Back to Basics

Once in a great while, a cookbook comes along so utterly gorgeous it practically springs from my kitchen shelf and hurls itself upon my coffee table.

Marlena Spieler’s latest, "The Jewish Heritage Cookbook" (Lorenz Books, $36), subtitled "a fascinating journey through the rich and diverse history of the Jewish cuisine" is so leap-off-the-page lusciously photographed you can practically taste the food. But lest you think this book is just another pretty face, Spieler, author of over 30 cookbooks, includes informative chapters on the history of Jewish cuisine, the holidays and kashrut as well as general guides to the preparation of all foods Jewish, everything from grilling mamaliga to pounding hawaij and berbere (spice mixtures).

"This is my first Jewish cookbook," said the California native on a recent visit to San Francisco from her home in London. "I’ve done theme books, like Mediterranean and olive oil and mushrooms, but I’ve always had a Jewish touch somewhere, including dishes either from Israel or my travels or my Jewish family and friends."

Spieler fondly remembers Sundays in her grandmother’s kitchen, her early inspiration. "My grandmother ran a law firm and worked until a few days before she died at 93. Well, she had to cut back a little — she only worked from 9 to 5 then. But on Sunday morning, people would start coming, and she would start cooking. I couldn’t say they’d come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, because it was all one meal.

"We would smell the chicken soup as we went off to synagogue school, and by the time we got home she’d have matzah brei and kasha varnishkes and meat patties with onions. This went on until late evening. Bachi really gave me the love of cooking."

Spieler traveled widely as a young adult, even lived in Israel for a year, and was working as an artist in Greece when she started including recipes with her drawings of food. A publisher offered to publish the recipes (minus the drawings) launching her career as a food writer, broadcaster and columnist.

These days, Spieler divides her time between San Francisco and London, where she is a frequent guest on the BBC. Her column "The Roving Feast" is carried by the New York Times Syndicate and the San Francisco Chronicle.

"The Jewish Heritage Cookbook" is a truly international celebration of Spieler’s curiosity about Jewish people and Jewish food. "I love meeting Jews from different cultures, because they have different dishes on the table," she said. "I love to cook and hear their stories and find it really exciting that people with such different cultures share the same heritage and holidays."

The book’s section on the festival of Shavuot (literally "weeks," because it occurs seven weeks after Pesach) is accompanied by a magnificent illustration from a 13th century manuscript of the Book of Ruth, the portion read on this holiday.

Shavuot, which began at sundown on Thursday, May 16, commemorates the giving of the Torah as well as the offering of the first fruits of the season. Spieler notes that although Shavuot meals are based on dairy products, "there are no rules that say this must be done."

Why dairy? Scholars differ, she says. Perhaps the tradition evolved because spring grazing produces more milk at this time. Also, in "Song of Songs," the Torah is associated with milk and honey. Some suggest that while the Israelites were receiving the Ten Commandments, they were gone so long their milk turned to cheese; others contend that upon their return they were too hungry for anything but milk to sustain them.

Whatever the explanation, for Ashkenazim it’s bring on the blintzes, while Sephardim enjoy cheese filled borekas.

A typical Shavuot starter in central Europe is Hungarian cherry soup perfumed with cinnamon and almond flavor. "The nice thing about this soup," Spieler noted, "is at Shavuot the days are beginning to get warm, and it is really refreshing. I eat it as often as a dessert as with a meal."

Summer squash and baby new potatoes in warm dill sour cream is a festive Israeli celebration of spring and perfect for Shavuot with its fragrant dill and sour cream or yogurt topping.

While cheesecake is traditional fare for Shavuot, we opted for cheese-filled Jerusalem kodafa drenched with syrup, an unusual dessert popular throughout the Middle East, where it is commonly made with a shredded wheat-like ingredient called kadaif. Spieler substitutes couscous as it is prepared in Jerusalem.

"In the Old City, when things were good and people were more friendly, they would make it in these big metal trays that they’d carry on their heads," she noted. "I’ve had it in the Lebanese community of London as well, but in Jerusalem, all the little tea and coffee shops serve it."

There’s Purim carnivals and Passover seders and Chanukah parties — and now there’s a Shavuot festival.

Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles claims to be the first Los Angeles synagogue to celebrate the harvest holiday with a full-fledged festival. On Sun., May 5, the temple closed off its parking lot and brought in booths and games linked thematically to different aspects of the holiday.

A "Biblical Farmers Market" offered items made from agricultural products found in the Bible. Hundreds of attendees sampled cheesecakes, fresh honey, homemade beer (barley) and a sampling of single malt scotch from Vendome Liquors (again, barley), ice cream, artisan cheeses and breads from Maison Gourmet and La Brea Bakery.

There was also a petting zoo with a Swiss cow and baby llama, an inflated "Mt. Sinai" rock-climbing attraction, a butter-churning booth, storytelling and lessons in Hebrew calligraphy.

Rabbi Perry Netter said he was especially proud that the festival taught about the biblical idea of gleaning, or leaving a portion of ones’ fields for the poor. Festival-goers brought items from their homes to give to charity as they entered.

The festival also offered a cheesecake-baking contest. The grand prize went to Fredya Rembaum, who is married to the temple’s senior rabbi, Joel Rembaum. "We know it looks bad," said a judge at the blind tasting, "but what could we do? Hers was the best." — Staff Report