New cookbooks make perfect gifts for Hanukkah

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

If you are looking for the perfect gift this holiday season, you can’t go wrong with a cookbook. And even if you’re not sure whether your recipient is a cook, no worries. Even non-cooks will appreciate one of my favorite new cookbooks. Filled with stunning food photography and entertaining personal vignettes, these cookbooks are special gifts that will enthrall anyone who relishes stunning images, intriguing stories, and great food. Furthermore, there is always a chance that your gift may unleash some non-cook’s latent culinary skills—skills from which you may one day benefit!

If I had to extract a common thread among these special cookbooks, it is that they feature approachable, clearly written, easy to follow, kitchen-tested recipes. Preceding many of the recipes, the authors include helpful culinary tips and serving suggestions. This makes each of these beautiful cookbooks a pleasure to read and a joy to use. 

In the spirit of Hanukkah, I have included two easy recipes to use for your holiday celebration. Best wishes for a joyful and delicious Hanukkah.


“Balaboosta,” by Einat Admony (Artisan Books, 2013, $29.95)

Israeli born Einat Admony is the living definition of “balaboosta.” A winner of Food Network’s “Chopped,” she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. With a dynamic personality and a passion for good food, this hands-on mother finds time to be the chef-owner of three popular New York City restaurants- Balaboosta, Taim, and Bar Bolonat. 

Admony served in the Israeli Air Force, where the Yemenite grandmothers who prepared meals for the Israeli air force pilots piqued her culinary interest. Many of her recipes reflect that experience and her own Yemenite and Iranian heritage. 

Her book is divided into eleven sections, with headings that capture her personality, including Fancy-Schmancy: Restaurant-worthy Dishes; Hurry, Hurry, Hurry: Quick and Easy Meals; Kidding Around: Recipes to Feed Your Kids; and Thinking About Home: Mostly Israeli Recipes. Among my favorites are her recipes for “Mom’s Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnuts,” which is chicken that simmers with a combination of cumin, turmeric, and a sweet pomegranate syrup, and her father’s “S’chug,” a Middle East hot pepper sauce that her father made at home and then schlepped to restaurants for use as his condiment. 

Admony’s versions of chicken soup and falafel (made with chickpeas and olives) will entice you. Her recipes for “Shakshuka” (with jalapenos and Swiss chard), and “Really-Not-So-Short Ribs” (spiced with baharat, an Arabic spice combination) feature complex flavors but are surprisingly simple to prepare. There are stunning soups, and easy to prepare tasty vegetable dishes such as “Lentil Feta Salad,” and “Oven-roasted Brussels Sprouts.” There is even a recipe for a signature dish at restaurant Balaboosta, “Fried Olives with Labne” that will be a hit at your next dinner party. She has creative takes on popcorn, and exciting recipes for more than a dozen luscious desserts, including “Malabi with Orange Brandy Sauce,” a silky milk and cream pudding.

“Balaboosta” takes you on an exciting culinary adventure through the Mediterranean. And, with just a few exceptions, the recipes intended for home cooks. The resulting dishes are sure to delight your family and wow your guests 

“Franny’s: Simple – Seasonal – Italian,” by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Melissa Clark (Artisan Books, 2013, $35)

The legendary chef and restaurateur Alice Waters, in her forward to this wonderful cookbook, says Franny’s serves the best wood-fired pizzas in New York. She is not alone. Franny’s was included in Newsweek magazines 2012 list of “The 101 Best Places to Eat in the World.” And while I am skeptical about restaurant cookbooks because they often to fail at transitioning restaurant recipes to ones you can make at home, this cookbook is a welcome exception. While you may not have access to some of the farm-to-table ingredients used by Franny’s, the authors offer options for ingredients that are easy to find and easy to use without sacrificing great results.

From fresh and tasty crostini starters like “Fava Beans and Pecorino” to the simple and delicious “Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Ricotta” to creatively prepared vegetable dishes like “Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Almonds and Pecorino” that will have everyone asking for more (yes, more Brussels sprouts), the ingredient combinations in this cookbook are magical.

The pizzas, which can be prepared in your home oven, pair unusual toppings that create exciting flavor combinations. One version combines broccoli greens with garlic, lemon, Parmesan and Romano cheeses, and shaved garlic. Another blends ricotta, oregano, cherry tomato, and fresh mozzarella. So, too, the pastas and main courses are equally inventive.

The dessert section features simple recipes for gelato and sorbettos, for fabulous cakes, and for a wonderful “Summer Fruit Crostata” that could be adapted this time of year for use with fall and winter fruits such as pears, dried figs, and apples. The book ends with a chapter on Pantry/Basics that includes recipes and uses for a variety of pickled vegetables and homemade syrups.

