NEW YORK, (JTA) — “I like to have fun in the kitchen,” says Susie Fishbein, a stay-at-home mother of four -- three girls and a boy -- who became an overnight success with the publication of her cookbook, “Kosher by Design.”
While some food writers automatically push the same old latke and brisket menu at Chanukah, Fishbein offers a lighter touch by mixing in Mediterranean fare. And although she tweaks culinary tradition, she honors it. Fishbein believes in presenting beautiful food in unique ways.
Because Fishbein never attended culinary school, she has empathy for the home cook who is working blindly from a stranger’s instructions and, maybe, a picture. Her recipes are easy to follow; even novices can achieve professional results.
Although she is playful and adventurous, Fishbein is serious about finding inspiration.
She talks to lots of people, asking them about their favorite foods. She reads restaurant menus the way some people study the stock market. She’s never just eating; she’s figuring out what ingredients she’s tasting and which flavors compliment each other. Her aim is to keep ahead of the kosher curve.
“Creating recipes is my forte,” she says. To invent novel ways of preparing food, she spends huge amounts of time experimenting in the kitchen. She asks her husband and children to test her creations.
“Through trial and error, I attempted a new dish several months ago,” she laughs. “It went through three phases before my family said: ‘Give it up! It just isn’t any good.’ ”
With a bubbly personality, Fishbein describes a recent December when a Hadassah chapter on Long Island invited her to demonstrate how to make beignets, a type of French fritter.
“Beignets are fresh and exciting at Chanukah,” she says. “A change of pace from jelly doughnuts.”
Because she expected 200 Hadassah women at the demonstration, Fishbein asked her mother for assistance.
“Ironically, I don’t come from a long line of good cooks,” she says. “My ancestors were amazing women, bold beyond their time. But we gagged on their food.”
Watching Fishbein whipping up the beignet batter and frying fritters, her mother said: “Those aren’t beignets, they’re punchkis!” She then claimed that Fishbein’s grandmother used to make an Ashkenazi rendition of this French confection. “It’s the one thing that Bubbe made well!”
Fishbein found this hiliarious , because she had searched long and hard for this upscale idea. Then, through a series of missteps followed by corrections, she perfected her version of the recipe, only to find something similar had been in the family for decades.
Every Chanukah, Fishbein throws a block party and includes all of her neighbors. Inviting 18 adults and 14 children, she serves many of the recipes from “Kosher by Design,” especially the ones calling for olive oil.
Olive oil, a precious commodity in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, is at the heart of Chanukah cooking. After the Maccabees prevailed in a series of bitter battles, there was only a 24-hour supply of oil left to light the Temple menorah.
This created a crisis, because it took eight days to replenish lamp oil. But, miracle of miracles, one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. Paying homage to this joyous event, no Chanukah menu would be complete without food fried in oil.
True to this theme, Fishbein serves family and friends Rigatoni ala Norma, a scrumptious Italian dish made with red sauce riddled with fried eggplant and basil. Her Parmesan Crusted Grouper is a remarkably easy recipe that yields amazingly delicious results.
A perennial favorite, Greek Tomato-Spinach Pizza is surrounded by phyllo dough and layered with fried veggies and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. Fishbein likes these two dairy recipes because of the role cheese plays in the Chanukah story.
Aware that food is mightier than the sword, Judith, an unsung heroine, entertained an enemy general and plied him with salty cheese. To quench his thirst, he consumed far too much wine. After he fell asleep from the wine, Judith cut off his head with his sword, helping her people prevail against the enemy forces.
Today, the Festival of Lights remains a joyous occasion. In accordance with the holiday’s spirit, there’s a photo of a glittering table flooded with glowing candles and blue and gold accouterments in the Chanukah chapter of “Kosher by Design.”
Fishbein knows how to turn an ordinary dining room into a dazzling scene that impresses guests. She has become the doyenne of Jewish entertaining. As a matter of fact, she’s publishing “Kosher by Design Entertains” in time for Passover.
No matter what your home looks like, Fishbein suggests firing up your imagination when setting holiday tables. Last Chanukah, her house was under construction. “We had bare walls down to the studs,” she says. “The place was a disaster zone.” Yet at her annual Chanukah party, she overshadowed chaos with extravagance.
“Would you believe the photo from my cookbook was actually my table -- taken during the demolition,” she says. “It goes to show, you can create ambiance anywhere.”
