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   MIMI'S ULTIMATE GUEST BOOK  
 
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Reviewed by Mimi Hiller
 

Cucina Ebraica : Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen
by Joyce Esersky Goldstein, Ellen Silverman (Photographer)
Hardcover - 208 pages
Chronicle Books; ISBN: 0811819698
 

The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook
by Gloria Kaufer Greene
Hardcover - 539 pages Revised edition
Times Books; ISBN: 0812929772
Reviewed by Mimi Hiller (Read the review)
 

When I first started to learn to cook more years ago than I care to admit, I was interested in exploring the world of food.  The extent of my knowledge of Jewish food at that time was limited to the wonderful traditional Eastern European dishes my grandmother would prepare.  The only Jewish cookbook I knew about was Jennie Grossinger's.  It sat on my shelf, mostly untouched, a tribute to my heritage; my real experience with Jewish food came from hours of watching my grandmother cook or talking to her about various recipes.

In recent years, we have seen hundreds of Jewish cookbooks come on the scene.  In fact, I have a whole bibliography right on this site.

What a thrill it was to learn of whole new Jewish cuisines based on different international influences.  My favorites, now, are those of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  But with so much competition, it was inevitable that the cream would rise to the top.  Purchase all or most of the books listed in my bibliography and you will have tens of thousands of recipes, but if you want to savor the true flavor of Jewish food, stick with the few that present the true story of the ingredients and techniques that make up these wonderful dishes and how they are woven into a cuisine.

Two of these amazing books are Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen by Joyce Goldstein and The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook: An International Collection of Recipes and Customs by Gloria Kaufer Greene.

A fan of Ms. Goldstein's since discovering her Mediterranean Kitchen several years ago, I was anxious to see how she zeroed in on Jewish Italian food.  In Cucina Ebraica, she defines the story of Italian Jews through their food, an interweaving of Middle Eastern, Spanish and Mediterranean influences  And in fact, when you read this wonderful tale of culinary origins, you learn that many of the dishes we've come to think of as purely Italian actually had their roots in the cuisine of the Jews of the region.

Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 brought pumpkin to Italy from the New World; many of the fried foods in Italian cuisine date back to Hanukkah celebrations.

We also learn that there were three major strains of Italian Jews: the Italkim (in Italy since 300 BCE); the Sephardim (from Portugal and Spain after the Inquisition); and the Ashkenzim (from Germany and the North).  And beyond the culinary differences of these groups, we see the assimilation of foods from their non-Jewish neighbors into their own cuisine, adapting to accommodate kosher laws, where necessary.

The book is rich in history and anecdotal information, brief descriptions of the holidays and menu suggestions.  Each recipe is prefaced by meaningful comments, and the full-color photos are guaranteed to make your mouth water.

Among the recipes, you'll find Pizza Ebraica di Erbe (Double-Crusted Vegetable Pie).  According to the author, the word pizza in this case "is related to the Greek pitta."  The crust is filled with a mixture of artichokes, parsley, beet greens (or spinach), onion, and peas, and seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and topped with a second crust.  Minestra di Esau (Lentil Soup with Meatballs) is a tomato-based soup whose meatballs are browned in chicken or goose fat before being added to the broth.

Ms. Goldstein prefaces the recipe for Carciofi alla Giudia (Crispy Fried Artichokes, Jewish Style) by saying: "The first time you eat one of these artichokes, it is so delicious, you will want to cry.  It's also beautiful like a crispy chrysanthemum.  You vow that you are going to make these Roman deep-fried artichokes the minute you get home, so you can enjoy them again and again.  Oh, would that it were so simple.  Carciofi alla giudia is easier to write about than to cook.  American artichokes are not like Roman artichokes.  Ours have tough, fibrous chokes and prickly spines at the ends of the outer leaves.  Most of theirs do not."

One of the most intriguing recipes for me is the Rebecchine di Gerusalemme (Polenta and Anchovy Fritters), both in the rather unorthodox method of preparing the polenta and the fact that, according to the author, versions of this dish "appear in almost every book on the cuisine of Italian Jews."  In this version, polenta is cut into shapes with a cookie or biscuit cutter and formed into "sandwiches" using sauteed anchovies as a filling.  The sandwiches are then dipped into eggs and flour and fried.

While this seems like an ominous task to re-create in an American kitchen, she then goes on to explain that through lengthy experimentation, she has adapted a method which allows her to achieve a success rate of about 80%, which she shares with us.

In Pollo Ezechiele (Ezekiel's Chicken), chicken pieces are sauteed in olive oil.  Then Mediterranean black olives are added, along with garlic, sage, rosemary, basil, tomatoes, and a dry red wine.

