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A Cookbook Odyssey and a Recipe for Red Lentil Soup

Cookbooks are like friends. You turn to your favorite ones again and again. For inspiration. For information. For entertainment. For support during challenging predicaments.

Over the years, my favorite cookbooks have been given to me by my aunt Israela, my cousin Sarah Sassoon and Rachel Emquies Sheff. All three are major cookbook enthusiasts, so it makes sense.

My collection is lovingly displayed in my kitchen and it gives me the greatest pleasure when my guests are inspired to open them while I’m chopping my last minute salad before Shabbat lunch.

Now, Rachel’s collection spills over from the large shelf in her breakfast nook to the piles on the shelf underneath her rather massive coffee table.

Read on, dear reader.

—Sharon

My love for cookbooks began in 1997 when I was pregnant with my son Max. I had decided to take a UCLA extension class called “How To Write A Cookbook.”

Once a week, I would go to the beautiful campus in Westwood and sit in a room with a dozen other foodies. I was excited that one of the other students in the was Ann Gentry, one of the owners of the vegan restaurant Real Food Daily.

One of our first assignments was to prepare a dish, write the recipe and then bring it to class for everyone to taste. I made a couscous salad, which was a combination of couscous with the fresh chopped vegetables of an Israeli salad, garnished with Kalamata olives, pistachios and lots of freshly chopped herbs.

Ann brought the most delicious Asian inspired rice paper vegetable rolls.

After that class, I started collecting every Sephardic cookbook I could get my hands on.

Then something magical happened. Amazon came along. Pretty soon, I had to set up my own Amazon account so that Neil, my husband, couldn’t see how many cookbooks I was buying.

My cookbooks fall into three categories — Sephardic and Jewish cookbooks, healthy cooking and Instagram stars. Every few years, I purge and give away the books that haven’t truly inspired me.

Among the books that will always have a place on my shelves, are those written by Claudia Roden. I have every single one of her books and each is more interesting than the next. They are filled with a wealth of knowledge and fascinating history.

In a twist of fate, Claudia is a first cousin of our beloved Freda Nessim, wife of Jose Nessim, founder of the Sephardic Education Center. Their mothers were sisters and they spent time living together in Columbia. Claudia’s family returned to Egypt, but left for England after the rise of the Arab Socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Claudia Roden is truly one of the most celebrated authors in the cooking world. She was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire in Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 New Year’s Honors List in recognition of her services to literature.

In 2005, I bought her cookbook, “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon.” I loved it so much that I bought one for Sharon too.

It’s the kind of soup that I can imagine that my great grandmothers made. 

One of the very first recipes in the book that caught my eye was her red lentil soup. I made it and it’s truly remarkable. It’s the kind of soup that I can imagine that my great grandmothers made. It reminds me of the old saying “The type of soup that makes your bones fall into place.”

Over the years, I would make the soup for family dinners on cold winter nights. As my children grew older, they would request this soup whenever their braces were tightened and knew that chewing would be painful. I loved making it for my parents, knowing that it was so full of iron and protein and micro nutrients.

I made it again last week and the whole family enjoyed it. It’s the perfect fall soup. Hearty, nourishing and comforting.

We hope you try my version of this classic soup.

—Rachel

Rachel’s Creamy Red Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds red lentils, picked and
rinsed
12 cups of boiling water
6 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place the olive oil in a 6 quart Dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Add the onions and sauté until the onions are translucent.
  3. Add the lentils, tomato paste, water, bay leaf and spices and stir well.
  4. Increase the heat and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot.
  6. Cook at a low simmer until the lentils are soft, about 30-40 minutes, be sure to stir a few times.
  7. Blend with an immersion blender till puréed. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Can be served with some fresh green baby spinach tossed in and allowed to wilt.

Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.

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