pronounced FOR-shpice) which comes from the German for ‘before food’.
“They tend to be more structured and specific, but when you open it up to the Sephardi table it’s quite different — a huge spread of plates that you eat with challah or pitta. It’s a meal in itself, and when you’re full you get the fish course and then the meat!”
Koenig suggests several menus combining her recipes — including a cocktail party and Chanucah party. She also lists some suitable for freezing to whack in the oven for surprise visitors. Does she get plenty of those?
“My house becomes a bit of a dinner lab when I’m testing recipes. I use Shabbat to test them out on my friends.”
As she’s already testing recipes for the next course, her table must be the hottest in Brooklyn.
Recipes adapted from The Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, Chronicle Books £13.99