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This Ain't Your Grandma's Challah Bread: New Jewish Cooking & Wine Brewing

The Covenant Kitchen's authors don't expect Jews to renounce their historically abstemious ways, but they wish we'd have a glass.


The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 272 pages
Authors: Jeff and Jodie Morgan
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-03
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"Jews have always been known for their moderation in drinking alcohol."

Claudia Roden, "Wine in the Jewish World", The Book of Jewish Food

"Don’t worry, your Jewish blood will get you through. "

-- Caroline Knapp’s maternal Jewish Uncle, on her admission of alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story

"How can you tell the Jews from the non-Jews leaving the theatre? The Jews are saying: Oh my God, I’m starving. Let’s go the deli. Let’s get some cake. The non-Jews are saying, let’s go the bar and get a drink."

-- Comedian Jackie Mason

Jeff and Jodie Morgan, authors of The Covenant Kitchen, aren’t suggesting Jews surrender their historically abstemious attitudes toward drink. However, the owners of Berkeley, California’s kosher Covenant Winery do wish we’d drink more wine with our dinner. Hence, The Covenant Kitchen, a collection of kosher meals and wine pairings for "the new Jewish table".

As The Covenant Kitchen doesn’t fully define "the new Jewish table", I turned to Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking In America: "A shot in the arm to kosher food has been the Baalei Tshuvah, returnees to the faith. These formerly non-observant Jews, who are returning to their Jewish roots, observe the laws of kashrut, but are anxious to try the new, lighter tastes and dishes that they knew before they became kosher."

Nathan explains the Baalei Tshuvah avoid the heavy traditional foods of their Eastern European ancestors. No more kishke (stuffed cow intestine). No more latkes fried in chicken fat. Further, Nathan writes, California is fast becoming a producer of fine Kosher wines.

The Morgans are indeed Baalei Tshuvah, describing their own journey from non-observance to the spiritually-leaning Judaism practiced by many Northern California Jews (I am Jewish, and live near the Morgans). While Jeff Morgan was Bar Mitzvahed at age 54, the couple admit to be not being strictly Sabbath-observant.

Jeff Morgan wrote for Wine Spectator before becoming a vintner himself. His expertise is displayed here in clear writing about the winemaking process, best practices for cellaring wines and tips about glassware. Cost breakdowns ensure that readers will never again ask why that nice red is so expensive. In fact, after reading about equipment costs, bottling, and distribution, you may wonder why fine wines don’t cost even more.

And how is kosher wine different from all other wines? Broadly speaking, it isn’t. Kosher wines differ in their personnel, who must be Sabbath-observant Jews, and in the winemaking materials, which must be kosher. Come Shabbos (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) no work may be performed. Kosher wineries must also close during certain Jewish holidays, even if those holidays fall during the harvest.

Explanations about keeping a kosher kitchen are necessarily brief. Jewish Dietary Law, or kashrut, meaning ritual fitness, requires separation of milk and meat products. No pork, shellfish, or meat from a cow’s hindquarters is permissible. Some foods are parve, or "neutral": vegetable oil, margarine, eggs, fish with scales, fruit, and vegetables.

Observant kosher homes have meat and milk sets of sponges, dishtowels, dish racks, dishes, silverware, and cookware. Sinks are scrubbed between washing meat and milk dishes, while dishwashers can be run, empty, between milk and meat loads. Wealthier families have two dishwashers, two sinks, and two microwaves. Refrigerators: many have two, others divide by shelf.

It's helpful to remember Nathan’s definition when considering The Covenant Kitchen’s take on traditional Jewish recipes. Chicken fat is indeed absent, cream cheese disliked, horseradish disdained. Meanwhile, the latke is gussied up with masago and green onion, while "gefilte quenelles" call for salmon poached in white wine.

What the Morgans mean when they write of a "renaissance" in Jewish dining, and a "coming of age" in contemporary Jewish kitchens is unclear. More strange is the assumption that readers knows nothing of French food or indeed much about cooking at all. Surely we can safely assume somebody spending $35.00 on a kosher cookbook calling for luxury ingredients like duck breast, wild mushrooms, and black rice, realizes that salads may be served warm or that the Frisee Salad with Poached Egg and Beef Fry is not for breakfast.

What of the food itself? The Covenant Kitchen is basically Northern California cuisine without the treyfe (nonkosher food). Thus, the appearance of familiar French standards: La Soupe au Pistou, Braised Beef Short Ribs With Root Vegetables and Garlic Confit Mashed Potatoes, Grilled Salmon With Aioli, and Pear Tart. None are nonkosher in their original incarnations. All are available in any Chez Panisse collection, alongside the Moroccan, Pan-Asian, and Latino flavors popularized by Alice Waters and company.

Recipes for Ahi tuna, salmon, and halibut do not address sustainability. Nor do the veal recipes. Certainly cookbook authors are not responsible for their readers’ ethical decisions. But as I sit writing this on a February afternoon, just a few miles from Covenant Winery, it's nearly 80 degrees. We should be shivering through the rainy season right now, not baking in the sun. Planetary mindfulness deserves at least a passing mention.

This is not to discredit the Morgans or their knowledge. The couple’s years in France are evident, as is their cookbook writing experience. The Covenant Kitchen’s recipes are easily followed, with undeniably pleasing results. Nobody’s going to argue with their classic brisket or a slice of Mocha Cheesecake (anyone who does should be disinvited). Not surprisingly, their wine advice is peerless. Following it will only heighten your dining experience.

In the end, The Covenant Cookbook is perhaps best for the uncertain cook, one equally discomfited by food and what to drink with it. Whether or not this cook is Jewish or kosher matters not. This cook lacks kitchen sachel (confidence, know-how). She, or he, wants to invite friends to a hamische (friendly, homey) dinner party, one where the guests eat heartily, drink up all the wine, and schnorr (pig out on) dessert. If maybe somebody is Baalei Tshuvah, so much the better.

The nervous cook can count on The Covenant Cookbook’s recipes. The rest of us, should we find ourselves entertaining kosher-observant guests, will unearth our paper plates and roast an Empire chicken, sneaking the liver in as a cook’s treat. We’ll fry it in a little of that verboten chicken fat while the smells of the past fill the kitchen, if only for an evening.

Splash image: Challah bread from Shutterstock.com.

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