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Persian Posh and Jewish Soul: Two Veg-Friendly Cookbooks for Spring

"The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian" (aka "Veggiestan" in the UK) by Sally Butcher, cover photo from amazon.co.uk "Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh" by Janna Gur. Cover photo from amazon.com

 

Passover week didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped, with loads of new vegetable dishes to play with and experiments in microwave gastronomy that would wow the most cynical reader…

After the optimistic start with the chocolate almond torte and the microwave shakshouka for one, I suddenly caught a bug–my husband caught it first, suffered a day or so, got better and then kindly passed it to me, and I ended up sick for the better part of the week. We all agree we got it from a kid he was sitting next to at seder. Now that our kid’s a teenager, we’re no longer used to it. Clearly we’ve gone soft.

So I was–shall we say–less than enthusiastic about cooking the last week or so, and ended up with lots of ideas that stayed in my head while I stayed in bed, attempting to keep up on tea, rice, poached eggs and applesauce. And feeling really embarrassed that every time I opened the fridge and saw all the beautiful vegetables I’d bought for the week, I peered at them suspiciously–how much trouble would they cause me? Was it really a crappy virus or was it maybe secretly food poisoning, even though everyone else was able to eat? Maybe tomorrow–and closed the fridge door again and groaned. It took a couple of extra days to start looking at vegetables with any enthusiasm at all.

This, I thought, is what most of the country thinks about fresh vegetables if a dolled-up superstar chef isn’t holding one on the cover of a glossy magazine (or even if he is). Maybe with a little less queasiness or dizziness than I experienced, but with that lurking suspicion that vegetables have dirt on them, that you have to wash them off and then cut them up and do something to them, that they’re not sterile and wrapped in plastic for your protection, and that it’s all too much bother. What a lousy, paranoid way to live.

So anyway, now that I’m better the vegetables are looking good again, and the (four or five) leftover matzah boxes have been relegated to a top shelf for sometime when I’m not sick of them and want to experiment a bit for next year.

Two bright and sun-filled new (or newish, anyway) cookbooks that make lavish and hearty use of vegetables were languishing on my desk for the entire week of Passover (and two weeks before that, when I was too busy to do more than look at them wistfully). Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan is a collection of pan-Middle Eastern vegetarian recipes that centers on her husband’s family Persian cuisine and their experience as the proprietors of a Persian specialty grocery in London. Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh is Israeli food writer/editor Janna Gur’s second major English-language cookbook, and it focuses on Jewish “grandma” food from all the cultures Israel is home to.

Both books run something along the lines of Yotam Ottolenghi’s approach to food–appealing, vegetable-filled, exotic, and fun to cook and eat. But the food is generally simpler and homier, more traditional and with fewer trendy/haute touches or UK-specific ingredients like salsify or seabeans that you just can’t find most places in the US. Butcher and Gur each have a foot in both professional and home cooking, which may make the difference. The recipes here are not chefly so much as cookable. Eminently cookable, and they make me want to run right out and try so many things (especially if I can stuff any of the steps into the microwave) that I’m just going to have to get them both and give back my overdue library copies.

The authors share an approach to traditional and modern Middle Eastern food that is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, ecumenical and–I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but  neighborly comes close. Reading these books is like hanging out in the farmer’s market and the kitchen with a friend who knows how to make all the dishes your grandmother might have made but never showed you.

Veggiestan is the original 2011 UK title of Butcher’s mid-sized cookbook, now out in trade paperback,  but the publishers thought that title would be too controversial for the US (land of “freedom fries”–remember them? yeesh), so here it’s been tamely retitled and released in 2012 as The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian: Modern Recipes from Veggiestan, much to Butcher’s disappointment. Same book, though, with US/imperial measurements added alongside metric, and a couple of UK/US translation notes on ingredient names.

Butcher’s writing is friendly, colorful, well-informed on ingredients, stories and origins, and very funny. Recipes on her blogs sometimes start with “Okey cokey”; her recipe in Veggiestan for “Figs and Halloumi” intends romance, to the tune of, “TO SERVE 2 YOU WILL NEED: an old CD of Fairuz or Googoosh… Put the CD in your sound system and hit play. Whisk the dressing together. Heat the grill. Check your lipstick…Oh, my.”

