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Exploring fresh ways in Jewish cooking

Published Sep. 4, 2005

(ran SPTP edition)

Anyone thinking Jewish cooking is defined by gefilte fish, matzo balls and blintzes, raise your hand. Guess what? You're seeing the snapshot but missing the big picture.

How helpful it is that right about now come along two cookbooks to broaden your kosher culinary horizons.

Jeffrey Nathan's Adventures in Jewish Cooking (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) takes a gentle approach, easing you into the present with new twists on old classics. A restaurateur (Abigael's in Manhattan) and PBS chef/host of New Jewish Cuisine, Nathan serves up a wild mushroom kugel, a savory hamantaschen with vegetables and cheese stuffing, even a vegetarian chopped liver. Not to worry, there are also Grandma's latkes and a classic chicken soup.

Like most American Jews, Nathan's heritage is Ashkenazic: His family arrived in the United States from Eastern and Central Europe. The cuisine of those areas has come to represent Jewish cooking to most of us, which is why Joyce Goldstein's Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean (Chronicle Books, $35) should be a real eye-opener.

In Saffron Shores, her fourth book on Jewish cuisine, Goldstein travels a different culinary trail, one that traces the Diaspora into northern Africa. There, she writes, Jews adopted and adapted the spice-rich dishes of the Maghrebi, the people of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, conforming them to kosher law.

Most Americans, Jewish or otherwise, will find the cuisine profiled in Goldstein's book exotic and certainly fragrant. Dishes such as squabs stuffed with meat and raisins, pumpkin squash and chickpea soup, and Moroccan chicken and almond pie are redolent with the region's signature spices _ cinnamon, allspice, paprika, mint, dill and saffron. Ancient flavors of fig, sweet dates and the tweak of preserved lemons assert their presence in Goldstein's culinary exploration. A pungent harissa, a Tunisian hot pepper sauce, kicks everything up a notch for those who want to keep kosher but light a fire under the taste buds, too.

Wild Mushroom Kugel

12 ounces medium-width egg noodles

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 small red onion, halved lengthwise and cut into thin half-moons

1 large leek, white part only, well rinsed and chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound assorted mushrooms (such as white button, cremini, portobello and stemmed shiitake) thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 cups ricotta cheese or cottage cheese (preferably 1 cup of each)

1 cup sour cream

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon kosher salt

{ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

{ cup fresh bread crumbs, made from firm white bread or challah

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a 15- by 10-inch casserole dish.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add egg noodles and cook just until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, leek and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in basil and rosemary.

Whisk ricotta cheese, sour cream and eggs in a large bowl. Mix in drained noodles, mushroom mixture and salt and pepper. Spread in baking dish. Top with bread crumbs. Melt remaining { cup butter in a small saucepan (or use a microwave oven). Drizzle melted butter over noodles.

Bake, uncovered, until top is golden brown and center feels set, 45 to 50 minutes. Let stand at room temperature 5 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Source: Adventures in Jewish Cooking

Moroccan Orange Salad With Olives

2 pounds blood oranges and 1 pound bitter oranges or bergamots, or 3 pounds oranges, peeled and cut into segments or rounds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice of 2 lemons

\ cup olive oil

2 cups ({ pound) black olives, pitted

1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), stemmed

Place orange segments or rounds in a terra-cotta dish or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with spices, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss with lemon juice and olive oil. Top with black olives and toss again. Let rest 30 minutes, then toss again. Flavors should mingle and penetrate oranges. Decorate with leaves of fresh coriander at serving time.

Makes six to eight servings.

Source: Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean

Fish With Golden Sauce

2 small lemons, peeled and cut into thin rounds

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

Salt to taste

Olive oil for drizzling, plus 1 tablespoon

4 garlic cloves, minced

{ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed and steeped in \ cup warm water

1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), stemmed and chopped, divided

4 (6-ounce) fish steaks or fillets, such as swordfish, halibut, sea bass or cod

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup (\ pound) pitted green olives (optional)

Ground cumin for sprinkling

Place lemon slices in a shallow bowl or on a platter; sprinkle with turmeric and salt. Press down on the lemon slices with a fork to extract some juice. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil; set aside.

In a large saute pan or skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and saute garlic 2 to 3 minutes; do not let it color. Stir in saffron infusion. Arrange lemon slices on bottom of pan, reserving accumulated juices. Sprinkle with half the chopped fresh coriander.

Arrange fish fillets on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, reserved lemon juice, remaining fresh coriander, and olives, if using.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until opaque throughout, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cumin. Serve hot or warm.

Note: You may also layer fish and lemon in a baking dish and bake in a preheated 450-degree oven 8 to 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean

Almond-pistachio Macaroons

2 (8-ounce) cans almond paste (1 } packed cups), grated on the large holes of a box grater

} cup granulated sugar

1 { cups confectioners' sugar

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 { teaspoons vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

4 ounces shelled unsalted pistachio nuts, finely chopped (1 cup)

Position racks in the top third and center of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine almond paste and granulated sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle blade. On low speed, mix until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 2 minutes. Gradually add confectioners' sugar and mix until well combined, about 1 minute. Add egg whites, vanilla and salt. Increase speed to medium and mix just until combined (dough will be wet and sticky). Mix in a generous cup of pistachios. Place remaining pistachios in a small bowl.

Using a level tablespoon for each, roll dough into balls. Dip each ball into reserved pistachios to coat one side. Arrange cookies, 1 inch apart on the baking sheets, pistachio sides up, pressing cookies slightly so they adhere to the paper.

Bake until tops of macaroons are evenly colored, and bottoms are smooth and golden brown (use a metal spatula to remove a test cookie from the sheet), 25 to 30 minutes. Cool macaroons on the sheets. Gently pull macaroons off parchment paper. (Macaroons can be stored up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature.)

Note: Because these are made with confectioners' sugar, which contains cornstarch, they should not be served for Passover. Makes about 30 cookies.

Source: Adventures in Jewish Cooking