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One of the best perks of my job is the steady stream of cookbooks that find their way to my front door. While I have yet to figure out where to put all these amazing volumes, I am astonished by the culinary inspiration that seems to jump off many a page and the apparently unending creativity that gives each of us the opportunity to experiment as never before. Interestingly enough, a number of new cookbooks make it clear that despite our interest in new gastronomic territories, food also connects us to our past and is a vital link in the chain of our heritage. With the yomim tovim and their many, many meals, literally knocking at our collective doorsteps, I can’t think of a better time to delve into a trio of new cookbooks, each one offering its own unique brand of culinary creativity and inspiration.

While most of us think chopped liver and chicken soup when we think of typical Eastern European cuisine, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, just recently released in English, proves that even in the alte heim, meat-free cooking was alive and well. Originally published in Yiddish in 1938, Fania Lewando shared many of the recipes she served in her own restaurant in Vilna in her 400-page cookbook. Neither Lewando nor her husband survived World War II, but miraculously her cookbook did, with a copy surfacing at a antique book fair in London in 1995. The book was donated to the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research, translated into English and published this past May.

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In her forward, Lewando describes her volume as the first Yiddish vegetarian cookbook ever printed and stresses the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. She references the importance of using high-quality produce and, years ahead of nutritionists, counsels readers to save the liquids used to cook vegetables to reuse in soups and broths. A handy page at the beginning of the book discusses the benefits of various vitamins and best sources for those essential nutrients.

Lest you think that this book is filled with pages of recipes for steamed carrots and mashed potatoes, there are some very intriguing entries here. Will my family shoot me if I make beer soup, which interestingly enough involves beating egg yolks with sugar, honey, salt and boiling beer? Lewando recommends serving this either hot or cold with toasted rolls and Dutch cheese, and I can’t help but think that while she penned these words 77 years ago, I could easily see this dish turning up at a trendy restaurant. There are three cholent recipes in this book, each one suggesting the inclusion of a parchment-wrapped kugel tied in string: one calls for beans, mushrooms and potatoes, another calls for pitted prunes, potatoes, dried apples and sugar and a third features new potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, barley and butter. One of the most fascinating chapters is dedicated to wine, with recipes for liqueurs, cognac (with egg yolks), mead, strawberry, currant, raisin, apple and, of course, grape wine, and a recipe for Passover wine soup, with egg yolks, lemon zest, and meringue dumplings, sounds absolutely delicious.

The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook was translated by Eve Jochnowitz and was published by Shocken Books, a division of Random House.

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Jewish Soul Food by Carol Ungar (Brandeis University Press) is a timely exploration of the symbolism behind many of the traditional foods we eat, with over 100 recipes covering Shabbos and Yom Tov and milestones like shalom zachors, weddings and bar mitzvahs. There are challahs laden not just with carb-y goodness but with hidden meaning: two different kinds of challahs that allude to the number six recall the lechem hapanim of both the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash, a Shabbos challah topped with a strand of dough pearls echoes the words of Eishes Chayil, while one comprised of a dozen dough balls reflects the twelve tribes. There are also round, crown, scale and shofar-shaped challahs for Rosh Hashanah. In addition to shlissel, wedding and Purim challahs, Ungar has a great variety of Shavuos challahs, including a Ten Commandments one, a Ladino siete ceilos one (the term refers to seven celestial spheres that opened when the Torah was given at Har Sinai), a Ukranian ladder-shaped challah acknowledging that the letters of the words Sinai and sulam, the Hebrew word for ladder, have identical values and a harp-shaped challah in honor of Dovid HaMelech who was born and died on Shavuos.

While some of the offerings are conventional and traditional, think matza balls, gefilte fish and arbis, others are explained as having deeper meaning. Farfel, for example, was eaten every Friday night by the Baal Shem Tov because the word farfel closely resembles the word farfalen, meaning “over” or “finished,” a tangible way to mark the end of the previous week and the beginning of a new one. Liver, called leber, was served by Ukrainian Jews to their children on Rosh Hashanah to remind them to live, or leb, with honesty. Pastide, a Sephardic meat pie, represents the manna that fell between layers of dew, with a layer of ground beef, accented with red wine, mushrooms and garlic, blanketed top and bottom by pastry dough.

Ungar, a freelance writer, lives in Israel and writes for several publications as well as her own blog, kosherhomecooking.com.

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Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes (Agate Publishing), a highly-acclaimed collection of 120 dishes, understands that we all lead busy lives, particularly this time of year, and helps us multi-task by taking advantage of our crock pots for something other than cholent. Featuring slow cooker recipes for appetizers, soups, entrees, side dishes, breakfasts and desserts, you might just find yourself needing more than one crock-pot.

Chef Laura Frankel, executive chef at Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, has put together a solid collection of recipes that are sure to be both time savers and crowd pleasers. While soups and stews, which benefit from long slow cooking, seem like natural fits for crock-pot cooking, Frankel also includes unexpected recipes like halibut involtini, lemon risotto, toasted capellini and maple pecan bread pudding.