But how do the creatively challenged get started? Fishbein suggests beginning with the best food. Yet, she says, it’s not only what you serve, but how you serve it.
A simple garnish creating contrast, an offbeat tablecloth such as a quilt, an Oriental pot filled with flowering plants -- these things elevate the mundane to the magnificent. Search your house for lovely objects long forgotten. Mix and match things representing different styles and adapt them when you entertain.
“Above all, enjoy yourself,” says Fishbein. “Let each meal be a wonderful journey — the sharing of something special with people you care about and love.”
Recipes from “Kosher by Design,” by Susie Fishbein.
RIGATONI ALA NORMA
6 medium Asian eggplants, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices crosswise
Salt to taste
1 1/4 cups or more olive oil
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 (28 or 32) cans whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 Tbsp. sugar
3-4 fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus extra for garnishing
1 pound rigatoni, uncooked
1. Lay eggplant slices in a single layer. Lightly salt both sides. Cover with paper towels. Let sit for 20 minutes. Press on paper towels occasionally to soak up water that will come from eggplants.
2. In a large frying pan, heat 1 cup, or more, of olive oil over medium high heat. Make sure you have at least an inch of oil, so it will cover the slices and eliminate the need for flipping each piece over. When oil is hot, carefully add the eggplant in batches and fry until golden on both sides. Add more oil, if necessary. Transfer to clean paper towels and drain. Season generously with salt and black pepper.
3. Place 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot. Add the garlic and saute until golden. Add the tomatoes and any accumulated juices. Add the sugar and simmer about 15 minutes. The sauce will thicken. Add the chopped basil leaves and simmer 3-4 minutes longer.
4. While the sauce simmers, prepare the pasta according to package directions until al dente (chewy). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water in case sauce needs thinning.
5. Toss the pasta with the eggplant and sauce. Garnish with fresh basil leaves.
Yield: 6-8 servings
GREEK TOMATO-SPINACH PIZZA
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 (10-ounce) boxes frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 tsp. dry oregano
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
15 ounces ricotta cheese
10 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1/4 cup butter, melted
4-6 fresh tomatoes, evenly sliced
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. In a skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Saute about 5 minutes, or until onion is transparent.
3. Add spinach and saute until all excess moisture has evaporated. Add oregano, basil and pepper. Mix well. Remove from heat. Mix in ricotta cheese. Set aside.
4. Grease a large jelly roll pan (the kind with a small rim). Lay one sheet of phyllo in it. The phyllo may be just a little bigger than the pan. Brush phyllo with melted butter. Top with a second phyllo sheet and brush with melted butter. Repeat process until all ten sheets are buttered. Roll the ends of phyllo into themselves to form the “pizza crust.” NOTE: Phyllo dough dries out quickly, so keep sheets covered with a damp cloth until use.
5. Using a spatula, spread the spinach ricotta mixture in an even layer over the phyllo. Arrange tomatoes over this layer. Sprinkle with mozzarella. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. When cool enough to handle, cut into squares.
Yield: 12 servings
PARMESAN CRUSTED GROUPER
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup butter, softened but not melted
2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
2 scallions, thinly sliced
4 small (1-inch thick) grouper fillets
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Preheat broiler to high.
2. In a small bowl, combine Parmesan, butter, mayonnaise and scallions. Reserve.
3. Place grouper fillets on a lightly greased boiler pan. Squeeze juice from lemon over fillets. Sprinkle with black pepper.
4. Broil 6 inches from heat for 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Spread tops of the fillets with cheese mixture. Return to oven and broil for 2 minutes longer, or until topping is lightly browned and bubbly. Remove fillets to platter.
Yield: 4 servings
4-6 cups vegetable oil
1 cup milk
1 cup water
1 large egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. sugar
1. Pour oil into a deep pot to a depth of 3-4 inches. Heat oil to 370 F.
2. In a large bowl with the mixer at medium-high speed, combine the milk, water and egg. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix until batter is smooth.
3. Using a 1/8 cup measure, drop the batter into the hot oil and fry about 3-4 minutes. Don’t make them much bigger or the inside won’t cook properly. The beignets will float to the surface. Turn them a few times, until the beignets are golden on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towels. Use a strainer to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on all sides. Serve hot.
Yield: 20-24 beignets
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