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The Gefilte Variations

200 Inspired Recreations of Classics from the Jewish Kitchen with Menus Stories

Author: Jayne Cohen Publisher: Scribner ISBN: 0684827190 ···  Hardcover ···  416 pages. List Price: $35

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The Gefilte Variations: 200 Inspired Re-creations of Classics From the Jewish Kitchen With Menus, Stories, and Traditions for the Holidays and Year-Round.

The Gefilte Variations is a hefty volume, sporting no obvious cookbook filler -- there aren't even any photographs. But the cover's Cubist menorah in blue hues, with its scholarly, tome-like appearance, is misleading, because Cohen's Jewish cookbook gives us atypical interpretations of a very rich tradition.

Jayne Cohen's collection of cultural recipes is a revamping of classic dishes for current tastes, with flourishes expected of cooking today, like Crispy Shallot Latkes With Sugar Dusting. Her innovations are successful; while Cohen won't cloak recipes in ancestral form, she doesn't toy with innovation frivolously. As she says, her improvisations "are firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, and while playful, they remain faithful to its spirit and soul."

But where does one find a tradition's spirit and soul? What, in other words, is the essence of a culinary tradition? There is no easy academic answer, only personal takes on the matter -- call them the Bubby Debates. Essentially, "Jewish" to one grandmother is unlike what the word means to the next. Again, take latkes. One Bubby's family makes hers with potato and onion, frying them in schmaltz, "as in the old days." Another substitutes zucchini or yams for the traditional potato but insists on frying them in oil, like the Chanukah story prescribes. Another cares little for ingredients or method. Instead, she preserves a dish's context, noting the latke's role in holiday ritual. Cohen seems most interested in this last aspect, freely altering the ingredients of traditional dishes, but using them in their established roles. Kugel, for instance, can be made with peaches and plums as long as it preserves the spirit of practicality and abundance required of the Jewish Sabbath and holiday meals.

I don't mind if Jewish cooks borrow ingredients or techniques from other culinary canons, trying to infuse some new flavors into Old Country Cuisine. However, I prefer that this integration is limited to geographic areas of historic influence. Chinese food, for example, is a huge part of contemporary American Jewish culture, particularly on the East Coast, but it is not a major influence on Jewish culture historically. Therefore, it would seem out of place in a book trying to maintain an earnest tie to the past. Cohen, happily, avoids these kinds of superficial associations. In general, she refrains from compiling a worldly potpourri of Jewish cuisine. Her recipes are unusually elegant, but they stay close to the familiar tastes of home and the flavors of the seasons. She writes, "I am not creating silly, culturally perverse combinations here, like ... jalapeņo-sundried tomato gefilte fish. ... Rather, my recipes are all integrated interpretations of food I think of as Jewish, and all are kosher." Her pairing of mostly Mediterranean flavors is right on: Apricot Blintzes With Toasted Pistachios and Yogurt Cream, Sorrel Onion Noodle Kugel. She does dabble in adjectival excess, the editorial equivalent of a striptease. But at least tiringly verbose titles like "Salmon Gefilte Fish Poached in Fennel-Wine Broth With Ginger-Beet Horseradish" reveal quite deliciously what the recipe holds in store.

Cohen's book is a testament to how integration -- a risky idea to historically ostracized people -- can have preservative value. Cohen is a wonderful cook, and she has used the fertile ground of classic Jewish cooking to make good food. For that reason, this book is a worthy tribute and contribution to a continually evolving cuisine.


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