While Forward “Ingredients” columnist Leah Koenig may be a self-taught cook, she has certainly made the most of her education. She is currently an acting associate editor at Saveur magazine, and is the former editor-in-chief of the food and sustainability blog The Jew and the Carrot, which is now a joint project of the Forward and Hazon. She is also the author of “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Kitchen,” due out March 8. I recently interviewed Koenig about writing a cookbook that is affiliated with a venerable women’s organization, cooking trends in two-career households and what makes this cookbook different from most other Jewish cookbooks on the market.
Jordana Horn: How did your affiliation with Hadassah come about?
Leah Koenig: My mom is a longtime Hadassah member and active in our local chapter in Chicago, so I’ve always felt like Hadassah was, by extension, a part of my life and my Jewish experience. Needless to say, I was really excited and honored to be asked to work on this project. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to share my love of seasonal cooking and Jewish culture with readers, while working within the framework of this timeless organization.
In the course of working on this cookbook, did you have to read many past Hadassah cookbooks? Did you find any prevailing Hadassah ethos?
I was very aware throughout the process that Hadassah has a significant legacy for publishing beloved Jewish cookbooks —classics, really. For example, I’ve been told that the regional Rochester cookbook from the 1970s is still a mainstay in people’s kitchens, and a common gift for newly married couples. It’s still relevant all these years later.
I did read through several of the older cookbooks — particularly the most recent one, “The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook” [from 2003], and a regional one from Canada published in 1982. My mother-in-law had a copy, and that was the year I was born so she lent it to me. The main thing I learned is that food photography has made serious strides since the 1980s! Seriously though, while food styles and tastes have clearly changed, there seems to be a consistent focus on the importance of cooking as an opportunity to nurture other people, and build stronger communities, which are both things that speak to me.
In your introduction, you mention how most people are “short on time” these days. What are other trends you’ve noticed in modern, perhaps two-career, households in terms of food?
In addition to being short on time, I think there is a lot less general kitchen literacy and comfort in the kitchen than perhaps there once was. I, for example, did not learn how to cook anything beyond grilled cheese and chocolate chip cookies until college, and those first few months in front of the stove were pretty intimidating.
I think people often let their fear of messing up a meal deter them from getting into a daily habit of cooking, and instead rely too heavily on pre-packaged and processed convenience foods. My hope is that new cooks will be inspired by the simple, flavorful dishes in this book, while more experienced cooks will also find dishes that excite them.
To what extent do you think the “daily meal” responsibilities still fall to the proverbial ‘lady of the house’ rather than the man?
Well it varies, of course, from household to household. But although Hadassah is traditionally a women-focused organization, I made a conscious effort to direct this cookbook towards men and women alike. Regardless of one’s gender, the desire to eat fresh, delicious meals without a huge amount of fuss is pretty universal. And everyone has a different definition of what everyday cooking means. Some people find it relaxing to come home after work and spend an hour whipping up a homemade pasta sauce or roasted chicken, while other people can’t be bothered for more than 20 minutes, so I included recipes that accommodate both types of cooks.
You aren’t a professionally trained chef, and the cookbook really attempts to democratize cooking -— explaining how to do things like butterfly a chicken that may not be intuitive for those of us who are less familiar with the kitchen. Was that borne out of your own cooking experience, or is Hadassah attempting to democratize the kitchen?
You’re right, my cooking experience is 100% self-taught, and I am absolutely still learning. While testing recipes for the book, I tried to be hyper-aware of all the little tips and tricks that popped into my head, so that I could share them with readers. The best way to get more comfortable in the kitchen is to cook with other people and learn by osmosis. But if we aren’t lucky enough to have a teacher, the next best thing is to have a book that kind of acts as a stand-in — that little extra helping hand guiding you along the way.
Why is this cookbook different from all other cookbooks?
I think it is different in its combination. There are many everyday cookbooks, Jewish cookbooks, and seasonal cookbooks on the market, but this book actively combines all three. It’s also different from other Hadassah cookbooks in that it does not focus on traditional dishes like brisket and kugel, but is instead an everyday cookbook that pulls from a wide variety of culinary traditions in addition to Jewish cuisine. Still, I think the book ultimately feels really Jewish. It makes the statement, I think that Jewish cooking is more about the intention behind a dish — the love and care that we put into it — than the final dish itself. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s completely true.