Is it just me, or is kosher cooking having itself a little bit of a renaissance? Over the last year, a slew of cookbooks have been published (like this one, this one, and this one!) that bring kosher cooking out of the Crisco era and into modern times. Ronnie Fein’s new book Hip Kosher is no exception. The book’s manifesto? Kosher cooking should be innovative, delicious, and accessible to all home chefs. And Fein is willing to prove it with creative, easy-to-prepare recipes like pea soup with mint and bulghur salad with feta and dill sauce.
Fein, who is the founder of the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, CT spoke to The Jew & The Carrot about what hip kosher really means, Jewish food’s chameleon tendencies, and the many virtues of an ear of corn.
Read her interview below and, while you’re at it, WIN a copy of Hip Kosher! Answer the following question and be entered in a drawing to win: If you were a vegetable, what you’d be and why? (I promise this will make more sense when you read the interview.)
And congrats to Judi for being the randomly-selected winner in our last raffle for Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking.
What inspired you to write this book?
Kosher cooks have always adapted to the local cuisine. In Russia, Jewish mothers cooked potato pancakes, making use of the local produce. Sephardic moms were known for their borekas, just like the non-Jewish moms in Turkey. In Romania, mamaliga was a daily treat for Jews and non-Jews alike.
So why not adapt kosher to American cooking? As time goes by we are further and further away from whatever Old Country our ancestors were from, and, while we revere their memories and appreciate their traditions, like those people before us, we see what’s available in our markets now and adapt our cooking accordingly. For the past 30-40 years American cooking has grown amazingly sophisticated. We are no longer just a burger-and-fries nation. Our cuisine is now the envy of the world. Kosher cooking, as always, follows suit.
When we eat kosher out we are no longer limited to a deli, a steak place or a Chinese restaurant. Kosher diners can find sophisticated items such as Miso-glazed sea bass and Chimichurri Beef on the menu. We want to cook those kinds of dishes at home too. At least the ones that aren’t too involved or take too much time. Thankfully we can because manufacturers understand the need and thousands of new products are now certified kosher.
One of my inspirations for the book was to make the process easy for home cooks. Hip Kosher makes it easy for any kosher cook to make delicious, modern American food every day and not have to worry about adapting for the kosher kitchen. I’ve already done that work. Every recipe is for modern American, rather than traditional Jewish style food, yet all the recipes are kosher and every product used had a hekhsher when appropriate. All are relatively easy to make and don’t take much time.
What does the term Hip Kosher mean to you?
Hip kosher is modern kosher. Kosher for people who are interested in broadening their culinary repertoire to include the vast panoply of American foods and recipes, cooked in accordance with kosher ways. It is also modern in the sense that it uses not only the vast, diverse kinds of products that are available to kosher cooks but also looks to opting for lighter, healthier foods, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and recipes that are lower in salt and fat (and use the good fats such as olive oil). While there are chapters on meats and poultry, the greater emphasis in the book is on other foods.
You’ve written that you want this book to appeal to kosher keepers and non-kosher keepers alike. Why? How do you go about doing this in the book?
Actually, I’ve written this book for kosher keepers, but it is geared to kosher keepers who are kosher by religious tradition and also those who are kosher for other reasons.
Although I didn’t actually intend what you said, I see no reason why anyone who wanted 175 good recipes couldn’t use it, whether or not they are kosher. The recipes, all tested, offer a broad range of foods and styles, so if someone wants a good recipe for a couscous salad, grilled salmon, quinoa stir-fry, grilled vegetable and cheese sandwiches, cold and hot soups, sweet potato pancakes, peppers and eggs and the most fabulous chocolate chip cookies ever – and much more – they’ll find it here. The good thing is that anyone can use it and if you are kosher, you needn’t worry about adapting ingredients and making changes.
Who are the members of what you’ve described as today’s “newest kosher crowd”?
The newest kosher crowd includes Jewish people who have come to kosher even though their parents were not; Jewish people who are kosher but wish to update their cooking to a broader, more modern approach, using American style recipes, fresh ingredients and with an eye to healthier eating; non-Jewish people who look to kosher for other religious reasons Muslims, for example, who observe many of the same principles that we do when it comes to food; and those who look to kosher for non-religious reasons: vegetarians, those who are lactose intolerant or have other allergies, those concerned with animal welfare and those who prefer kosher for spiritual reasons, because the kosher outlook has always been to be grateful for and therefore treat our earth, produce and animals with respect.
If you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?
Wow, this came out of left field! Interesting. My first thought was that I like my life very much so prefer to stay what I am and not be a vegetable in any sense of that word! Then I thought about my favorite vegetable, the parsnip: undervalued, sweet, delicious and more versatile than anyone knows.
But I ultimately decided I would be corn. Corn has in interesting history — anthropologists have found the original plant has perhaps 3 or 5 kernels! Corn is life sustaining. It feeds the world, both humans and animals. Corn is useful, not only providing food and ingredients used in food (think of all the products that include corn syrup and cornstarch), but also used to make an almost endless variety of products including cosmetics, fuel, paint pharmaceuticals, fabrics, and dozens of other things. As a food, it is delicious both fresh (who doesn’t love a freshly cooked cob of corn slathered with butter or olive oil?) and dried: corn muffins and corn bread, polenta (my grandma would say mamaliga), corn chips and hush puppies. Drive out into the country and it is easy to know that corn is sustainable and it provides farmers with a good living. Plenty of virtues; I pick corn.
Thanks to Hazon intern, Regina Ostrovski, for conducting this interview.