Her food ranges from Morocco to Greece and Cyprus to Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria and of course Iran and is mostly traditional–she tells you where it’s not–and she and her husband are wide-ranging and welcoming in their tastes, both in food and culture. She even includes a date-laden Persian-Jewish version of haroset in the sweets section. In a year that has seen a huge and frightening rise in antisemitic attacks in England and Europe in general, it is a relief to me to read Butcher’s Veggiestan and Persepolis (the name of their shop in Peckham) blogs and realize that she and her husband are not part of that.

Theoretically the food would be the same–same ingredients, same basic instructions–but actually I think the mood makes a big difference. You can just tell when a cake is uptight (e.g., Martha Stewart’s stiff-looking and angular pale wedding cake, much too neatly wrapped in fondant, in Baking with Julia), so how much worse do you feel when you find out people are cooking with bile?

Luckily this is not the case with Veggiestan, which is an open love letter to vegetables, beans, rice, apricots, pistachios, spices, piles of fresh green herbs, melons, fresh cheeses, pickles of many kinds, and rosewater. And garlic, which is only one reason I loved reading it, but an important one. Butcher, who did not start out life knowing how to make tahdig (the crunchy bottom layer of rice in Persian chelou) or mung bean stew, has the right spirit. She’s down-home enough to make you feel that you too can make it work out and taste good, and the photographs are lovely but simple and not overstyled or intimidating. The food looks like food you’re going to tuck into happily in about three seconds, not hang on the wall and discuss with earnest gallery professionals, canapés in hand.

Torshi, eggplant pickles, enticing-looking pumpkin kibbeh, which are a bit of a challenge to construct and fry, and Afghan eggplants with thickened yogurt…some really beautiful dishes. A vegetarian (non-chicken) version of maqlouba, an inverted rice casserole with tomatoes, onions and eggplant topping it. And quite a bit more. Very exciting.

Her blogs are also worthwhile and share her experiments, favorite music videos, and valuable tips on things like what people do with green almonds (before the shell hardens) and unripe greengage plums, two ingredients that always intrigue me and are appearing right about now in my local Armenian greengrocer’s.

Much along the same lines, only a little glossier since it’s partly magazine-based, is Janna Gur‘s Jewish Soul Food. Gur, who was born in the USSR and emigrated to Israel as a child, has become a leading food columnist, restaurant reviewer, editor and eventually magazine publisher (Al HaShulhan, ie, “On the Table”). Her first book, The Book of New Israeli Food, came out about 15 years ago and features restaurant back-kitchens, fields, fisheries, produce, olive and orange groves along with recipes for everything from couscous to babka, from things that go in a pita to things that go into cholent, all with lush photography and the persistent question, “What’s cooking in the melting pot?” of Israeli cooking, including some of the famous, much-loved Arab restaurants and dishes in Israel and the West Bank.

Jewish Soul Food follows a similar path but focuses specifically on the best of “grandma” cooking from all the Jewish cultures now found in Israel, not least because for many people, it is becoming too late to ask their grandmothers how they made the long-cooked dishes they remember so fondly from childhood. There’s a lot of meat in this cookbook by default, given that it’s grandma cooking, most of which reaches its height at holiday and sabbath meals, but because it’s Jewish, favorite traditional meatless and dairy dishes, fish, breads, vegetables and fruits are well-represented too.

Gur successfully connects similar food ideas from widely separated geographies–chopped liver with other chopped meat/egg appetizers, crisp and spicy fried felafel-style Turkish fish balls as against cold, smooth-textured Ashkenazi gefilte fish, stuffed vegetables from east to west (and dipping south to India for potato chops), soups with filled dumplings, roast meats and stews, kugels and pasta timbales, rice pilaus and couscous, spinach/egg frittatas (we all seem to have something on these lines), cakes, cookies, strudels and more. All the dishes are well-tested, some from restaurateurs, some from home cooks, and all are the best versions Gur has found for each classic dish. She says she selected these recipes rather than the fuller comprehensive repertoire of Jewish cooking in an attempt to discover what makes a traditional dish the one people return to. I don’t know that she actually formulates a literal answer, but the dishes she selects are some of the things people are still making for preference lo these many years of melting pot later.

