"Cooking Jewish": every recipe has a story

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - For Judy Bart Kancigor writing a cookbook was a labor of love as well as a trip back to her childhood and the aromas and tastes she grew up with.

Although it is packed with 532 recipes and hundreds of photographs, “Cooking Jewish,” which includes more than 160 stories, is also the history of the Rabinowitz family and the foods they love to eat.

“It has been a four and a half year nostalgia trip,” said Kancigor of the time it took her to compile the recipes contributed by 300 members of her extended family.

Whether it is a recipe for Rugelach, Potato Knishes, Gramma Sera Fritkin’s Russian Brisket or Aunt Shirley’s Chicken Stupid every recipe has a history.

Kancigor spoke to Reuters about why she took on the project and how she hopes it will inspire other families to record the recipes of their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins before they are lost forever.

Q: What inspired you to write the book?

A: “This came out of a self-publish book that I had done before. It was supposed to be just for my family. At the time my aunts were starting to die off and we were expecting our first grandchild. That’s when it hit me -- that one generation was leaving and another generation was coming.

“I wanted to make sure my coming grandchild knew the stories and history of my family, especially the fabulous food. I wrote a letter to my relatives asking for recipes and stories and before I knew it in-laws of in-laws begged to be in this cookbook.”

Q: So it is much more than a just a cookbook.

A: “It really is. If you actually read this book, you will know my family when you get done.”

Q: What is so special about some of the recipes?

A: “They come from all over. The contributors range in age from four to 94. All kinds of cuisines are represented. I wanted to make sure that all the old Jewish bases were covered. There are a lots of old Jewish recipes that nobody even makes anymore, and probably wouldn’t. But a recipe is like an historical document and I wanted my grandchildren, I have four to them now, to see how people lived ... When you look at the recipes you realize what people ate and when.”

Q: Was it an emotional experience putting the book together?

A: “Definitely. Over the period of time I was working on the book seven family members died. Most of my aunts never got to see the finished product.

Q: What are some of your favorite recipes and stories in the book?

A: “Of course, we have to say my mother’s chicken soup really is the best. There is great controversy about that because all my cousins said their mother’s soup is the best. As I say in my book, ‘When you write your cookbook, you can say your mother’s soup is the best’. But my mother’s really is because she packs a whole produce market into this soup.”

Q: And your favorite story?

A: “It has to be the story of my grandfather coming to America ... In 1906 he was drafted in the czar’s army. For Jewish boys at that time conscription was 25 years. So Papa Harry was having none of that. He used to love to tell us -- ‘The czar put Papa Harry on a horse and the czar went this way and Papa Harry went that way.”’

Q: What is the secret of Jewish food? Is it the ingredients, or the love and the care put into it?

A: “Probably all of the above...I tell people you don’t have to be Jewish to cook Jewish -- to cook with your heart and your soul. For me, every recipe tells a story, every recipe has a tradition.”

Malaysian Latkes - makes 16 latkes

cup chopped unsalted cashews or peanuts

cup chopped mint or flat-leaf parsley, or a combination

cup finely chopped red bell pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeno pepper, seeded and deveined

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1- to 2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste 1 teaspoon curry powder

2 large eggs, beaten

2 large baking potatoes (12 ounces each), cut into wedges

1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped

cup all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil, for frying

1. Combine the cashews, mint, bell pepper, jalapeño, ginger, salt, curry powder, and eggs in a large bowl, and mix well. Set it aside.

2. Shred the potatoes and onion together in a food processor fitted with the shredding disk. Squeeze the potato/onion mixture between several changes of paper towels to release as much liquid as possible. Add the potato/onion mixture to the egg mixture, and combine well. Stir in the flour.

3. Pour enough oil into a large, heavy skillet to cover the bottom, and heat it over medium-high heat. When the oil is quite hot but not smoking, add a scant cup batter per latke and flatten them with a fork. Fry only as many latkes as will fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook on one side until crisp and brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn over and cook until the other side is crisp and brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the latkes to paper towels to drain. Keep the latkes warm while frying the remainder. Serve immediately

Editing by Miral Fahmy