JTA – A steaming bowl of chicken soup. Crispy and flaky cutlet. Rich chocolate rugelach. These are the foods that come to mind for many when they hear the term “Jewish comfort food”.
What happens when you give this tradition an ultra-contemporary twist?
Some answers can be found in Shannon Sarna’s second cookbook, “Modern Jewish Comfort Food,” which was published last Tuesday: Thanksgiving turkey kreplach, mandel funfetti bread, kugel macaroni and cheese.
Sarna, who set out to give baked goods the 21st century treatment in her debut book, “Modern Jewish Baker” (think banana bread, chocolate chip cookies and hamantaschen s’mores) is also an editor in chef of the Jewish food blog The Nosher (owned by 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency). Her site regularly posts content on international Jewish cuisine, so she naturally brings that diasporic focus to her own recipes as well.
Take the classic chicken soup — yes, it includes all the hits, plus its experiments — which comes in a few versions, including a Yemeni style that incorporates ingredients like ginger paste and marrow bones. Sarna’s shakshuka, the Israeli dish made with tomatoes and eggs, can be modified into a Mexican-inspired version or a smoky vegan version.
The complete package is appetizing and beginner-friendly.
Sarna spoke to JTA about what comfort food means to her and what she hopes readers take away from her book during difficult times.
JTA: What is comfort food to you?
Sarna: I think it’s related. I think it’s unassuming and that’s what I like. I can appreciate fine dining and I can certainly appreciate what these chefs do, but that’s the opposite of what I fall in love with and the opposite of what I want to produce. I think comfort food also speaks across cultures.
What should readers expect in the book?
This is truly a cookbook for home cooks, for people who want to learn, and for people who are actually going to make the recipes. I wanted it to be something that people actually use in their kitchens.
I think one of the things I learned in my role as editor of the Nosher is how people learn visually, so having the step-by-step in “Modern Jewish Baker” was something I wanted to recreate in this book .
Another hope for this book is that it will teach people a bit about where the dishes come from and help preserve those recipes and stories. Our family and community life as Jews has changed so much in 100 years and 50 years, hasn’t it? We don’t live in the same multi-generational communities as our parents and grandparents, so it’s only natural that some recipes and techniques behind the dishes are lost. I want to share some of these tips visually, and also share where these recipes fit into our history and our next chapter as Jews.
After writing your last book, what inspired you to write about comfort food?
Comfort food is all about connection, and in these last few years that have been so difficult for so many people, food can serve as a way to find connection. So I think comfort food speaks a lot about this moment. I think it can be a connection point beyond the Jews themselves, but helps us see the things we have in common with other people around the world and how food tells our stories and what we can relate to each other.
You are Jewish, Italian and, of course, American – what has your journey taught you about the similarity of comfort food across cultures?
I think comfort foods tell people’s stories. We had a little and we had to make do with what we had – it’s a recurring theme that we all have in common. I feel like that’s the universality of comfort food to me.
What makes Jewish comfort food different from other cultures?
I think it’s our infinite ability to adapt. We were exiled, moved elsewhere, started all over again and managed to come up with something delicious. So I think it’s really an American Jewish food story. You know, so many of the foods here in the United States that we consider quintessential Jewish foods are really born out of our immigrant experience.
What did you learn about comfort food while writing the book?
While researching for the book, I really realized that there are so many parallels between the experience of Jewish immigrants who come here and Italian, Irish and Chinese immigrants who all live together in the same neighborhoods in New York and influence each other. That’s why you have rainbow cookies every shul kiddush; that’s how you get smoked salmon on a bagel, and also spaghetti and meatballs. There were so many parallels of how these immigrant communities started out very poor, came here, used their resources, and came up with these new dishes based on where they came from.
For someone who has just learned to cook at home but is craving something cozy, what recipe do you recommend?
I would tell them to do the sweet and sour meatballs or the schnitzel. They are not complicated and if you learn how to fry chicken and how to make meatballs, you can make any type of meatball and you can make any type of frying. The principles of these two tasks can translate into many different types of dishes. These are also dishes I make for my family on rotation all the time.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
I fell in love with Georgian food through my work at Nosher when years ago we went to create a video at this Georgian kosher restaurant in Queens called Marani. I was just in love with khachapuri and khinkali. I was eating something completely new to me, but it felt like I had known it all my life.
So when I decided I wanted to make different types of dumplings, I knew I wanted to make khinkali, which are Georgian meatballs. It was the most complicated recipe in the book to master. I spent a very long time watching YouTube tutorials in Russian at 11 p.m. on the couch with my husband over and over again. When I got it I was so happy and they are so delicious.
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