The photos and larger format make this a more coffee table-type cookbook than Butcher’s Veggiestan, but the recipes are still clear, fairly straightforward, and look enjoyable to eat. Jewish Soul Food also provides insider secrets for things I ate while living in Israel but had no recipes for, and for which I lacked sufficient cooking experience at the time to recreate once I got home. What goes into hraime? How do you make a killer babka? what’s in an Iraqi sabich besides hard-boiled eggs, fried eggplant slices and tehina wrapped in a pita, and what do I have do with that sticky new bag of amba (green mango powder) I’ve just found at my local greengrocer’s to turn it into amba, the spicy sour mango relish for said sabich?

….well, actually, the book doesn’t really tell me that; it just recommends jarred amba, which you can’t actually get here, so I’m going to have to look it up and figure it out for myself. It’s also known as amchur powder among Indian groceries and cookbooks–maybe there’s a clue in some of those. But the book does have all the spice ingredients in a number of Yemenite hot sauces and recipes for specialty breads and soups and so on. And the not very familiar Hungarian plum dumplings and something called fluden, layers of apples and poppyseed filling between thin layers of pastry. And serendipitous modern crossovers from some of her contributors between, for example, Iraqi and Ashkenazi takes on Shabbat long-cooked stew or filled soup dumplings. Everything looks good here, even the borscht (although I’m too smart to be taken in by that; borscht contains beets and I’m not going there! I’m almost as afraid of them as my poor husband is of okra. I maintain that everyone is allowed one no-go in the vegetable department.)

You’ll find me trying out the pumpkin/tomato soup with koobe and the salona, a fish casserole layered with eggplant, tomatoes, and chile-spiked sweet and sour sauce. Maybe the hreime if I’m feeling particularly brave. The Indian green beans in a green masala that’s about the same as my oversimplified chile-garlic-cilantro paste version of z’khug. A variety of tomato salads and sweet-and-sour peppers. My lentil-and-rice substitute version of lamb burger for her meatballs in sour cherry or pomegranate sauces. And the babka, despite the fact that it contains no vegetables. I’m in a Seinfeld mood at the moment; Gur’s version contains both chocolate and cinnamon to appease both Jerry and Elaine.

Both books contain a lot of little helpful sidenotes as well as what-to-look-for tips in the recipes themselves. It’s worth a careful read-through of these for any recipe you decide to try before you haul out ingredients and start slinging them into pans. Obviously, that’s less important for a raw salad, where you can pretty much look at the photo and make yours match, and more important for baked goods or less-familiar things like fried stuffed pumpkin kibbes, Iraqi koobe dumplings, Turkish yogurt soup or cheese-filled fillo coils. A few more how-to photos would definitely have come in handy but at least both Butcher and Gur give written details and insider advice on forming the kibbes and koobe (same root word, same problem–how to wrap one paste around another before frying or simmering). You’ll need to bring your sense of adventure, figure you’ll get there, do it on a weekend when you have time, and just try them.

The upshot: If Veggiestan originates in the home kitchen of a specialty grocer with an eye on her customers’ reactions, Jewish Soul Food originates in the street markets of Israel and Gur’s wide-ranging interviews with all kinds of chefs and home cooks over the years. Both of them have learned a lot from traditional cooks and after reading both books (and bookmarking extensively–maybe too extensively! gotta return the books and find my own copies, they’re definitely overdue) I feel like I’ve learned a lot as well.

This food is not derivative or restauranty; it’s authentic, the ingredients are simple and generally inexpensive, the techniques are really different from what I already know, and the recipes are practical and feed people well. I’m working on a way to shorten a few of them via microwave (as always) as well as vegetarianize some of the meat items. I can’t wait to get back to my greengrocer’s and try them out before it gets too hot to cook again in Pasadena…

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