I’ve been a big fan of Leah Koenig for years.
From Za’atar Burgers to Chocolate Pomegranate Gushers to a Moroccan Chanukah dinner, I can always count on Leah not only for great recipes, but also for new twists on traditional favorites.
Leah writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Epicurious, CHOW, BonAppetit.com, Modern Farmer, More, Time Out New York, Hemispheres, and Tablet, among other publications.
Leah’s articles are always a treat to read. From profiles of an old school deli in the Bronx and a Middle Eastern gem in Park Slope to a feature about why farmers in the Central Valley have unhealthy diets—I’m always learning and discovering new things from Leah.
In addition to writing, she also leads cooking demonstrations and workshops around the country.
Her first cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen was published by Rizzoli/Universe in 2011. She’s written a terrific new cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking from Chronicle Books, available this month.
Leah and I chatted earlier this week. It was kind of a thrill for me to interview someone whose work has really inspired mine. I’m excited to share our conversation with you.
How did you become such a foodie? Did your mom or grandmother cook growing up? Were you always interested in food?
To be honest, growing up I was decidedly not interested in food and was an embarrassingly picky eater. What twelve-year-old doesn’t like pizza? This gal. It was something about the texture of melted cheese. So while my mom is a fantastic cook, I sort of missed out on those treasured moments of learning from her in the kitchen. Still, her influence—like her insistence on using “real” ingredients and eating a balanced diet—must have rubbed off.
Eventually I came to my senses. I started cooking in college while living in a housing co-op with sixteen other people. I was an Environmental Studies major, and the idea that I could live a more sustainable life through my food choices really appealed to me. My housemates and I ate dinner together every night and took turns cooking, so it was a real trial-by-fire kind of experience. I actually learned to cook for twenty people before I learned to cook for two!
How did you become so knowledgeable about Jewish cooking? (I learn so much from reading your articles!) How has your Judaism influenced your work?
Thank you! I’m hardly an expert, but I am passionate about Jewish cooking and always try to be a thorough reporter. I think food writing is at its best when it transcends the food to tell a larger story of culture and history. So whatever I’m researching about the food of Ethiopian Jews or about how a delicatessen in Brooklyn or San Francisco is updating Eastern European Jewish classics, I try to dig as deeply as possible. Whenever I can, I like to cook with people in their homes to get firsthand knowledge and anecdotes. I’m a big fan of Google Books, which puts a world of Jewish experiences at my fingertips. And I also have a small but growing collection of vintage Jewish cookbooks (mostly community cookbooks) that provide lots of great information.
What’s your go-to dinner that you make at home when you’re tired, pressed for time and/or don’t have much in the house and don’t feel like running to the market? (Mine is tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Shakshuka is also always a crowd pleaser when I’ve got little time and I’m too tired to think about cooking.)
Eggs, all ways! Shakshuka is a definite favorite, as are eggs over easy with some kind of sautéed or roasted vegetable on the side. (Brussels sprouts are big around here right now. In the summer, it’s usually zucchini or sliced tomatoes with sea salt). I often add a fresh salad too for some crunch and color.
Favorite dish to make?
As someone who develops recipes as part of my livelihood, it can be difficult to find time to cook for pleasure. I actually made a little chart that I keep on the fridge to track the number of new-to-me recipes I try. Having the visual reminder helps me remember to go into my files or browse my favorite blogs to find new inspiration. Delicious things that have come out of this exercise include Broiled Spaghetti Squash with Miso Glaze (I used delicata squash instead) and a vanilla bean apple tarte tatin.
My favorite dishes to make from Modern Jewish Cooking are the Tomato and Chickpea Soup with Spinach (recipe below) and the Red Wine and Honey Brisket. The soup is gorgeously spiced with smoked paprika, cumin, and rosemary and blends chickpeas directly into the broth, which gives it a luscious texture. And brisket is such a low-maintenance crowd pleaser—my version adds red wine and honey to the braising liquid, which perfumes the meat and helps give it sweet, caramelized edges.
What or who inspires you? How do you come up with the ideas for your recipes?
I’m inspired by anyone who tries to honor and explore his or her heritage through food. Luckily, there is no shortage of inspiration right now! Louisa Shafia, who wrote the gorgeous cookbook, The New Persian Kitchen, comes to mind as a great example.
As for ideas, I try to keep up with blogs, though I only really manage to actively follow a few. As much as possible, I try to eat in other people’s kitchens, either professional kitchens or in the homes of friends and story subjects. I have a seven-month-old son, so it’s harder than it used to be!
Can you give us any cooking tips? Is there one thing you see novice cooks do over and over that you’d like to correct?
Boil your rice! I spent years being disappointed by gummy rice, even after I soaked it and rinsed it. Then someone clued me into the notion of boiling it like pasta. It’s faster because it takes away the step of rinsing the grains and measuring water. And all that extra starch, which contributes to the stick-factor, gets washed away when you drain it through a mesh sieve. The results are astounding – fluffy grains of rice that never clump together. Oh, and while we are on the subject, throw a little salt into the cooking water for flavor.
Also, invest in good knives. There is nothing more important to a functional, fun kitchen than knives that will act as your ally and not your enemy.
Are you going on book tour? Where can we find your schedule to see to where you’ll be, so we can come say hello and get some books signed?
Yes! For now, I’m doing a few events in New York and several in California (details here). I’ll be adding more dates in the months to come, so keep an eye out on the Modern Jewish Cooking blog.
Thank you Leah!
Tomato-Chickpea Soup with Spinach by Leah Koenig from Modern Jewish Cooking
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves chopped
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
Two 15 1/2 oz cans chickpeas drained
One 14 1/2 oz can diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable broth
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 cups packed baby spinach leaves
Labneh or yogurt for serving
Heat the olive oil in a large pot set over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic, paprika, cumin, basil, rosemary and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.
Add one can of chickpeas, the tomatoes and their juice, broth and sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is slightly reduced about 20 minutes. Stir 1 tsp salt and the pepper. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
Puree the soup until smooth using an immersion blender, or working in batches in a standard blender. Return the soup to the pot, set over low heat, and stir in remaining chickpeas and the spinach. Cook until the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes Taste and season with more salt, if desired. Divide into bowls and serve with the labneh or yogurt. Serve hot.