November 12, 2002

This Ain't Your Bubbie's Cooking


Adventures in Jewish Cooking, by Jeffrey Nathan. New York, Clarkson Potter. 256 pp. $32.50.

When you sprinkle fresh cilantro on a dish of sea bass Vera Cruz baked on a bed of olives, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeņo peppers, you may be doing more than just serving dinner. You may be fulfilling Jeffrey Nathan's spiritual quest.

Nathan is the author of Adventures in Jewish Cooking, a new cookbook that is as much culinary document as it is manifesto. As the renowned chef at Abigael's, one of New York's largest kosher restaurants, Nathan has assembled a book of innovative, eclectic recipes that seeks to demonstrate the unlimited range of kosher cuisine and put to rest once and for all the misconception that kosher means substandard.

"The goal of this book is to awaken American cooks to the great, big, wide, and wonderful world of Jewish cooking," Nathan pens in his introduction, writing with the zeal of a convert. "Believe me, I was the perfect example of a guy who thought Jewish cooking meant a pastrami sandwich on rye or bagel with a schmear."

But Nathan has since gotten an education, and there's plenty in his new book to awaken not only American cooks, but culinary aficionados around the world.

"Over the years, my experience as a chef brought me not only to the varied foods of the world, but to the cooking of my heritage," writes Nathan, who is also the host of a weekly television show in the U.S. called "New Jewish Cuisine." Nathan's diverse culinary repertoire includes "renditions of food from the entire Jewish diaspora, from Yemen to Ethiopia, from Italy to Morocco, from Israel to Brooklyn."

This new cookbook is a reflection of the myriad locales in which Jews have made their homes, but it is also filled with recipes for non-traditional international dishes that few would associate with kosher cuisine. Nathan mixes standard American fare like apple cider brisket and marinated rib-eye steak with classic dishes from Mexico, Thailand, South America, China and the Mediterranean. Recipes for chopped liver are listed along with nori-wrapped salmon with pea shoot salad and a Passover recipe for Latin American ceviche (a gefilte fish alternative made of salmon and red snapper, served with a salad of mangoes, oranges, peppers, plum tomatoes and matzos). Main courses include such variegated dishes as stuffed peppers with Creole sauce, veal chops Milanese with tomato salad and arugula, Syrian lemon chicken stew, and brook trout with lime brown butter, mangoes and cashews.

Nathan's eclectic combination of cuisines makes Adventures in Jewish Cooking one of the most exciting kosher cookbooks to be published in years.

There are easy delicious dishes like tuna au poivre on tomato-onion salad, which takes about as long to prepare as it does to read, or Peruvian steak with red grapes and onions (the rib-eyes are seasoned with cumin, garlic, onion powder and black pepper). Both these dishes work well with or without the bed of onions and grapes (or onions and tomatoes), and even neophyte cooks will have hard time going wrong with them. Crispy Creole chicken breasts, a crispy, spicy fried chicken dish, works well as an appetizer or main course. Just be very careful in following the crisping directions: If, like my mother, you're constitutionally incapable of using generous amounts of oil and to fry these victuals, the chicken breasts will come out soggy and messy.

On the lighter side of things, there's plenty of tantalizing fare to keep vegetarians happy. The scarlet fire vegetarian chili is so packed with vegetables that even meat-eaters won't miss the beef-the recipe includes onions, peppers, mushrooms, corn, tomatoes, garbanzo and kidney beans, and it can be spiced to taste. And if you're short an ingredient or two, I wouldn't worry. Chili is chili. The beet, pear and fennel salad with orange vinaigrette is good for those who like things tart; personally, I prefer sweet flavors, like the warm sweet pepper salad with feta cheese, a Sephardic dish I combined with fettuccine with cremini and roasted peppers (a quick and easy pasta course-except for the roasting part) for a spontaneous dinner party. String beans puttanesca and parsnip oven fries make good side dishes.

For those with moderate cooking experience, Nathan's recipes are ambitious but doable. In trying many of his dishes, I often found myself short an ingredient or two, which I found generally did not make much of a difference. Modifying steps, however (such as foregoing marinating or frying) is not recommended.

While Adventures in Jewish Cooking makes fresh news of kosher cuisine, for the most part Nathan's recipes are not quintessentially Jewish. There aren't that many variations of the basics of Jewish food-kugels, Eastern European chicken dishes, Yiddishe soups, and the like-so if you're looking to re-create your grandmother's kitchen this book is probably not your best source. Many of the recipes also are quite labor intensive, and the ingredients are not always so easily found among the stalls of Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda. While Nathan has brought together a collection of tasty dishes, his "new Jewish cuisine" is more new than it is Jewish.

At the same time, however, this cookbook is more than coincidentally kosher. Many of the recipes are designed for the eccentricities of kosher-observant consumers, such as dishes suited for preparation one day and serving the next-convenient for Sabbath observers. Nathan also lists pareve variations of dairy and meat dishes, and some of his offerings are flagged as special "heritage recipes," like his honey cake, sweet noodle-and-fruit kugel, New York rye bread and potato latkes. The cookbook includes a recipe for "Superb Sabbath Cholent," helpful techniques for making stock for use in soups, and Passover secrets, like banana cake with strawberry-marsala compote.

Though he's a gourmet chef, the author (who is not related to Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America) has a practical streak, exhibited as a Jewish mother's keen eye for a metzia-a bargain. The recipe for chicken stock, for instance, contains a brief introduction that advises readers to "get in the habit of freezing chicken bones and trimmings for a cost-efficient way to make stock, or simply buy chicken parts when you see them at a good price advice." Clearly, Nathan knows his audience. In his introduction to the book's breads section, he writes, "You'll know when you've added enough flour by feeling the dough-it should feel like a baby's tush."

Adventuresome cooks will appreciate Nathan's flair for blending the new with the old, but traditionalists looking for stereotypical kosher fare would be better off sorting through their grandmothers' yellowing index cards than picking up this book.