Reviewing: “Good Food,” by Sina Mizrahi. Artscroll/Shaar Press. 2021. ISBN-10: 1-4226-2843-4
Sina Mizrahi’s “Good Food: Inspired by My Middle Eastern Roots and the Places I’ve Called Home” will delight the adventurous cook who loves learning about new flavors, ingredients and cultures but doesn’t always have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. Mizrahi has collected many of her recipes into a book that pays homage to the culinary influences of her and her husband’s families and the places she has lived in.
Self-taught—with help from her mother and mother-in-law—Mizrahi infuses her recipes with a love of “bright, beautiful foods with bold flavors.” In the introduction, she shares her sensual appreciation of ingredients. “I started to notice how oil shimmers when heated, the nutty smell of rice when it’s sauteed … I marveled at the breathtaking beauty of the season’s fruits and vegetables.”
Mizrahi was born in Israel to a mother of Libyan descent and a father whose family is from Morocco. Her Israeli-born husband’s mother has Moroccan roots and his father’s side is Turkish and Syrian. As a child, Sina grew up in the French Moroccan community of Montreal. She and her husband have lived in Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem and now in New Jersey.
Although her mother was a superb cook, Mizrahi was a newbie when first married. In a phone interview, she said she didn’t learn to cook before her marriage, as her mother didn’t want anyone else in the kitchen with her. She now encourages her own children to learn from her.
“Good Food” is beautifully designed and includes Mizrahi’s photographs. She began photographing her children as a hobby, thinking she might turn it into a profession. But when her children began avoiding the camera, she needed another subject. She realized that a blog about food with her photos would be a natural fusion of her two loves, and learned photography through online video tutorials and lots of practice. Mizrahi has been creating recipes and photographs for her blog, “Gather a Table,” for 10 years.
I asked how she chose which recipes to include in the book. “It was hard in the beginning to choose,” she acknowledged. “But a friend told me to stop overthinking and include all the food you want your daughter to know how to cook.”
The recipes in “Good Food” range from dinner-in-a-hurry fare to ones with more steps. “Not everything has to be wild and complicated,” said Mizrahi. “You can put simple ingredients together to make a good meal. Sometimes you want practical everyday food and sometimes more flavorful and delicious.”
I can vouch for that after having made several recipes. One night I eagerly made Za’atar Salmon with Pomegranate Gremolata and loved the explosion of flavors from the spices and herbs. Another night I was serving someone on a restricted diet and made the Pan-Seared Salmon with Smashed Potatoes and Salad. Although simple, it was anything but boring. There is a recipe entitled Workin’ Mama Meatballs that I thought, at first, looked strangely out of place in a new cookbook. But when I came home after a particularly busy day, I was happy to make something quickly that, while simple, was refreshingly different due to some of the ingredients it called for, like crispy fried onions.
Mizrahi said she wanted the book to be for delicious, everyday cooking, so she only included a handful of special-occasion recipes. For Shabbat meals, I made Chicken Tagine with Dried Fruits, Festive Wine-Braised Minute Steak and Maple Bourbon BBQ Brisket.
Mizrahi’s goal for choosing recipes was to include ones familiar enough so that a cook wouldn’t be intimidated, while suggesting a few spices or techniques to make the dish different. “I want to get people more familiar with spices they aren’t used to buying,” she said.
The addition of a spice like coriander can change a dish in a palette-pleasing way. The Chicken Tagine was similar to a dish I make for Rosh Hashana but with a definite Sephardic overtone. Minute Steaks are an excellent choice for Shabbat as they come in perfectly sized individual portions. Mizrahi’s version could be at home in any French or Ashkenazi kitchen, with its rich red wine sauce redolent of aromatic herbs. I served the Maple Bourbon BBQ Brisket sliced, but Mizrahi writes that she often serves it in mini taco shells.
I tried one dessert, Debby’s Marble Cake. With its whipped egg whites, the crust and filling have a light angel food cake consistency that contrasts nicely with pockets of deep, dense chocolate. What’s not to love?
I was almost afraid to admit that I tweaked a recipe or two, but Mizrahi said that’s not only allowed, but encouraged. “Recipes are guidelines.” When I made the Chicken Tagine, I added too much silan (date syrup) and found it overly sweet. Since there was already a Sephardic flavor profile to the dish, I added some shawarma seasoning. I loved it, and will add the spices deliberately next time. Mizrahi said that was the right approach to changing flavors. “To fix a dish, balance it with the opposite flavor,” she said. “If it’s too salty, dilute it with liquid, or balance a flavor with a squeeze of lemon juice.”
I still plan to try some of the more unusual (for me) and complicated dishes like Pastilla, a phyllo dough crust with a filling of chicken, almonds, herbs, sugar and spices. Having learned to make challah as my pandemic project, and no longer intimidated by yeast, I’d like to try the recipe for pita bread. How nice it would be to have my own fresh, hot pita right out of the oven!
Mizrahi advises anyone who likes to cook to think less about perfection and more about developing their cooking personality. “The only way to make good food is to put yourself in the recipe,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to experiment or be creative. Do the cooking, put your love in the food, and it will be delicious.”
By Bracha Schwartz