"Kosher by Design," (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, $32.99) "Kosher by Design Entertains" ($34.99) and "Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen" ($22.99) by Susie Fishbein.
With the frenzied anticipation generally reserved for the appearance of a rock star -- or at the very least, Oprah -- the Orthodox community of Los Angeles is abuzz with excitement: Susie is coming!
"Susie" is Susie Fishbein, the effervescent author of the "Kosher by Design" cookbooks, who has turned kosher cooking on its proverbial ear. And no wonder she bubbles over. According to Gedaliah Zlotowitz, Mesorah's vice-president of sales and marketing, more than 160,000 copies have sold with no end in sight.
Fishbein will be making three exclusive appearances this month in Los Angeles (see box), and those lucky enough to get a reservation will watch, kvell and sample as their idol cooks.
"Susie Fishbein has done for Jewish cooking what [rabbi and author] Aryeh Kaplan did for beginning Judaism," said Rabbi Shimon Kraft of the 613 Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard. "They're buying her cookbooks en masse. She's a genius at editing and putting everything all together."
"Our patrons are meshugah for her books," echoed Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. "We have over 30,000 resources here, and the most precious part of our collection is Jewish cookbooks. Hers circulate so robustly. They're fabulous."
Just what is this revolution in kosher cooking that Fishbein has spawned? As food columnist, cooking instructor and dinnerware designer Debby Segura explained, "Lots of people used to feel tied to a few kosher cookbooks, but so much has happened in kosher food over the last 20 years that just wasn't being reflected, and if it was, it was too complicated. Susie gives you food styling, kosher tips, kitchen tips. But the big deal about Susie's recipes is they work."
Risa Moskowitz, who chairs the event for Emek, added, "When I booked the event, everyone said, 'Oh my gosh, I live by her cookbooks!' There wasn't one person who said 'Who?' People who aren't kosher don't realize what's possible for us now, the variety of foods and the way to prepare them. They think kosher means dried-out, salted meat. Her books have had a tremendous impact."
Toras Emes chair Sara Leah Beinstock agreed: "These are the ultimate kosher cookbooks. There's nothing close to them on the market. Her recipes are easy to follow, and the food is appetizing and delicious. It's very exciting to have gourmet Jewish cookbooks."
Fishbein, an Orthodox Jew and mother of four children ages 3 to 11, understands that today's observant Jews want to prepare many of the same exciting dishes found on restaurant menus and serve them with style. Those who grew up on Grandma's Shabbos brisket now embrace her Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce.
"Kosher food doesn't have to be simple or bland," noted Fishbein by phone from her New Jersey home. "Just about every ingredient is available out there kosher."
The luscious table settings and presentation ideas that party planner Renee Erreich and Fishbein created for these books -- and that photographer John Uher shot -- fairly leap off the pages. But everything is doable.
"The food looks intimidating, but the recipes are not," Fishbein said. "It's not about putting on a show. These are recipes the family will want to eat over and over." And they do. So popular are these dishes that guests recognize them on each other's Shabbat tables.
Routinely dubbed the Jewish Martha Stewart, Fishbein squirms at the comparison.
"I'm flattered, but it's not really accurate," she said. "Martha Stewart is all about a lifestyle. If you want beautiful flowers, you plant them and this is how you do it. We're busy. We have kids. We have jobs. We're in and out of the kitchen trying to make fabulous meals. I take shortcuts she would never take. I'm about cutting to the chase to accomplish our goals."
Beloria Fink, whose sister will be driving from San Diego to join her for the Emek event, observed, "Susie can take a simple recipe and it looks extravagant and elegant, like you've really knocked yourself out. She's taken the bland, traditional Shabbos meal and turned it into elegant cuisine. She shows you how to set a beautiful table for each holiday so you can create a legacy for your own children."
"Kosher by Design" marries food to holiday traditions in new ways that resonate with those seeking a deeper Jewish experience for their families.
"When I think back to Passover in my childhood," Fishbein reflected, "I remember my cousin Jeff scrubbing the maror, my aunt cutting sheets of egg noodles and Grandma Mollie making chremslach, because 10 minutes shouldn't go by without her feeding us something. These memories are like yesterday. It's a happy place for me. I want that for my kids."
To accomplish this Fishbein went way beyond "It's Rosh Hashanah, let's have honey." Case in point: Pomegranate Chicken. "I tell my kids, 'You know why I made this dish, you guys? Pomegranate has 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.' Maybe it's not my grandmother's chicken, but it's incredibly appropriate."
Similarly, envelope-shaped Won Ton Wrapped Chicken appetizers for Purim are edible reminders of the lots (purim) Haman drew to select the date for the Jews' extinction.
For Simchat Torah she incorporates the tradition of eating rolled foods to mimic Torah scrolls.
"I thought stuffed cabbage was overdone," Fishbein noted, "but I've got this awesome Chicken Negemaki. Chicken is rolled around scallion and red pepper strips and tied like a scroll with a blanched scallion. True, God never told us to eat Chicken Negemaki, but he didn't tell us to eat stuffed cabbage either."
With "Kosher by Design Entertains," Fishbein moved on to celebrations -- a housewarming, dinner for two, an engagement party -- nine in all, with spectacular menus and extravagant serving ideas along with the simple, yet elegant recipes she had become famous for.
Now "Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen" offers the dishes kids like to eat -- and cook -- clearly explained, beautifully photographed and coded for difficulty with one, two or three chefs hats (see story p. 49).
How does Fishbein herself explain the hoopla surrounding her books?
"I think I hit a nerve in the community," she said. "People clearly have had a creative passion in them that was waiting to be unleashed. I've unleashed their inner cook."
Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce
From "Kosher by Design" by Susie Fishbein.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 teaspoons dried minced thyme
2 racks of baby lamb chops, 8-9 chops per rack; have butcher French the bones
1 cup port wine, divided
8 fresh Mission figs or 6 dried figs, cut into quarters
1/2 cup chicken stock
Preheat oven to 450 F. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process 2 tablespoons olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and shallots 30-45 seconds or until thick paste forms. Rub herb paste into lamb.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium oven-proof skillet. Add lamb, fat side down, and cook over high heat 5 minutes. Turn lamb and cook an additional minute so that both sides are brown.
Add 1/2 cup port to skillet. Place skillet in the oven and roast 18 minutes.
Remove skillet from oven. Place lamb on a platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Add remaining 1/2 cup port and figs to skillet. Bring to a simmer. Use a spatula to loosen brown bits from pan. Add stock and simmer 3-4 minutes. Sauce will thicken to a nice amber color. Pour sauce over lamb and serve.
Makes four servings.
Additional recipes can be found at www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of "Cooking Jewish: 652 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, July 2006) and can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.
Susie Fishbein will appear in private homes on:\n
•Tuesday, Feb. 14, 7 p.m. Cooking demonstration and dinner supporting Yeshiva Toras Emes. $250. To R.S.V.P., call (323) 549-3170.\n
•Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m. Cooking demonstration and tasting supporting Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. $118. To R.S.V.P., call (818) 345-4252\n
•Thursday, Feb. 16, 10 a.m.-noon. Cooking demonstration and light lunch supporting Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. $100. To R.S.V.P, call (323) 761-8648 or e-mail email@example.com.