Among the desserts, you'll find Torta di Zucca Barucca (Pumpkin Cake from the Veneto), a contribution of the Sephardim; Frittelle di Zucca (Squash Fritters from the Veneto), a Hanukkah confection; and Spongata di Brescello (Double-Crusted Fruit-and-Nut Tart).
 

In The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Ms. Greene brings together hundreds of recipes from all over the world and organizes them by holiday.  Each one is prefaced by wonderful comments regarding its origin or meaning in terms of a particular holiday.

For instance, in the recipe for Saloona (Salmon and Vegetables in Sweet-Sour Sauce), she explains that "sweet-and-sour dishes are sometimes eaten on Purim because of the dual nature of the holiday"; first, the Jews are condemned to death by Haman, but later he is hanged himself.  She goes on to introduce Bella Ini, an Iraqi Jew she knows in her community, the source of this recipe.  In three short paragraphs, you know about the dish, why it is appropriate for Purim, and feel a kinship toward a woman (Mrs. Ini) you'll likely never meet.

Each of the recipes in this book is conspicuously labeled either M, D or P (for meat, dairy or pareve).  For those who maintain a kosher household, this is essential for menu planning.

The book begins with a glossary of ingredients. This is fairly basic, but there was enough that I was able to learn some new things.  For instance, in the definition of kashkaval cheese, Ms. Greene includes anecdotal information attributed to John Cooper, author of Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, that "the word kashkaval is derived from caciocavallo.  Cooper says that this cheese was so popular with Near Eastern Jews that the Greeks called it casheri, meaning "kosher" cheese.  It seems that casheri, which could be spelled kasheri, must be a variant form of the more common word, kasseri."

There is also an extensive presentation of Shabbat, including a section on the symbolism and shaping of challah, and another on the various methods of braiding it, with clear diagrams and instructions using from three strands to six.

Years ago, for me, having challah meant selecting the prettiest one from the display case in one of the Jewish bakeries.  In more recent years, one of the greatest pleasures I've enjoyed is making my own.  Ms. Greene includes several recipes in this volume, plus a few interesting variations.  The most original of these is her challah focaccia, a flattened bread brushed with olive and sprinkled with herbs.

In order for Jews to enjoy a hot midday meal on Shabbat, they have devised recipes which are assembled before sundown on Fridays and cooked over very low heat.  For Ashkenazic Jews, this was cholent; for Sephardim, it was dafina.

Cholent traditionally contains meat, beans, barley, and root vegetables.  In centuries past, where meat was difficult to obtain (or simply too expensive for the masses), chicken was used, and in some cases, it was simply a vegetarian stew.  Traditionally, the women of a shtetl would each gather the essential ingredients into their individual covered pots and take them to a central oven, usually at the town's bakery.  With the heat remaining from the day's baking, the food would cook overnight and still be warm for lunch the next day.

Dafina is similar to cholent, but with one major exception, the addition of a central ingredient.  According to Ms. Greene, this could be "a calf's foot, a cloth bag of rice or wheat berries, and a giant meatball or dumpling called coclo or kouclas."  Traditionally, they also include hard-boiled eggs (in their shells) floating on the surface of the stew.

You will find one recipe for each of these dishes in The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook.  I'm only disappointed that, with so many variations on each of these dishes, Ms. Greene did not include more of them.  Especially with the international tone of this book, I am reminded of one such variation developed by an Ashkenazic Jew who emigrated to Mexico just before the advent of World War II.  This woman combined some of the qualities of Mexican cuisine with her own traditional culinary background and came up with a cholent whose flavor was intensified with cocoa powder.  Just a thought, mind you.

When I was in Israel in 1992, I had the chance to meet Shoshana Boulbil, a cyber friend, in person for the first time.  We wandered through the shuq (open-air market) in Tel Aviv early on a summer's Friday afternoon, and enjoyed some cooling ice cream at an outdoor cafe.  And before we parted, she gave us a pot of mafroumot (meat stuffed potatoes in a tomato sauce) to share with Ruth, our Israeli host.  It was delicious, and I was delighted to find a recipe for this in Ms. Greene's book, and it was pretty much as Shoshana had described it to me.  It is exotic, rich, and absolutely delicious.

This is actually the second edition of this book; this updated version contains more than a hundred new recipes.  In the preface to the second edition, Ms. Greene recounts a conversation with her religious leader, Rabbi Susan Grossman, who notes that "cooking Jewish recipes and passing them down to others could also be considered sacred acts because they connect modern Jews with the customs of their ancestors."

Gloria Kaufer Greene has put together a marvelous collection of recipes and history that not only connects us to our own ancestors, but her amazing effort draws all the corners of the Jewish globe together.  I very much look forward to any future offerings from this very talented woman.
 
 
 

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