With most recipes containing fewer than a dozen ingredients, and a list of even fewer directions, any cook, no matter how experienced, can succeed. As the authors of Franny’s assure us in their introduction, “Food doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate to be spectacular.” 

That mantra proved true in the first recipe I made from this book: “Celery, Fennel, and Pear Salad with Pecorino and Walnuts.” With the exception of the juice of one lemon, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper, all the ingredients are in the recipe’s title. It is a simple recipe to prepare, and the sum of the parts is brilliant. 

The recipes in Franny’s will guide and inspire you to taste and enjoy real food, and to understand that simplicity can often be the height of culinary perfection. 

“Joy of Kosher,” by Jamie Geller (William Morrow, 2013, $30)

I know what you’re thinking: A kosher cookbook? Yawn.

Not this one. “Joy of Kosher” will change your mind!  Author Jamie Geller is one energetic, talented, and entrepreneurial young mother of five. If she lived in St. Louis, I’d want her for my best friend. She has been called the “Jewish Rachel Ray,” and that could be an understatement.

Geller did not grow up kosher. Rather she elected to become observant, and later she married into a supportive kosher family. In addition to becoming a creative and accomplished kosher cook, she founded the Kosher Media Network, and now has her own television show, magazine, and website in addition to two earlier cookbooks that are part of the “Quick and Kosher” series.

As she says in the forward of this book, “Kosher is not tedious, not limited, and not complicated.” And that’s just what her recipes are all about. For example, Geller’s recipe for “Crystal Clear Chicken Soup with Julienned Vegetables and Angel Hair” comes from her grandparents and is spectacular. Made with plenty of chicken, beef marrow bones, a slew of vegetables that include cauliflower and fresh garlic, the soup is strained, defatted, and reheated with julienned zucchini, carrots, and daikon radish. She has you serve it with a spoonful of cooked angel hair pasta. If this soup doesn’t cure whatever ails you, nothing will.

There are great recipes for other traditional dishes, including brisket and latkes. She has an entire chapter on challah, which ranges from traditional challahs to those made with sun-dried tomatoes and garlic, cranberries and rosemary, blueberries and apples, and even a “Shalom Bayis Pull Apart Challah.”

There are plenty of less traditional but deliciously creative kosher dishes, including “Salted Almond and Pistachio Bark,” “Mediterranean Lamb Skewers,” and “Blackened Tilapia Tacos with Cumin Avocado Sauce.” 

You don’t need to keep kosher to enjoy cooking from the “Joy of Kosher.” But one thing is for certain: Geller’s new book will change your attitude about kosher food and kosher cooking. 

“Ottolenghi, The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. (Ten Speed Press, 2013, $35)

These two Israeli-born chefs—one from a Jewish section of West Jerusalem and the other from a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem—have taken the culinary world by storm. This cookbook amply demonstrates that their fame is well deserved. The innovative recipes feature bold and flavorful ingredients, creative use of herbs and spices, and accessible fresh produce. 

This is the third remarkable cookbook by these two chefs. Their fans in the U.S. will be surprised to learn, however, that this one is actually their debut cookbook. Initially published only in the United Kingdom, it has finally arrived here after publication of their other two cookbooks: “Plenty” and “Jerusalem” (which was named “Cookbook of the Year” I.A.C.P.).

Beautifully photographed and easy to understand, Ottolenghi is divided into four sections: Vegetables, Legumes, and Grains; Meat and Fish; Baking and Patisserie; and Larder.  The authors’ goal with this cookbook is to provide home cooks with simple and reliable recipes that can be prepared in a short time. Few cookbooks can promise and deliver the way this one does. Every recipe has been tested over and over again, and I am here to report that the recipes work.

The book showcases various culinary traditions, including Middle East, California, Italy, and North Africa. Some recipes, like “Fennel and Feta with Pomegranate Seeds and Sumac,” marry a number of these traditions in perfect harmony.  Others, such as “Kosheri,” spotlight the classic Egyptian street food made from a combination of lentils and rice and topped with caramelized onions and a spicy tomato sauce.  There’s a simple “Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za’atar, and Lemon” that’s ideal for a family dinner. “Seared Tuna with Pistachio Crust and Papaya Salsa” will impress the guests at your dinner party.

There are scrumptiously unusual tart recipes, including “Butternut, Carrot, and Goat Cheese,” “Jerusalem Artichoke and Swiss Chard,” “Semolina and Raspberry,” and “Banana and Hazelnut.” There are recipes for exciting salads, breads and focaccias.  The “Chocolate Fudge Cake,” with its unique baking method, will become everyone’s favorite.

“Ottolenghi, The Cookbook,” is a cookbook that every cook should own. Along with the other two cookbooks by these authors, the collection would be the ultimate Hanukkah gift for someone special. 

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]