Leah Koenig on the Best Jewish Cookbooks and What People Get Wrong About Jewish Cuisine

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The author of Modern Jewish Cooking shares her favorite cookbooks and more. Zivar Amrami

As a kid, Leah Koenig was a picky eater. "If I'd written a cookbook back then the entirety of the table of contents would read: macaroni with butter and Cheerios." But her mother "was a stickler for good eating" and stocked "real maple syrup in the pantry and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables on our dinner table. Eventually," says Koenig, "I came to my senses."

After working with farmers, chefs, and food activists at a nonprofit in New York, Koenig decided to write full time: "I started writing what I knew: food, culture, and agriculture. Things grew from there and I began developing recipes for magazines and eventually, through a stroke of good fortune and friendship (an overextended food writing friend passed me the gig) wrote my first cookbook."

While her latest book, Modern Jewish Cooking, isn't an autobiography, Koenig says it's "pretty much the story of my life. I live in Brooklyn and am part of a young Jewish community filled with people who love having each other over for Shabbat meals. The dinner party stakes are high 'round these parts, and I've been a guest at some phenomenally creative meals—many of which feature traditional Jewish foods re-imagined for a modern table." A favorite example: A blintz-making party "where people brought a bunch of delightfully random fillings—pesto, mascarpone, strawberry-rhubarb compote—and we all went to town frying, filling, and folding the blintzes. It was one of the most worthwhile stomachaches I've ever had."

Working as a writer introduced Koenig to the 'nouveau Jewish food scene' around the country ("think Mile End, Shelsky's, Wise Sons, Kenny & Zuke's, etc.")—so developing a new Jewish cookbook seemed like a natural fit. I asked her a bit about the Jewish cookbooks she loves, other cooking favorites, and what people get wrong about Jewish food.

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Leah Koenig

Tell us a bit about your cookbook collection. I definitely don't have the world's largest cookbook collection—my apartment is crowded enough as it is!—but I am fiercely fond of the ones I do have. I started collecting as a college student when I began cooking in earnest. The most dog-eared and sauce-splashed book I own is, no surprise, Joy of Cooking. It is my go-to for standards like pancakes and biscuits because the ratios are always perfect. I must have referenced the "basic cooked rice" page a dozen times when I was first learning how to cook.

After that, I turn most to The Flavor Bible, which my husband bought me while I was developing recipes for Modern Jewish Cooking. Instead of traditional recipes, it names ingredients and the flavors that taste best with them. So blueberries, for example, have 60 "flavor affiliates" listed from yogurt to ginger to mint. I use this book to dream up creative ideas for the old standbys. Reading that chicken plays well with cinnamon, for example, got me thinking about all sorts of braises and stews.

The heart of my collection is, naturally, Jewish cookbooks. Joan Nathan, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden are my gods—I basically have a whole shelf dedicated to their combined cookbooks. More recently, I got Jewish Soul Food, a new book by Janna Gur that focuses on the ethnic Jewish and Arabic foods made by immigrant home cooks in Israel. Aside from the insanely delicious food (I just made and loved Plau B'Jeej—an Iraqi dish of chicken with almonds and raisins served over spiced tomato rice), it reads like a treasure trove of dishes that, if no one writes them down, will soon be lost to the ages. Fortunately, Gur had the forethought to collect, curate, and share them.

I also have a bunch of fun vintage Jewish cookbooks, like the Kosher Creole Cookbook written by a nonagenarian Jewish woman from New Orleans named Mildred Covert, and The Sentinel Jewish Cookbook. Published in 1936 and claiming to hold within it "Jewish, American, Hungarian, Russian, French, Austrian, Bohemian, German, Polish, and Roumanian dishes," it contains winners like "Tongue and Eggs Tartar" and "Dobach Torte/12-Layer Cake." I wouldn't say I cook much out of these books, but my shelves would feel empty without them.

