From Meze Burgers to Risotto alla Milanese to Pumpkin-Braised Short Ribs, the last book in Susie Fishbein’s influential series shows how far kosher cooking has come.
by Sue Tomchin
The first time I saw the multi-hued gefilte fish slice on my plate at a holiday table I have to admit I was impressed. I was accustomed to gefilte fish from the jar. How had something so humble been transformed into a dish with so much panache?
The answer was, I would later learn, Kosher by Design and its author, Susie Fishbein.
Fifteen years ago this creative kosher cook and mom set out to bring a sense of elegance and beauty to kosher cooking by compiling innovative recipes, as well as unique table settings and floral arrangements. Her initial book was a hit and gave birth to a series of Kosher by Design books. All told, the series has sold over 500,000 copies of such books as Kosher by Design Entertaining; Passover by Design; Kids in the Kitchen, and Cooking Coach.
Along the way, Fishbein has helped to transform kosher cooking from a realm where dried onion soup was the spice mixture of choice and the color brown predominated to a world of fresh herbs and spices, colorful vegetables, and techniques drawn from the larger culinary world.
“Instead of lagging behind [the mainstream culinary world] by 5 years, now the kosher world is right on trend,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “My cookbooks played a role in this. I was lucky to write my books at the right time. It’s not acceptable anymore to wrap a piece of chicken in puff pastry, pour a jar of duck sauce over it and call it sophisticated.”
Her books made her a star in the Jewish cooking world and led to hundreds of personal appearances in the U.S. and abroad. “I gave a show a week for 15 years and have met so many interesting and kind people,” Fishbein says. “They always welcomed me so warmly. I have treasured and loved getting to know them."
These culinary travels opened up a world of possibilities that she explores in Kosher by Design Brings It Home (Mesorah Publications), what she says is the final installment in the Kosher by Design series. Fishbein shares stories from people she met, as well as recipes learned from chefs in Italy, France, Mexico, Israel, and North America. She also includes a bevy of her own easy and imaginative recipes that will appeal to cooks, kosher or not. “Moving out of the comfort zone of my New Jersey kitchen has been monumentally influential on my recipe writing,” she says in the introduction to the book.
Fresh, rather than processed, ingredients predominate reminding me once again about how far kosher cooking has progressed since the days when prepared foods such as onion soup mix and commercial salad dressing were go-to ingredients when seasoning brisket or marinating chicken breasts. Over the years, Fishbein says, she has “become more nutrition conscious and watches the amount of salt and fat in dishes. I try to keep margarine at a minimum when making pareve desserts.”
An array of spices and spice mixtures, fresh herbs, and healthy oils are Fishbein’s culinary building blocks. She seasons what she calls Meze Burgers, for example, with schwarma spice and tops the burgers, which are made from a combination of beef and mashed chickpeas, with grilled eggplant, tehina, za’atar, and onions spiced with sumac.
While she has found that for Americans the current trends if for “cross-culinary mashups” and “funky spins” on traditional dishes (Bagel and lox hamantaschen, anyone?) chefs she met in Italy and France, “Wanted me to learn recipes the way their grandmothers made them and stay true to their roots.” Her book includes an array of authentic dishes, slightly modified to make them kosher: Amalfi Sage Chicken, a simple, aromatic “family” dish made with fresh sage, basil and rosemary; Risotto alla Milanese, one of the most famous dishes in Lombardy’s culinary tradition; Petit Farcie, the classic sausage-stuffed vegetable dish from Provence; and Lasagna Bolognaise, deliciously made with ground beef and a pareve béchamel sauce.
In Israel, Fishbein discovered that chefs had a foot in both worlds, and their dishes were “a fusion of hip food, Israeli spices and their grandmother’s cooking.” In his recipe for Fish Kebabs, for example, chef Michael Katz, executive chef of the Adom group, blends hand-chopped tilapia and cod with pine nuts, fresh herbs, smoky paprika and other spices. The mixture is shaped in kebab form and then fried until golden.
Fishbein’s own creations are standouts: Dried Fruit & Quinoa Stuffed Capons, an ideal recipe for a holiday dinner; Pumpkin Braised Short Ribs; Cheesy Grits Casserole, inspired by visits to Atlanta when her daughter was attending Emory University; Lemon Tiramisu; Almond Chocolate Chip Sticks, a gluten-free version of one of her most popular recipes that she thinks may be better than the original; and Stadium Salad. The latter is a fun combination of ball park foods such as spicy brown mustard, mini pretzels, sautéed chicken, hot dogs, honey-roasted peanuts and traditional salad veggies. Its inspiration came from visits to Major League Baseball parks during her travels; she always made a point of going to the parks to buy a souvenir cap and take a photo for Eli, her baseball-loving son.