It used to be that we depended on parents and grandparents for on-the-spot kitchen instruction. Now, as changing lifestyles and the necessity of multitasking transform our society, we look elsewhere. But in our complex, fast-paced world, it seems that plain-old "recipe-only" cookbooks just don't cut the mustard.
Today, home cooks are hungry for practical information, while armchair culinary enthusiasts want to read and learn about fascinating foodways.
Happily, food books to whet every culinary appetite have been published this year. Some are packed with essential, user-friendly nuggets of information that guide the cook as she or he works in the kitchen. Some explore American and global cooking practices; still others combine both facets, along with glimpses into the past.
Here are five books that held me spellbound through every page.
· Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks
Marks is a rabbi, chef and historian — a recognized expert on the world of Jewish food. It took him two decades to gather all the information for this enormous culinary tome, and three years to put it all together.
The book delves into the history, culture and religious significance of traditional Jewish foods across the globe. The culinary traditions of individual communities throughout the Diaspora are explored, as well as how specific items included in holiday traditions unite Jews all over the world, such as the symbolic ingredients on the seder plate.
The result is a tour through 3,000 years of Jewish culinary history — foods produced in hard times and times of plenty; foods for survival, for daily meals, for rituals and for celebrations.
The author notes that Jews may literally eat anything from the petite madeleines cherished by Marcel Proust, whose mother was a member of an Alsatian Jewish family, to the grilled liver and organs favored by James Joyce's classic Irish-Jewish character Leopold Bloom in the modernist classic Ulysses.
Alphabetical entries range from the familiar, such as the afikomen, to the unusual, such as the spice mixture known as za'atar. Recipes are included, as are detailed descriptions and a history of the ingredients.
Marks has created a book that is both for reference and practical use. He writes in such an engaging manner and with such a depth of knowledge that the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is a book I will return to again and again — a voyage of compelling culinary discovery.
· Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History by William Woys Weaver
The dictionary tells us that ephemera is anything transitory. This definition explains why internationally acclaimed food historian William Woys Weaver gave his latest book this title.
Weaver has collected items, such as posters, candy and popcorn bags, from other eras — some tattered, some food-stained. These ephemera were never intended to be kept for any length of time and were created for a specific purpose, such as advertising. But nevertheless, they each tell a story.
The emphasis is mainly on materials printed during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
Weaver is meticulous in his research. He has divided this "culinary rubbish" into three categories: graphic design, date and location, and historical significance.
Illustrations are organized into distinct groups as well: menus, postcards, business cards and posters. Following this exciting paper trail, he transports the reader into the lives and customs of Americans in another time and place. His book makes for a nostalgic, wonderful read.
· The Food Substitution Bible by David Joachim
This 695-page tome is a practical reference work containing a wealth of rock-solid information. No matter which page you turn to, there's something that will apply to everyday cooking and entertaining. Whether you need to know how to substitute ingredients, equipment or cooking methods, this work will help you avoid costly mistakes.
In this hefty, user-friendly guide — organized from A to Z — Joachim describes, in precise detail, thousands of alternatives to bypass, or ultimately solve, kitchen calamities.
Each entry is set out in two columns. The left-hand column contains the ingredient or product and the right-hand column, headed "if you don't have it," contains the substitutions — and not just one, but anywhere from three to six.
For both the beginner cook and the experienced, The Food Substitutions Bible is an essential tool.
· The Turkish Cookbook, by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman
This is more than just a collection of recipes. The full-color photography featuring the seven regions of Turkey is magnificent. The sight of the hills and villages along the Black Sea, the cities marked by tall spires, the beaches along the Aegean sea and the snow-capped mountains of eastern Anatolia made me yearn to explore and taste everything in this country of contrasts.
Ilkin and Kaufman have produced a dazzling combination of recipes and stories from one of the oldest Mediterranean cuisines. The collection includes classics, such as Roasted-Eggplant Dip (in Israel, it's called babaganoush); Nur's family favorite, which is Lamb Shanks With Romaine; and rare, centuries-old recipes, such as Tarhana Soup — tarhana being a pebble-like pasta.