You mentioned some food idols and mentors—what have they taught you? I have never met Claudia Roden, unfortunately, but Gil Marks (who sadly passed away late last year) and Joan Nathan are idols and mentors both. I had the pleasure of traveling with Joan and a bunch of journalists to Israel on a food tour a few years ago, and will never forget watching her in action as a reporter and kitchen sleuth. She managed to charm her way into all the locked and unaccessible kitchens and pull stories and recipes out of their cooks. It was a beautiful and educational thing to witness.

Gil, meanwhile, was an absolute genius and a walking encyclopedia of Jewish food—a book he, thank goodness, eventually wrote. He was also a complete mensch who was always happy to be a historical source for an article. The man loved to talk (and talk), and it always felt like an honor to listen to him.

What do people often get wrong about Jewish cooking? A few things. First, that it's supposed to be kitschy. Second, that it's too heavy and bland. And third, that it is immutable. I'm honestly so bored of the, "Oh my mother's potato kugel was as hard as a rock," jokes that people make to sort of dismiss the entire category of Jewish food. That's not because potato kugel is inherently bad, it's because your mom didn't make a good one. Taken from a global perspective, Jewish cuisine—which can mean everything from knishes and brisket to smoky, charred eggplant and fried artichokes—is incredibly vibrant and adaptable. Thankfully, I think people are finally starting to catch on to that.

What lesser-known cookbooks really inspire you? I love Fields of Plenty by Michael Ableman. Ableman is a farmer, writer, and photographer who, way back in 2005 when the current iteration of the sustainable food movement was just getting going, published this stunningly gorgeous book that profiled America's farmers and shared their recipes. He and his son traveled around the country, visiting, photographing, and eating with family farmers. My favorite was an unexpected chapter on Eli Zabar—the New York baker and food mogul who runs a sprawling greenhouse on top of his building in Manhattan. The book is brilliant and continues to inspire me, 10 years later.

I also love Oma & Bella, a film and accompanying cookbook written by a German woman named Alexa Karolinski. It features Karolinski's grandmother (Oma), Regina, and her best friend Bella—two Holocaust survivors who now live and cook traditional Jewish food together in Berlin. Written in German and English and illustrated with these gorgeously whimsical drawings of the two women and their kitchen, the book is at once touching and, thanks to Regina and Bella's fiery personalities, hilarious. The chopped liver recipe is also killer. What ties these books together is that instead of just presenting recipes and food porn photos, they tell a compelling story about the food.

Any favorite cookbooks for vegetarian cooking? One of my favorite books, vegetarian or otherwise, is Fresh Food Fast by Peter Berley. Berley used to be the chef at Angelica Kitchen, one of the pioneering vegetarian restaurants in New York City. He's written a couple of lovely vegetarian and macrobiotic-inspired books, but Fresh Food Fast, which he co-wrote with Melissa Clark, is the one I turn to the most. The dishes are broken up by seasons, and are all simple, flavorful, "more than the sum of their parts" type recipes. It's just filled with stuff I actually want to make—things like broccoli rabe with balsamic brown butter, tomato goat cheese strata, and the best rhubarb crisp I've ever made. What more can you ask for in a cookbook?

If you had to pare your entire cookbook collection down to five books, which would you choose? I'm assuming I get to include my own as a given, yes? In that case:

  1. Joy of Cooking, because Joy of Cooking.
  2. Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen—this book is filled with old-timey wisdom on pickling, preserving, and eating from the land. It's stunning, but also too practical not to keep.
  3. The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden—she captures the entirety of the Jewish world inside the book's covers. It's a work of art.
  4. Plenty by Ottolenghi—for the Black Pepper Tofu alone! And all the other obvious reasons.
  5. Olive Trees and Honey by Gil Marks—This is one of Gil's earlier masterpieces. It focuses on vegetarian and vegetable-centric dishes within Jewish cuisine. He did it before anyone else thought to, and he did it flawlessly.