Leah Koenig interviews Jayne Cohen, The Jew and the Carrot
Jayne Cohen is the author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking “ and “The Gefilte Variations”.
When I first began writing about food many years ago, I didn’t write about Jewish cuisine. There was a stereotyped perception of Jewish aesthetics: “beauty” was equated with assimilation, or with other ethnic groups and Jewish food was marginalized. Still, I loved these foods at home with a private passion.
Then too, growing up in heavily Jewish New York in the sixties, I saw focusing on my ethnic identity as divisive. Ironically, it was through involvement in the civil rights movement that I eventually came to appreciate my roots: not only were other minority cultures beautiful, but so was mine. Then, when my grandmother died and we had to make the seder meal without her, my family had no idea how to make many of her Ashkenazi recipes. So much of Jewish cuisine is bubbe cuisine, grandmother cuisine. But what happens, I wondered then, when the grandmothers die and there are no new generations who know how to prepare these foods?
Still, cooking Jewish food shouldn’t mean trotting out culinary dinosaurs for the holidays. So I began to experiment and improvise a lot with Jewish recipes. By the time I began writing my first cookbook, The Gefilte Variations, I was concerned with creating new Jewish food memories for my daughter, because Jewish cuisine is not only our link to the past – it’s also a bridge to the future.
I learned from many readers that they were cooking Jewish foods mostly on the holidays. And since Jewish holidays are about not just food, but celebrating with family and friends, I wanted to provide much more information than I had previously for holiday celebrations: stories, history, traditions, how-to’s. I wanted this information to be accessible to those at all levels of observance, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist and Reformed, interfaith to secular. Jewish Holiday Cooking, I hoped, would be the go-to book for the wide tent that is contemporary Judaism – and for those simply intrigued by our beautiful food.
Above all, making a Jewish holiday meal is about folding people into the warm embrace of your family. So making everyone feel welcome, savoring the food leisurely and joyously – these are the most important recipes for magical holiday memories. Even chicken put through Woody Allen’s “deflavorizer” won’t taste half-bad at a happy table; the sweetness of laughter will endure long after the honey cake. Oh, and some wonderful wine helps too!
When planning the menu, remember that the holidays are rooted in the rhythms of the seasons. Relying on fresh, local foods not only speaks to Jewish concerns for balance and the order of the universe, but also makes it simpler to create something special: peak season produce requires a lot less potchkehing to taste spectacular.
Many holiday foods are richer and more complex to prepare than everyday food, so pair them with lighter and less labor-intensive choices. Offer steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus instead of broccoli kugel alongside potatoes. It’s always a good idea to prepare some foods ahead, but especially helpful for novice cooks. However, I often find that when foods are readied in advance, the vibrant notes of aromatics, herbs, and spices flatten out. Perk up these dishes with an infusion of bright flavors just before serving: a shower of the fresh herbs you’ve cooked with, or a squeeze of lemon juice and a grating of lemon zest.
Pot-luck holiday meals are a wonderful way to encourage guests’ participation. Think beyond potluck break-the-fasts to potluck Hanukkahs, when everyone brings a different kind of latke, homemade applesauce, or other accompaniment. How about a leavened-breads-fest, before or after Passover? And if a guest asks what to bring to your holiday meal, suggest dessert – unless you’ve already prepared it in advance, chances are you’ll be using the oven for something else.
Jewish holidays are a foodie’s delight because each one has a unique taste. So each holiday has its special charms for the foodie in me — for instance, the collision of summer and fall at the Greenmarket, providing quick-growing vegetables, golden squashes, and new fruit for Rosh Hashanah.
Today many Jewish holiday foods are celebration foods, not ones we eat every day. When I serve them, I round out the meal with fresh salads, seasonal vegetables and fruits – balance is key here. I also trim off meat fat and thoroughly skim soups and gravies. I use meltingly tender cubes of eggplant instead of gobs of butter to moisten kasha varnishkes and reduced carrot juice to make Rosh Hashanah carrots more carroty and sugary without added sweetening.