Certain aromas trigger holiday memories to anyone who grew up in a Jewish household — with onions sautéed to a consistency beyond mush being the foremost scent that can send adults to nostalgic tears of joy every Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Two new kosher cookbooks bring traditional Jewish cooking into the 21st century with some modern spins on classic dishes, yet neither forsakes the building blocks of an unmistakable holiday meal. Both also look to the world beyond Eastern Europe, from where Ashkenazi Jews (and that onion-forward cooking) hail, to Sephardic Jewish regions of southern Europe and the Middle East as well as the wider diaspora. The resulting volumes offer Jewish cooks a chance to get a little playful and daring with their Rosh Hashanah meals, without missing a traditional beat. The holiday begins Sunday at sundown.
Amelia Saltsman focuses on a year’s cycle in “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” which begins, naturally, in the fall with the New Year, and goes through six micro-seasons anchored by other holidays. She offers sample menus for gatherings that are peppered with the usual suspects — “pure and simple” brisket, chopped liver — as well as alternative options for vegetarians.
Saltsman looks to her family’s heritage for the treasures of their recipe boxes. Having grown up with an Iraqi father and a Romanian mother, she devotes equal space to foods from both regions. While she immortalizes her Aunt Sarah in an easy and light take on the symbolic Rosh Hashanah honey cake on one page, her Aunt Hanna gets a nod on another page for her tahini butter cookies, which bring the flavor and texture of the Mediterranean sesame confection halvah into a warm baked good.
Saltsman excels when she introduces us to recipes lesser known among American Jews, such as a Syrian lemon chicken fricassee called hamut, which came to her by way of a Syrian Jewish farmer who was raised in Mexico City. The pronounced lemon and hint of mint transform a saucy base of carrot, celery, onion and tomato into something fresh, vibrant and utterly unlike the rich, oily dishes that tend to make appearances this time of year.
Saltsman’s goal was to break open expectations about what constitutes Jewish cooking: “heavy, only Eastern European, or irrelevant to today’s lifestyle.” Instead, she says, Jewish cooking can be healthful cooking, too. She manages to sneak in vegetables where they previously never tread, such as the welcome addition of Brussels sprouts to kasha varnishkes, an Eastern European side dish of bowtie noodles and buckwheat groats.
Fresh ingredients are also at the fore in Kim Kushner’s glossy cookbook, “The New Kosher.” Big salads and slaws made with raw veggies even get their own gorgeously photographed chapter.
Both books’ recipes are technically kosher — that is, the meat dishes don’t have any dairy in them and vice versa. It is up to the user’s discretion how the dishes are cooked and whether the foods served alongside make the meal compliant with Jewish dietary laws. Anyone can cook these dishes and find much to savor, Jewish or not, kosher or not.
Kushner draws from her mother’s Moroccan Jewish heritage, and includes several meze-style platters of little flavor bombs, like Indian-spiced pickled radishes and sun-dried tomato hummus. She sprinkles foods liberally with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend of sumac, sesame and thyme that distantly evokes the topping on an everything bagel with a bit more of an exotic flair. On potatoes and in a frittata with smoked salmon, it’s lovely.
Kushner is also sure to hark back to the classics: braised flanken (short ribs), chicken soup, potato latkes. But she adds little twists that elevate old standards, like the meaty smoke of dried porcini mushrooms rubbed onto a divine veal roast.
Five thinly sliced onions cook for more than two hours with the veal, melting into an unforgettable gravy. Like many of the recipes in these two cookbooks, it makes for a modern-day meal that infuses the house with the scents of holidays past.