Ilkin learned the secrets of her native cuisine from her grandmother. Kaufman has traveled extensively in Turkey, talking and cooking firsthand with families. Also described in brilliant detail are 10,000 years of history, the ethnic diversity that has enriched Turkey's culture and the many delights of its rich cuisine.
The Mediterranean diet — based on fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt, fish and poultry — is presented here at its healthy best. (Did you know that eggplant alone can be prepared in more than 40 different ways?) Almost every recipe in this beautiful book can be made in a kosher kitchen.
· 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman
The author brings us into the daily lives of five immigrant families from different countries at the turn of the 20th century. At 97 Orchard — a cramped apartment building on New York's Lower East Side — there was a mix of Irish, Germans, Russians, Lithuanians and Italians. They were united in regards to one aim: to survive and forge a better life in a new country.
We see their resourcefulness in feeding their families when money was scarce. But they were also determined to retain the culinary traditions of their respective homelands. They didn't speak English and had few profitable skills, but they learned quickly.
German-owned beer gardens opened along the Bowery; Russian Jews started cafes serving strudel and blintzes; and Romanian nightclubs attracted New Yorkers from outside the immigrant ghetto.
Ziegelman's 97 Orchard is not a recipe book, per se, but a few ethnic recipes do make their way into the text, illustrating some of the staple dishes that fortified 20th-century immigrants.
From 97 Orchard. Lentil Soup, prepared with inexpensive ingredients, was a hearty favorite of the German-Jewish homemaker. This recipe comes from Kela Nussbaum, a Bavarian who immigrated to the United States shortly after World War II. Ringwurst was probably highly seasoned beef sausage, somewhat similar to salami.
1 bag (1 lb.) brown lentils
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ringwurst (approximately 1 lb.)
2 Tbsps. flour
salt and pepper
Soak lentils in abundant cold water until they expand, about 2 hours. Drain and set aside.
In a large soup pot, sauté the onion and celery until soft, and onion turns a pale gold.
Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
Add the ringwurst, whole, drained lentils and 7 cups water. Bring to a gentle boil. Turn down the heat and simmer until lentils are barely tender.
In a cup, mix the flour with a few tablespoons of the cooking broth to form a roux.
When free of lumps, return roux to the soup pot.
Stir and continue cooking until lentils are fully tender, but still hold their shape.
Remove the ringwurst, slice into discs, and return to the pot.
Season with salt and pepper.
Ashkenazic Egg Cookies
From Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. double-acting baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 Tbsps. sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus about 11/2 tsps. additional oil for brushing
1/4 cup additional sugar (if desired, mix with 11/2 tsp. cinnamon) for sprinkling
Arrange the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 375°.
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease the sheets
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and 3 tablespoons of sugar until light and creamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup oil and beat for 10 minutes. Stir in the flour mixture.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough 1/4-inch thick. Brush with additional oil.
Sprinkle with additional sugar and gently run a rolling pin over the top to embed the crystals. Cut into 2-inch diamonds or squares. Place on prepared baking sheets.
Bake one sheet at a time, until puffed and lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool.
Store in a paper or cloth bag at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Makes about 36 small cookies.
Potato Salad With Tahini
From The Turkish Cookbook. Instead of mayonnaise, this "mashed" salad uses a dressing based on tahini.
4 cups water
1 lb. golden potatoes
1/2 cup tahini
freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
4 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 tsp. Aleppo pepper*
In a 3-quart pot, place the water, salt and potatoes; bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender (test by inserting a toothpick). Drain well and cool.
Peel the potatoes and push them through a ricer, then purée them.
Add the tahini, salt, lemon juice and garlic. Blend well with a wooden spoon and slowly add the olive oil, cumin and pepper, mixing well. Place in a serving dish and sprinkle with some Aleppo pepper.
*A substitute for Aleppo pepper is made by mixing 3 parts paprika with 1 part cayenne pepper or red-pepper flakes. If preferred, just paprika will do.
Serves 4 to 6.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. E-mail her at: [email protected]