The sumptuous spreads laid out by Jewish friends on major high holy days do more than feed, they put the feast in “feast day.” Random members of the goyim who wandered into, say, a Hanukkah dinner might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was followed by a lesser-known feast, the Forty Days of Leftovers.
In “The New Jewish Table,” Washington, D.C., chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen, offer a framework for taking Jewish cooking, both strictly kosher and not-so-much, out of the holiday mindset. Drawing on their work at Equinox restaurant, the Grays have developed a seasonally based approach that draws from both Eastern European traditions and the burgeoning American farm-to-table movement. The recipes, drawing on influences from all over the map – French technique, Italian ingredients – are clearly labeled as including meat, dairy or neither – parve.
It’s a culinary fusion cookbook of sorts, driven by the meeting of two passionate streams. Todd Gray grew up Episcopalian in Virginia, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and started working at fine dining restaurants. Ellen grew up in a “madcap traditional Jewish household” in Maryland, before going to Israel to work on a kibbutz. She ended up as a saleswoman for Sysco foods, and met the young chef on a cold call.
“I don’t date customers,” she told him. “Don’t worry,” the smitten chef said. “I won’t buy anything from you.” They married in 1995. She runs the front of the house at their restaurants, and he takes care of the food.
While they were engaged, her family trusted the chef enough to let him cook some Jewish holiday favorites for their gatherings. Her father was the designated maker of latkes, potato pancakes, for Hannukah, so it took nerve for Todd Gray to tell his prospective father-in-law that maybe he didn’t need to use so much oil
His macaroons for Passover led to more refinements, as he brought his fine dining experience and classic French kitchen techniques to bear. Her father’s 24-hour brisket recipe was finessed into a 36-hour sous vide brisket, ending up on the Equinox menu, along with his foie gras matzo balls.
Yes, there are suggested menus for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover, but they’re based on modern treatments like Brussels Sprout Petals Saute, Baked Spaghetti Squash with Tomato Fondue, Matzo-Stuffed Cornish Game Hens and Quinoa Salad with Figs and Mint.
At its heart, though, this is a cookbook that takes the best from two cooking traditions, and forges them into an accessible source for inspiration all year round. Find the recipe for Beet-Cured Salmon at Hungry for More blog.
The New Jewish Table
By Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray, with David Hagedorn
St. Martin’s Press
$35, 327 pages