And lest you associated crock pots with basics like pot roast and cholent, there are plenty of sophisticated dishes here, including Thai fish leaves wrapped in banana leaves with jasmine rice, Moroccan chicken with cracked green olives and preserved lemons, tongue salad with horseradish aioli and candied kumquats. Recipes for oatmeal with “all the fixings,” cheesy grits and key lime cheesecake might just have you picking up a second crock-pot to be used for dairy!

Not all of the recipes require a slow cooker and I particularly enjoyed the basic recipes section which included recipes for za’atar, curry powder, chicken, turkey, veal and vegetable stock, porcini dust and ancho chili powder. Another special chapter is dedicated to sauces, with recipes for harissa, root beer bbq sauce and spicy tomato sauce.

Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes is that fairy godmother of cookbooks, one that allows even the busiest among us to turn out amazing gourmet meals, with minimum fuss and maximum flavor.

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Courtesy The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook

 

Vitamin Rich Raw Fruit Compote

Peel and thinly slice 2 pounds tart apples and 2 pounds pears.

Add 2 pounds halved and pitted plums, 1 pound grapes, and 1 thinly sliced lemon.

Put everything together in a stoneware pot.

In another pot, cook 3 3/4 cups sugar and the juice of 2 large lemons in 2 cups water, stirring so the sugar dissolves.

Pour this syrup over the fruit, and allow to chill 8 hours.

 

 

Marinated Mushrooms

Carefully clean about four pounds of small mushrooms and rinse well in a colander with cold water, until all sand is removed.

Place in a pot, sprinkle with salt, and cover with boiling water.

Cook 20 minutes, skimming the foam, and then strain.

Add some allspice and a few bay leaves and 3 tablespoons vinegar for every 4 cups mushroom broth.

Cook a while and allow to cool.

Put the mushrooms in glass jars, pour in the cooled brine, wrap in parchment paper, and store in a cool, dry place.

 

Leek Appetizer

 

Cut three large leeks and two Spanish onions into small pieces, and sauté in butter.

Add 3 diced hard-boiled eggs, 6 tablespoons butter, 4 tablespoons bread crumbs, 3 diced scallions, and (chopped fresh) dill.

Add 2 raw eggs and some salt, mix well.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a pot, and add the leek mixture.

Cover well, and bake ½ hour. Serve sprinkled with dill.

[For best results, sauté the leeks and onions slowly over a low flame. It will take about 20 minutes. None of the recipes in this collection specifies an oven temperature, for the simple reason that temperature in the wood or coal ovens of that era could not be easily adjusted. A moderate oven of about 350°F works for most of the recipes, unless otherwise specified.—Ed.]

 

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Courtesy Jewish Soul Food

 

Invei Hagefen Grape Cluster Challah

 

In Psalms, a bride and groom are compared to a cluster of grapes on a vine. One reason for this image is that just as individual grapes increase in value when they are formed into wine, so two individuals can become more valuable to society when they merge into a couple and eventually a family.

A grape cluster challah looks beautiful on a table especially at an engagement party, wedding or anniversary celebration and it’s not very complicated to make.

 

 

Ingredients

1 cup of warm water

½ tbsp of dry yeast

2 tbsp sugar

3½ to 4 cups flour

½ tablespoon of salt

 

Directions

Combine water, sugar and yeast. Gradually add in flour and salt. Knead together by hand or using a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook until you’ve formed soft, pliable dough.

Oil the outside of the dough. Cover it with a damp cloth and leave it to rise until it doubles in bulk.

Punch down and then roll the dough into six ropes of one inch in diameter and six inches in length (approximately).

Cut each dough rope into five pieces – roll them into balls. Each ball should be about one inch long and one inch wide. These will be your grapes.

Shape the balls into a long thin triangle. Stick three or four dough balls above the triangle to create volume.

Cut the sixth dough rope into two thirds. Lay one-third across the top of the triangle and the other perpendicular to it. This is the cluster to anchor your grapes.

Leave the grape vine challah to rise for 20 minutes covered with a damp cloth.

Bake at 180°C or 350°F for 45 minutes or until brown.

Serve right away or freeze.

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Courtesy Jewish Slow Cooker

 

Root Beer BBQ Sauce

Makes 3 cups

 

I will often go out of my way for a mug of cold, bubbly root beer. So why not a BBQ sauce that sings with the earthy spice that I love? This is my version of the regional American sauce. I use it on chicken, short ribs, and brisket.

You can store this sauce, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze it for up to 3 months.

 

Ingredients

2 cups root beer (don’t use diet root beer)

1 cup ketchup (preferably Heinz)

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¼ cup fresh orange juice

¼ cup bourbon or apple cider for a non-alcoholic sauce

½ cup crumbled gingersnaps (about 8 small cookies; store-bought are fine)

1½ tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tbsp light molasses

½ tsp minced lemon zest

½ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

½ tsp ground ginger

2 garlic cloves, grated with a Microplane

1 medium onion, grated with a Microplane or on the fine side of a box grater

2 tsp kosher salt

1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper

 

Directions

Place all the ingredients in a slow cooker insert.

Cover and cook on High for six hours.

Adjust the salt and pepper to taste.

Serve or store.

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Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at sandyeller1@gmail.com.