Feed your culinary passion with one of this year’s top cookbooks

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

There was a time when people with dietary restrictions had a hard time eating out at restaurants or enjoying a meal at a friend’s home. That has changed. Today, many restaurants offer alternative menu items to satisfy different dietary preferences and restrictions, from vegetarian to vegan to Paleo to gluten-free to low-carb to… just about anything. Also, today’s dinner host or hostess is much more likely to ask their guests about dietary restrictions. 

For those of you who enjoy cooking, there is a new generation of cookbooks with recipes focused on various dietary lifestyles, cultural culinary traditions and medical restrictions. Even the current “general” category of cookbooks often provides alternative ingredients for those wanting to convert a recipe to make it kosher, vegetarian, gluten-free, or vegan, for example.

The challenge is selecting the right cookbook. Sure, there are hundreds of cookbooks that will entice you with their stunning photography or clever recipe titles. Some may be “written” by Hollywood stars or celebrity chefs. However, the bottom line is this: the recipes must be clearly written and easy to follow, with ingredients that are easy to access, and produce results you can not only enjoy but want to make again and again.

The best way to choose the cookbook for you is to test some of the cookbook’s recipes, something that is nearly impossible to do before purchasing a book. Accordingly, I enlisted three recipe testers, handed each a different cookbook, asked them each to test two recipes from their cookbook and respond to these questions: 

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1. Was the cookbook easy to follow and were you pleased with the results?

2. Were ingredients easily accessible?

3. Were recipes creative, exciting, or just ordinary?

4. Would you make these recipes again?

“Hazana” by Paola Gavin.

“Hazana” is Gavin’s fourth vegetarian cookbook. In her introduction, Gavin skillfully explores Jewish history and traces the culinary traditions of Jews who migrated across 20 different countries, bringing with them their own traditions and adapting others to be compatible with Jewish dietary laws. With recipes such as Artichoke Tart, Iranian Potato Cake, and Lentil and Rice Soup for Yom Kippur, Gavin celebrates the very best of Jewish tradition in a vegetarian and plant-based format.

Maxine Lipeles was my tester for this cookbook. Maxine is a highly-respected environmental lawyer. She is a senior lecturer in law and Director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University Law School. She and her husband, Joel, have had a kosher home since 1993, and have been vegetarians for the past 10 years. Maxine is an avid cook, and happens to make the most delicious and beautiful High Holiday challah. She enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes.  

Maxine tested two recipes: Cauliflower Simmered with Onions, Tomatoes, and Cumin; and Spinach with White Beans and Tomatoes. Here’s her feedback on the book:

1. The cookbook is easy to use, and the directions are clear and easy to follow. In addition to the two recipes I tried, I skimmed through much of the book and many of the other recipes sounded like they would be easy to prepare.

2. I had no trouble getting the ingredients I needed with one trip to the grocery store. There may have been a few ingredients I didn’t recognize in some of the recipes, but generally the book offered an easy-to-find alternative.

3. I would say that the recipes were more ordinary than exciting. Of the two I tried, I’d be more likely to cook them again just for us rather than for company. That said, I only tried two of the many recipes in the cookbook. 

4. I would definitely prepare both of these recipes again. Joel and I both liked the cauliflower dish. The harissa and cumin gave it good flavor. I added some baked tofu because the recipe didn’t include any protein. It could also be served on a bed of couscous, brown rice or quinoa for added protein. The Spinach with White Beans and Tomatoes was a bit bland, however, you could tweak the flavor with sautéed garlic and fresh herbs. I am interested in trying some of the other recipes and would recommend the book to someone who likes vegetarian food and prefers simpler rather than complex recipes.

“Tahini and Turmeric” by Vicky Cohen and Ruth Fox.

Cohen and Fox, who currently live in Philadelphia, are sisters born to Lebanese parents and raised in Barcelona, Spain. They have taken many classic Middle Eastern dishes from their childhood and made them vegan friendly.  

Dishes like “Chickpea and Pepper Shakshuka,” and “Slow Cooker Sweet and Savory Moroccan-Style Tofu” require ingredients that may be new to some cooks. However, the author’s do a fine job of explaining the more common ingredients in a Middle Eastern pantry, and also offer ideas for substitutes should those ingredients be too difficult to find. In their first cookbook, Cohen and Fox sought to create vegan recipes that are exciting and full of flavor. They succeeded. 

Marci Mayer Eisen was my tester for this cookbook. Marci is well known to many. She works across the entire St. Louis Jewish community — as Director of the Millstone Institute, staff for JPro, and on many other Jewish Federation of St. Louis initiatives. What you may not know about Marci is that she is a vegan wannabe, as evidenced by the name of her Instagram account: Wannabeavegan. While she doesn’t cook as much as she used to, she still enjoys making plant-based dishes, particularly soups and roasted vegetables.   

Marci tested recipes for Avocados Stuffed with Chick Peas, Lemon, and Mint; Pistachio “Nice” Cream; Roasted Cauliflower with Green Tahini Sauce; Easy Tomato Jasmine Rice Soup; Deconstructed Hummus; Couscous, Tomato, and Black Bean Side Salad; and Vegan Truffles. The woman was on a roll! Here’s Marci’s feedback on the book:

1. This cookbook is easy to use and to follow, with accurate cooking and baking times. It also has great photos.

2. The majority of ingredients- tahini paste, chickpeas, beans, parsley, cilantro, lemon, and cumin- I either had or could easily find. I don’t have za’atar, however, and would have needed to make a special trip to Penzey’s (or Israel) to get it. Or, I suppose, I could make my own?

