With Passover approaching, we reached out to Leah Koenig, author of the upcoming Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes and Customs for Today’s Kitchen (Chronicle, March). In the book, Brooklyn-based 32-year old Koenig celebrates updated, seasonal Jewish dishes from around the world. Koenig, who keeps a kosher kitchen, offers her thoughts on Jewish cooking’s evolution through the ages, on her perfect Passover Seder, and on what it means to give traditional Jewish food a cool new twist. She also shares a recipe for your holiday table.
Why write a book about contemporary Jewish cooking?
The book is a bit of a reflection of what I see going on in the Jewish food world now. There’s a lot of energy. A lot of people are taking a new look at their traditions whereas previous generations more strongly rejected Jewish food. “Oh, that’s the shtetl food. That’s what my grandparents ate.” The same words are being twisted in a positive way by younger folks who are saying, “Those are shtetl foods, but now that’s an entry point for exploration.” When working on this book, I very much wanted to capture that spirit.
Could you talk about what modern Jewish cooking means?
There's a misconception about Jewish food that it is something that has been unchanging since the time of Moses. Right now, there’s definitely a focus on seasonal cooking, a focus on vegetables. Also, a tendency to look more globally for flavors, within the Jewish canon of Mediterranean, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, but also globally in general.
You seem to be aiming the book at young cooks.
The primary audience would be other young Jews, people like me who are exploring, maybe grew up eating these foods, but never cooked them. But I don’t like to age specify. You could be 75 and be into seasonal and local cooking or 25 and be into seasonal and local cooking. I also want it to be for anyone who is interested in in Jewish flavors and Jewish food.
There are several tradition-based recipes in the book like the one for schav, the dreaded muddy green sorrel soup of my childhood. How do you deal with the negative memories attached to some of these foods?
I think the schav is a telling example, but when you read the recipe in my book you realize it’s not schav, not that murky, thick thing. It’s a pureed soup so it actually looks like a spinach soup. It has a bright harissa topping on it. Some Jewish foods you’re never going to lose that negative reaction to, but if you’re willing to give it another try people will be pleasantly surprised that there’s a lot of good stuff to be found.
Tell me about your recipe for matzo balls with jalapeno. My grandmother is turning in her grave.
I don’t want to completely throw tradition out the window. Not that I think that Jewish food has to be kosher. I actually think Jewish food can be non-kosher and still be culturally Jewish. But there has to be some through line and the jalapeno matzo balls are a really good example because when you eat them they taste like a matzo ball with a little kick.
What’s your ideal Passover Seder?
I would most likely make a matzo lasagna. The one in the book is really good. You almost don’t realize it’s made out of matzo. I would have lots and lots of spreads and dips and vegetables and starter meze. When I’m cooking for Passover I try really hard to think about what I can eat, instead of what I can’t. And the category you can eat the most is vegetables. I’d have salads, like matbucha, a tomato and eggplant salad, a lot of pickled things, baba ghanoush, red pepper spreads. I would definitely have matzo balls. This is going to make some people roll their eyes but I really like matzo balls in borscht. It’s something that my husband and I have done over the years a lot. They soak up the red color and it adds an extra layer of flavor.
Over the last decade, matzo lasagna has quickly and emphatically entered the Passover mainstream. Its rise has partly to do with the need it fills for a substantive main dish to serve during the holiday’s weeklong bread ban. The other reason for its popularity? It’s delicious, and remarkably so. Softened matzo provides a convincingly noodle-like base for the rich ricotta and mozzarella, tangy marinara, and tender spinach threaded throughout the layers. I like to imagine that, fifty years from now, my future children and grandchildren will swear that Passover is not Passover without spinach-matzo lasagna.
Serves eight to ten
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 oz baby spinach
4 cups full-fat or low-fat ricotta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups grated mozzarella
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
9 sheets matzo
4 cups good quality marinara
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan set over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach and cook, tossing with tongs, until the garlic is fragrant and the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 cup/50 g of the mozzarella, and the parsley. Season generously with salt and pepper and set aside.
4. Fill a shallow baking dish with water. Dip 3 sheets of the matzo in the water and let soften for 1 to 2 minutes. (Not longer—you want the pieces to feel soft, but not mushy or soggy. They should still hold their shape.) Spoon half of the marinara into the bottom of a 9-by-13-in/23-by-33-cm baking dish. Shake the excess water off of the softened matzo pieces and arrange in the baking dish, breaking the sheets as necessary to fit. Top with about half of the ricotta mixture, followed by half of the spinach mixture. Repeat with half of the remaining marinara, another 3 softened sheets of matzo, and the remaining ricotta and spinach mixtures.
5. Soften the remaining 3 sheets of matzo and arrange on top. Spoon the remaining marinara over the top, then sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1 1/2 cups/150 g mozzarella and the Parmesan.
6. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 45 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the cheese is lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let stand for a few minutes. Serve hot.
Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen, by Leah Koenig. Chronicle Books, March ISBN 978-1-4521-2748-4.