Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Leah Koenig’s Little Book of Jewish Appetizers is the perfect book to give or get this holiday season. With everything from nibbles and salads to dips and meatballs—and filled with more than 25 inspired modern starters that draw from global Jewish influences—this is a gem of a book.
Leah’s writing and recipes have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Epicurious, Food 52, Bon Appétit, Time Out New York, Tablet and more. She’s also the author Modern Jewish Cooking and The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, both of which have become instant classics. I’m a big fan of Leah’s and was thrilled to chat with her last week.
Where and when did you learn how to cook?
My mom is a fabulous cook, and home-cooked food was a big part of our daily life and holiday celebrations. Her brisket, latkes, and chicken soup are phenomenal. I essentially stole her chicken soup method for Modern Jewish Cooking. It’s incredibly easy—you drop everything in a pot, cover with water, and then walk away for an hour and a half while it simmers—and consistently delicious. Growing up I didn’t have much interest in cooking, and she was pretty protective of her kitchen. So it wasn’t until college, when I lived in a housing coop that did all of its own cooking, that I learned my way around the stove. I got hooked pretty quickly and started playing around with Jewish dishes as the holidays rolled around. It was an exciting time of discovery and empowerment, both in terms of becoming a more confident cook and in terms of connecting to my heritage and identity.
Tell me a little bit about the process of creating a cookbook. It seems rather daunting!
It’s definitely a process. I always start with a couple of weeks of research and vision-planning, trying to pin down what I actually want the book to “say,” so I have a guidepost to return to. Doing the work of developing the recipes feels like a marathon. You basically get up every day and cook, and then take notes, tweak the recipe, go back to the store for ingredients, and cook again until it works. It is not as pleasurable as simply cooking for fun, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty wonderful line of work. It should go without saying, but my number one priority is making sure the recipes in my books work. Otherwise, what are you doing it for?
There is also a good deal of research and writing that goes into creating a book, whether it’s for the introduction, the head notes that accompany every recipe or the side bars. It’s a lot, but it’s so incredibly rewarding to turn in that manuscript that you’ve poured your soul (and a huge amount of olive oil) into!
I love everything about Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, from the size and look of the book to the recipes. What inspired the idea?
Thank you! This book is part of a three-book series, which Chronicle will publish serially. Each “Little Book” will have just 25 recipes and so has to represent a highly curated “perfect bite” from three different aspects of Jewish cuisine. The second book, which I just turned in the manuscript for, will be focused on Jewish holiday main dishes from around the globe, and the third book will focus on sweet and savory baking.
As for this specific book, whether you call them appetizers, mezze, forshpeis, or small plates, the dishes served at the beginning of a meal are often the tastiest. But they don’t get the same respect as main dishes. I loved the idea of writing a book that really elevated and honored the diversity of “before foods,” as well as snacks and nibbles, that help make global Jewish cuisine so delicious.
Favorite recipe from the book?
The borscht crostini is my favorite. It takes all of borscht’s classic flavors—roasted beets and carrots, briny pickled red onions, sour cream, and a mix of dill and garlic—and layers them onto crostini. So you experience the essence of the original dish in a whole new way. It’s a great example of how a home cook can have fun with Jewish flavors while still being respectful of tradition. I also love the albondigas, which are Sephardic meatballs made with pine nuts, smoked paprika, cumin, and mint. They are so flavorful and would make wonderful appetizers for a holiday cocktail party. And the Shiitake and Scallion Falafel is a fun and delicious twist on the original.
Which recipes from the book do you recommend making for Rosh Hashanah?
I would definitely recommend serving the fried gefilte fish, which is a fun, English take on gefilte fish, for Rosh Hashanah or Passover. It might also be fun to lead up to the super Ashkenazi main dish with some Sephardic and Middle Eastern-inspired dips, like muhammara (red pepper, walnut, and pomegranate dip) and my smoky sweet potato hummus.
Shiitake and Scallion Falafel
From Little Book of Jewish Appetizers by Leah Koenig, photographs by Linda Pugliese (Chronicle Books, 2017)
From Leah: Falafel is Middle Eastern snack food at its best. The vegan and gluten-free-friendly chickpea croquettes (or often fava bean outside of Israel) check all the pleasure center boxes: crispy, tender, and savory. Falafel is Arab in origin, but has been widely adopted across Israel as a nationally beloved street food, where it is put into a split pita along with fresh and roasted vegetables, tahini, pickles, hummus, and sometimes french fries, to make a glorious sandwich.
In the spirit of improving upon perfection, I added sautéed shiitake mushrooms and scallions to a traditional chickpea falafel batter. The result is both subtle and profound, an extra dose of umami encapsulated in a delightfully crunchy package. Spear them with a toothpick and serve them as a vegetarian alternative to Albóndigas (page 80). Or eat them straight, dipped in mayo or hummus, or drizzled with an herby vinaigrette. For best results—especially if you are new to deep-frying—I suggest using a deep-fry thermometer, which is inexpensive and will ensure your oil is at just the right temperature before dropping the falafel balls into the pot. Also, do not substitute canned chickpeas; they are already cooked and their texture is too mushy for this recipe.
1 cup [195 g] dried chickpeas
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb [455 g] shiitake mushrooms, cleaned with a paper towel, stemmed, and very finely chopped
2 scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped
1 tbsp harissa paste
1/2 small onion, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup [25 g] chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tbsp chickpea flour or all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
vegetable oil for frying
Place the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with cold water by at least 2 in [5 cm]. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let the chickpeas soak overnight at room temperature. Drain, rinse, then drain well again.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are soft and most of their liquid evaporates, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the scallions and cook until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the harissa. Set aside and let cool to the touch.
Combine the soaked, uncooked chickpeas, the onion, garlic, parsley, chickpea flour, cumin, coriander, and 11/2 tsp kosher salt in a food processor, and pulse until a textured paste forms, scraping down the sides of the processor bowl as necessary. If you squeeze a bit of the mixture in the palm of your hand, it should stick together. Stir in the mushroom mixture.
Line a large plate with a few layers of paper towels. Fill a deep pot with 11/2 in [4 cm] of oil and heat over medium heat until the oil reaches 375°F [190°C] on a deep-fry thermometer. Meanwhile, scoop out a heaping tablespoon of the falafel mixture and use the palms of your hands and fingers to gently squeeze and roll it into a 1-in [2.5‑cm] ball. The falafel batter might seem delicate at this point, but the ball will come together while frying. Set it on a baking sheet and continue forming balls with the remaining batter.
Working in batches of 5 or 6, carefully drop the falafel balls into the hot oil and fry until deep golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes per batch. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to the falafel to the prepared plate and let drain. Serve hot or warm. Store leftovers, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or cover tightly in plastic wrap and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. Reheat in an oven or toaster oven at 350°F [180°C] until warmed through, 10 to 15 minutes.
Store leftovers, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or cover tightly in plastic wrap and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. Reheat in an oven or toaster oven at 350°F [180°C] until warmed through, 10 to 15 minutes.