Whether you are looking for a memorable seder gift, new recipes for Passover or a break from cleaning to salivate over what you might but will probably never prepare, enjoy sifting through this refreshing and unusual batch of recently published kosher cookbooks and books that feature kosher cuisine.
"The Foods of Israel Today," by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $40), wins as most comprehensive new kosher cookbook. Nathan guides readers on her trademark journeys through food, history and culture, visiting different ethnic communities and individual personalities along the way.
Try Iraqi halek (date jam) for charoset, an Iranian recipe with 20 ingredients from hazelnuts to pomegranate juice or an Israeli revisionist charoset featuring the taste of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic cuisine -- raisins, toasted pecans and almonds, date paste, apples, cinnamon and wine. Arabic Caesar salad substitutes matzah for pita bread, asparagus comes alive with Jaffa oranges and fresh ginger vinaigrette, Natan Sharansky's mother shares her gefilte fish recipe and the King David Hotel parts with its recipe for chocolate-covered coconut macaroons.
"The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco," by Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane (Ten Speed, $24.95), borrows its title from the orange blossom-scented couscous of the last evening of Passover. Mamane, a member of the dozen families remaining in the Jewish community of Fez, converted her unwritten recipes to measures and spoonfuls, urged on by Morse, a cookbook author and Casablanca native.
Following the maxim of Morocco's Sephardic cooks -- "first, you eat with your eyes" -- this lusciously photographed cookbook celebrates a distinctive cuisine and heritage. A chapter on basic ingredients and methods precedes menus for the holidays and recipes according to courses. Since Sephardim permit legumes on Passover, recipes feature a cilantro-laced fava bean soup and fava bean salad, potato and meat pie, and lamb shoulder basted with soy sauce. Desserts vary from candied carrots to figs in orange juice, and dates filled with almond paste.
"Jewish Cooking for Dummies," by Faye Levy (Hungry Minds, $19.99), a practical primer on Jewish cooking, offers an introduction to Jewish cooking, a guide to holidays and preparation tips. The Passover chapter -- "What Happened When the Bread Didn't Rise" -- urges cooks to make the most of Passover ingredients to create standards like charoset and matzah balls; side dishes from asparagus and carrots with lemon dressing to Sephardic spinach casserole, and featured treats include pecan chocolate cake and almond macaroons.
In "The Mensch Chef, or Why Delicious Jewish Food Isn't an Oxymoron" (Clarkson Potter, $18.95), author Mitchell Davis, director of publications for the James Beard Foundation, makes no bones about his mission: "Before I tell you what this cookbook is, let me tell you what it's not. It's not a comprehensive cookbook with a year's worth of recipes and menus for family and friends. It's not an impressive collection of never-before-eaten Jewish recipes from around the country or around the world. There are no dishes from lost tribes living in Africa and nothing that requires margarine. It's not a reference book about the laws of kashrut filled with helpful hints about how you can make kosher food taste like haute French cuisine (or Italian, or Chinese).... I like to think of this book as an Ashkenazi ABCs, a book of good, solid recipes with plenty of explanation for traditional Jewish dishes.... It's a book for the first time you have to host a Passover seder, and you don't know what to serve." Among the many recipes usable for Passover, enjoy farfel with mushrooms and onions,"the secret-is-pears brisket," chocolate-dipped macaroons, chocolate-caramel matzah crunch and sponge cake.
There's even a section on Yiddish for cooks. Definition of a mensch? "Someone who makes a nice meal and then gives you the leftovers to take home."
"Judaikitsch: Tchotchkes, Schmattes, and Nosherei," by Jennifer and Victoria Traig, photographs by Dwight Eschliman (Chronicle Books, $14.95), is a hilarious and irreverent look at Jewish tradition. Chapters dedicated to different Jewish holidays feature funky crafts and creative cooking from Spice Girls spice boxes to Berry Manilow, a raspberry pudding. A Passover purse that looks like a Manischewitz matzah meal box requires over 10,000 orange seed beads, 6,000 green ones and 4,500 white ones, but the end result is a "one-of-a-kind piece of heirloom kitsch." Other Passover projects include a stylized '50s-inspired seder plate and gefilte fish platter. Recipes include "Matzah Meteors" (matzah balls) and "Little Miss Muffins" (popovers).
Jennifer Abadi's tribute to her Syrian Jewish heritage, "A Fistful of Lentils" (Harvard Common, $24.95), is an "intimate culinary food album" featuring 125 recipes, family anecdotes and stories of Syrian Jewish culture. Abadi's Passover menu suggests a date charoset, spinach-mint soup (you'd have to leave out the yogurt or use a substitute for a kosher meat meal); roast leg of lamb; chicken with prunes and honey; long-grain white rice cooked with oil, onions and salt (if you're Sephardic); and mish mosh m'fis'dok -- ice-cold apricots and green pistachios floating in a light perfume of rose water.
A number of vegetable-based cookbooks just published by Harvard Common also offer creative suggestions that could be adapted for Passover: "The Roasted Vegetable" by Andrea Chesman ($12.95) and "Mediterranean Vegetables: A Cook's ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation" by Clifford Wright ($29.95).
"The Book of Jewish Cooking," by Denise Phillips, photographs by David Murray (H.P. Books, $12), is a slim volume of 80 recipes, illustrated with step-by-step photographs. Inspired by regional and contemporary cuisine, the recipes are far from the stereotypically kosher entries. Nothing here is categorized by holiday, so page through the recipes to find those that can be made for Passover: cranberry and turkey bites, honey-glazed chicken breast, chicken and garlic potatoes, smoked trout soufflé, chocolate baked Alaska, lime mousse with amaretto. Then drool over the ideas for after-Passover meals: sun-dried tomato tartlets, Stilton and sherry crostini, toffee apple crumble and much more.
Carole Sobell, a leading Jewish caterer in England, has compiled her favorite recipes in "New Jewish Cuisine" (Interlink, $26.95). Again, no Passover-specific dishes, but plenty of salads, meats and desserts to choose from.
The Jewish Cultural Tapestry, by Steven Lowenstein (Oxford, $30), takes a more scholarly look at the diversity of Jewish culture, comparing and contrasting folk traditions and regional customs throughout the Jewish world. Lowenstein explores languages, names, religious practice, cuisine, costume, music, appearance and the influence of modernity. His recipes for holidays and Shabbat features mina de cordero (matzah pie with lamb filling) from Greece and Turkey, matzekloss (matzah dumplings) from Germany, and Uzbekistan Passover soup, with onion, carrot, tomato and coriander.