Cookbook Review: Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking
Eastern European and Yiddish Recipes
"Food can connect us to our past." Thus Arthur Schwartz begins his cookbook, Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited (Ten Speed Press, $35.00, hardcover, with full color photographs). This sentimental, comprehensive, and mouth watering book celebrates and teaches Jewish home cooking against a backdrop of the history of Jewish migration to New York. Mr. Schwartz gives us cultural, religious and culinary insight into one of our most distinctive and craved food traditions and puts these loved dishes easily into our hands and home kitchens.
He begins his 288-page book with a witty and engaging eleven-page introduction that is a love letter to the legacy of Jewish cooking. Acknowledging that any food that follows the kosher dietary laws can be deemed Jewish, Mr. Schwartz instead fills his book with nearly 100 recipes that are primarily of Eastern European Jewish food -- Ashkenazic food -- that gets shorthanded to being called Yiddish cooking: the food of the people who spoke Yiddish.
The recipes are organized into eight chapters:
- Side Dishes
- Meat Main Courses
- Dairy Main Courses
- Desserts and Sweet Baking
Many of the recipes are for dishes that will be familiar, certainly to home cooks in New York: such as Potato Latkes, Pot-Roasted Beef Brisket, Stuffed Cabbage with Sweet-And-Sour Tomato Sauce, Chopped Liver, Mushroom Barley Soup, and Blintzes. But there are also lesser known dishes, as a Vegetarian Chopped Liver that was a specialty of dairy kosher restaurants that had largely vegetarian menus, and Cold Fruit Soup.
Adding to the book's charm and usefulness are many small asides, adding details about particular ingredients or cultural aspects of the food, including Flaken (Jewish Short Ribs), the role of potatoes, the story of Romanian Steakhouses, and one of my favorites, "Why Jews Like Chinese Food" (followed by recipes for Chinese-American Chow Mein and Chinese Roast Meat on Garlic Bread with Duck Sauce).
Mr. Schwartz manages to bring historic and dated recipes to a modern dinner table with adjustments for how we eat today, a nod to healthier ingredients, and the interconnections between home and restaurant eating.
Many of the recipes are notably simple, often with very few ingredients. What gives the book its rich complexity are the stories that accompany nearly every instruction and every dish. None are belabored but each seems to add to the appeal and even the flavor of each recipe. For those of us who do not have Jewish grandmothers, reading and cooking from this book can make us honorary participants in this great food tradition.
Cooking for Passover
The chapter on Passover may be enough of a reason to buy this book, especially by those who are not observant and only cook traditional dishes at the major Jewish holidays, most notably Passover.
The chapter devoted to Passover starts with the story of the holiday, followed by the best primer on matzo I've ever read. The recipes include Matzo Meal Latkes, Matzo Farfel Kugel, Matzo Brei (fried matzo), Cottage-Cheese Chremslach, Passover Pareve Apple Cake, My Family's Passover Walnut Cake, Passover Mandelbread, and two recipes for Charosis. (Elsewhere in the book are the recipes for the most popular Passover main courses, including brisket and chicken).
The book ends with a glossary of Yiddish Food Terms, a brilliant and practical addition to a book that simply couldn't be written without the frequent use of specific Yiddish words, descriptions and definitions. That is because while this is a book about food, it is as much about culture, history and religion.
As a lifelong New Yorker, Mr. Schwartz's book is filled with asides to places past and present in New York City, making the book particularly credible to those of us who live and cook here. He is the former food editor of the New York Daily News, was the host of WOR's "Food Talk" for 13 years, and is a teacher and author of numerous other cookbooks.
Adding to the book's appeal is Ben Fink's gorgeous color photography which is supplemented with old photos of places mostly now long gone. Then again, the old faded photo of Yohah Shimmel's Knish Bakery is simply a century-old image of a place still very much intact. Opened in 1910 on Houston Street, today it's in the exact same location , and in the exact same business. This photo is a metaphor for Jewish Home Cooking -- as Arthur Schwartz so beautifully shows that to know the past is to remind us of why and how we want to eat today.