Jewish food is not just something to eat – it’s a history lesson on a plate. Through old recipes we learn about Jewish history, customs and religious practices. A recipe is a window into a world, a reflection of a way of life, as important a historical document in its way as a treaty or declaration of war. And it doesn’t hurt that it tastes good too!
But just what IS Jewish food? Is there any such thing? Wherever Jews have wandered they have absorbed the foods of the surrounding communities. Creative Jewish cooks borrowed the recipes of their German, Austrian, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish – you get the idea – neighbors and molded them to conform to the kosher laws and to religious observances. They then brought the foods of their homelands with them when they came to America.
What we think of today as our most beloved Jewish dishes from Eastern Europe were born in the kitchens of the poor. These cooks had to be creative. You can roast or grill prime cuts, but less tender, cheaper cuts had to be slow cooked and tenderized with wine or marinated for flavor. To stretch a meal, one could add fillers or wrap precious proteins in dough.
If you’re Sephardic, “Jewish food” to you is bourekas and filas, stuffed vegetables and vine leaves, baba ghanoush and hummus and delicious borrowings from North Africa or Spanish, Italian and Greek cultures. While the menus of the diverse Jewish cultures may differ, what we share is our love of food and the impact it has on our identity and celebrations.
Food has a special place in Jewish heritage because it is seen as God’s blessing. We recite prayers both before and after meals, and Jewish holidays, festivals and rituals have had a tremendous impact on our cuisine.
“Food has always been of special importance to Jews,” says renowned cookbook author Claudia Roden, writing in the introduction to “The Gefiltefest Cookbook” (Grub Street, $39.95). “It is a link with the past and about roots and identity, ancestors and old homelands.”
Roden is a founding patron of Gefiltefest, a Jewish food charity based in London “that aims to celebrate, promote and revive worldwide Jewish culinary traditions” by raising awareness and funds for food-related charities, such as food banks in Israel and London. Their flagship event is the annual Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival, held this year in June. Proceeds from the sale of the cookbook help support the festival and food-related charities.
The founding of Gefiltefest began serendipitously with a competition for a cooking lesson with Chef Lisa Roukin won by Michael Leventhal, a journalist and publisher of historical books. Instead of scheduling a one-on-one lesson, Michael asked Lisa to give a cooking demonstration for his friends. Maureen Kendler, Head of Education at the London School of Jewish Studies offered to speak about kosher cookbooks, and Ariel Kahn, Literature and Creative Writing teacher at Roehampton University, agreed to discuss food in Jewish fiction. Within three weeks, twenty speakers had signed up to participate in the first Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival.
The cookbook was a natural outgrowth of the event, and the list of contributors is a veritable Who’s Who of the most celebrated Jewish chefs and food writers: Poopa Dweck, Florence Fabricant, Jamie Geller, Marcy Goldman, Joyce Goldstein, Faye Levy, Deborah Madison, Gil Marks, Joan Nathan, Yotam Ottolenghi, Denise Phillips, Steven Raichlen, Claudia Roden, Evelyn Rose, Michael Ruhlman, Paula Shoyer, Marlena Spieler, Paula Wolfert, and Orly Ziv, to name just a few.
The recipes encompass an international array of beloved dishes as well as family favorites and chef creations: Spinach with Pine Nuts and Raisins; Onion and Goat Cheese Tart; Shawarma Salad; Pollo Ezechiele (Chicken with Tomatoes, Olives, Herbs and Red Wine); Parisienne Gnocchi with Spinach, Onion and Poached Egg; Caprese Latkes; Pizza Ebraica; Syrian Artichoke and Cheese Casserole; Chocolate and Halva Babka.
Gil Horav, one of Israel’s leading culinary journalists and television personalities, contributes a unique take on tabouleh, using couscous instead of bulgar, and adding pine nuts, pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries) and lots of vegetables, “a sort of fruit and vegetable extravaganza,” as he calls it.
Gefiltefest founder Michael Leventhal offers his Grandma Sophie’s Apple Strudel. “My grandma continued to make the strudel even when she was well into her nineties,” he writes. “She would have been flattered – but mostly bemused and surprised – to see her recipe published alongside so many renowned cooks. Regardless, it is my favorite recipe.”
Tabouleh-Couscous Vegetable Salad
“The Lebanese claim that we stole this recipe directly from their culinary heritage, and honestly, there might be a seed of truth in that claim. But whereas the Lebanese tabouleh is a relatively simple (however, no less tasty) combination of bulgar wheat and chopped fresh herbs, the Israeli version is much richer.” Gil Horav
1 package instant couscous
4 spring onions
6 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt or ground sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 cup pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped dill
1 Prepare couscous according to package directions, and let it cool completely.
2 Finely dice tomatoes and cucumbers. Thinly slice scallions and mix together with other vegetables.
3 Add zest from one whole lemon and juice from both lemons to salad.
4 Add remaining ingredients, including cold couscous, and mix well. Keeps well, refrigerated, up to 24 hours.
“For many years no Shabbat was complete without two rolls of [Grandma Sophie’s] perfect, freshly made apple strudel. They arrived every Friday afternoon in a plastic box and were devoured by Sunday morning. The same crooked plastic box was returned so that it could be refilled the following week.” Michael Leventhal, founder of Gefiltefest
14 ounces ready-rolled puff pastry
Flour for dusting
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup raspberry conserve
4 tablespoons ground almonds
4 medium cooking apples (Braeburn, Granny Smith or Golden Delicious)
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon beaten egg
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1 Preheat oven to 350˚F. Cut sheet of pastry in half width-wise.
2 On lightly floured surface or large piece of parchment paper, roll half out into 11 X 15-inch rectangle – pastry will get very thin. Lightly brush pastry with half the oil, leaving a 1-inch border. Spread 1/4 cup conserve within border and sprinkle 2 tablespoons almonds over top.
3 Peel and grate apples into colander; squeeze out as much juice as you can. Spread half over pastry, making sure apple is evenly spread, followed by half the raisins and sprinkling of cinnamon.
4 Carefully roll from long edge of pastry to form a log. Turn so seal is underneath, then tuck ends under and brush all over with beaten egg. Transfer to lined baking sheet; repeat with remaining pastry and ingredients.
5 Bake 30-35 minutes until golden and puffed up. Cool on wire rack. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar; cut into slices. Eat and enjoy!