3. The recipes were definitely creative.

4. I would certainly make many of the recipes again. My favorites were the green tahini sauce with parsley and cilantro over roasted cauliflower and Deconstructed Hummus. I also enjoyed learning to make vegan truffles- much easier than I expected.

“Ottolenghi Simple” by Yotam Ottolenghi.

Yotam Ottolenghi is an award-winning cookbook author, chef and gifted writer. His columns in the New York Times are as enjoyable to read, as his recipes are to make. He created his newest collection of 130 recipes to emphasize flavor over fuss, with many of the recipes having a completion time of less than 30 minutes. While many of the recipes require less than 10 ingredients, a few of those ingredients may require a trip to a local ethnic grocery store. However, the journey will be well worth your time. Ottolenghi’s brilliance at coaxing maximum flavor from unique ingredient combinations is revelatory.

My tester here taught me how to make a basic loaf of bread back in 1978. When he became a lawyer and had less time to patchky with bread dough, he passed the baton onto me. That would be my husband, Mike, who has sadly been relegated to sous chef and head dishwasher in our kitchen. However, Mike can cook. He makes a winning bowl of oatmeal with fresh berries, and perfectly scrambled eggs and toast. He was delighted to expand his repertoire with recipes from Ottolenghi’s newest cookbook. 

Mike tested two recipes: Roasted Asparagus with Almonds, Capers and Dill; and Roasted Eggplant with Curried Yogurt. Here’s his feedback:

1.  I must say at the outset that having Margi hand you a cookbook with a request to prepare a dish for a dinner party is akin to being the batboy handed a catcher’s mitt with the request to takeover for Yadier Molina. But I’m delighted to say that the recipes were easy to follow and resulted in dishes that were delicious and as pretty as the photographs. The roasted asparagus was quicker to prepare than the roasted eggplant, but that was mainly because the eggplant took longer than the asparagus to roast.

2.   The ingredients apparently are easily accessible. “Baby capers?” I asked Margi as I read through the ingredients for the roasted asparagus recipe, having no idea what capers were, much less baby ones. “Here,” she said, reaching into the refrigerator and handing me a jar of, yes, baby capers. Same with the other ingredients, including something in the roasted eggplant recipe that’s called turmeric. We had all the ingredients in the fridge or the pantry—and Margi assured me that they were all readily available at the supermarket.

3. They were fun to make and delicious to taste, so I would give them two thumbs up.

4.  Anything as tasty as the asparagus and eggplant dishes I made are worth making again and again.

In addition to my trio of testers, I, too, tested some recipes and can recommend these new cookbooks:

“The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great” collected and edited by Leyla Moushabeck. 

America is a country of immigrants, rich and diverse. This wonderful collection of recipes authored by renowned immigrant chefs from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe and Australia celebrates the rich and diverse traditions that have woven their way into the fabric of our culinary landscape. 

From Bonnie Morales, a Jewish refugee from Belarus, comes a delicious and intriguing recipe for Midwest Salat, a fresh salad of finely diced broccoli, cauliflower and currants with a dressing that features sesame, poppy, caraway and celery seeds in a mayonnaise base; from Zarela Martinez from Mexico comes Chipotle-Lime Chicken, a simple and straightforward recipe that oozes with flavor; from Katrina Jazeyeri of Iranian descent comes a wonderful recipe for Iranian Spiced Pickles that includes eggplant, dried lime, carrot, cucumber, cauliflower and cabbage in a wonderfully spiced brine; and from Nadia Hassani of Tunisian and German descent., Immigrant Challah filled with homemade rhubarb jam spiked with orange zest and orange juice. 

I could go on and on- I want to make every recipe in this book.

“The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson.

First published in 2009 and updated last year with current medical research and new recipes, this award-winning cookbook is a guide to understanding the power of good nutrition, and a reminder to us all that healthy food can taste great. Katz is an accomplished chef, renowned speaker, and the co-founder of the company Healing Kitchens. 

In addition to easy to follow recipes such as Cannellini Bean Dip with Kalamata Olives, Curried Chicken Salad, and Cardamom Maple Mini Macaroons, Katz and science writer Edelson provide a wealth of information on foods, herbs, and spices that can be effective in dealing with side effects resulting from various cancer treatments. I recommend this book for anyone you know fighting cancer, and anyone you know wanting to adopt a healthier dietary lifestyle.

“Once Upon a Chef” by Jennifer Segal

Segal is a professionally trained chef turned full-time mom. After having children, she created a blog with the same name as this book. Committed to recipes that have been tested by other cooks and her family, she has created what I would describe as the perfect, truly user-friendly cookbook for everyday cooking. 

All of the recipes are clearly written, ingredients are available at your local grocery store, and young, old, picky, and adventurous eaters alike will appreciate the resulting dishes. From her Peruvian Chicken with Green Sauce to Persian Lime “Key Lime” Pie to kid favorite Peanut Butter Granola Bars, everyone will find something they will want to cook from this book.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of six. A cooking   instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve   the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at margikahn@ gmail.com.