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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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Reviewing: “The Giving Table,” by Naomi Ross. Menucha Publishers. 2022. ISBN: 9781614658634.

Cooks who put love into every dish, and think of the food they make for others as sharing part of themselves, will find delicious new recipes and validation for their enthusiasm in “The Giving Table” by Naomi Ross. If you think of meal making as a chore, you’ll find new inspiration in these pages. You may even change your mind.

A culinary arts teacher for many years, Ross has shared her collected wisdom about how to cook and whom to cook for in “The Giving Table.” She explains how to combine both complementary and contrasting items to harmonize in a dish. She devotes several pages to making food as a gift for people who could use some kindness, like an elderly neighbor or mother of a newborn. The last chapter is all about cooking for a crowd. Her suggestions add joy to the process and lessen the intimidation. She gives the kind of detail you won’t find elsewhere—the types of dishes best served and proportions you don’t have to guess at.

Ross began giving cooking classes for new brides who felt overwhelmed in the kitchen. “I wanted to give them a sense of confidence that what they are doing is important,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s not just about nourishing; it’s an act of giving.”

When she moved to Long Island, Ross found a different demographic—settled families—but the women she met had a similar need to build skills and confidence in the kitchen. She began accepting requests to teach and write for publications. When she felt a need to expand her own skills, she asked to observe professional restaurant kitchens, and brought back the lessons learned to her students.

Restaurants function in a very different way than home kitchens, but their emphasis on efficiency offers valuable guidance. Ross learned two important lessons: First, think in terms of building the elements for several meals while you’re making one. Make pesto for a pasta dish and freeze some to use on crostini or sandwiches, and build layers of flavors in a seamless way, at each stage of prepping a dish. Second, Repurpose ingredients so you aren’t serving leftovers but new, attractive meals. “I’m constantly opening my fridge and sizing up what I have and what I can do with it,” she said. “I reduce my waste and save money.”

The recipes in “The Giving Table” are a mix of easy-and-quick and more labor-intensive. Some are new renditions of classics, and Ross’s creative spirit shines in others. “Cooking is about the balance of flavors—fat, acid, sweetness and salt. That’s why you have to taste and correct.” Sometimes a little touch can elevate a dish. “Lemon adds brightness and acidity to a dish,” she said. “I watched an executive chef use pickle juice to brighten up a dish. Lime, I reserve for a more specific ethnic profile.”

I spent a couple of weeks with “The Giving Table,” exploring salads, soups, mains and sides. I didn’t make it—yet—to the scrumptious baked goods. Triple Mushroom, Meat and Barley Soup is a classic and Ross’s is an excellent version. The textures of the soft barley, meaty flanken and chewy mushrooms combine in a soothing blend. Ross’s California Niçoise Salad with Seared Tuna changes the profile of this well-known dish in an excellent way. Seared tuna is usually served with an Asian dressing. We loved the seared tuna as the centerpiece of a salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. It’s an elegant appetizer or lunch for guests and only requires assembly before serving. The Carnivore’s Lasagna has already been integrated into my rotating dinner repertoire. If it just consisted of a yummy meat sauce nestled between layers of noodles, it would be deliciously comforting. Ross adds a pareve bechamel sauce, using plant milk instead of dairy, for an insanely delicious creamy touch. One quizzical taster needed assurance there was no dairy in the dish.

I made a dinner of three Israeli-style dishes—Lamb Burgers with Fresh Mint Chutney, Rainbow Carrots with Charred Dates and Tahini, and Pomegranate-Glazed Eggplant. When I praised the carrots effusively, Ross explained what makes them so satisfying. “It’s the combination of contrasts—crunch, richness and creamy sweetness from the dates and carrots, pungency from the leeks. That’s what I strive for in all my recipes: well-balanced contrasts. That’s what makes everything delicious to eat and look at.”

I grilled the Apricot Chicken Skewers for a great Shabbat lunch. Chicken can dry out quickly on a hotplate, but these were fine at room temperature. I made Spinach and Veggie Stuffed Capons for another Shabbat lunch. I served these warm, as the bundles of dark meat and filling stayed moist with some heat. On a Friday night with just my husband and me, I splurged on Veal Scallopini with Tomatoes and Cremini Mushrooms. The flavorful sauce veered away from the more traditional Italian profile, which I also do often, and we enjoyed the change. Veal is very expensive. For a family meal, substitute chicken cutlets.

In the dairy category, I made Balsamic Strawberry, Mint and Feta Salad. The balsamic marinade added depth to the sweetness of the strawberries, and the pop of mint added interest without overwhelming the dish. I challenged myself with making Ross’s dairy crust for a Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Quiche. When I told her I usually use a frozen prepared crust, and this was my first time making a pie crust, she wasn’t surprised. At one cooking class, she asked the students if anyone made pastry dough for a pie. No one raised their hand. I will tell you it is vast improvement. Since this was a dairy meal I could use butter, which always makes a difference. Just as promised, the crust was light, flaky and a more worthy base to the custard and vegetable quiche.

I told Ross I was surprised that her teaching career started with clueless brides. As soon as my daughter expressed an interest in cooking, she helped in the kitchen and I was happy to teach her. When she got married, she had an easy transition to managing meals and Shabbat entertaining. “Many mothers don’t want kids in the kitchen with them,” Ross said. “Mothers should encourage their kids to cook with them and make them part of the kitchen narrative. It builds ownership and makes them want to be around the table.” She said her own four children have at least basic skills, and her youngest, at 14, is a natural and enthusiastic cook.

For too many families, dinner together is a lost ritual. Ross said the one blessing of the pandemic lockdowns for her was the family meals shared every night. Fortunately, Shabbat and Yom Tov bring us together for meals but the more that families eat together, the better our relationships. “The more you can draw people to the table, the more bonding time you have for the family as a whole.”

Apricot Chicken Skewer

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Difficulty: Easy-peasy

Cook’s Note: Burnt skewers can break and splinter! Be sure to soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes in order to prevent burning upon contact with the intense heat of the broiler or grill. Another trick to prevent burnt skewers is to wrap the exposed ends in aluminum foil—simply remove before serving.

Do Ahead: Sauce may be made four days ahead.

Ingredients:

  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon ground ginger

Apricot Dipping Sauce:

  • ⅔ cup apricot preserves
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard

Special Supplies:

  • 1 package wooden skewers
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 boneless chicken breasts, cut lengthwise into long 1-inch-thick strips (or use chicken tenders)
  • ¼-½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

1. Marinate: Combine oil and spices in a large mixing bowl. Add chicken strips and toss to coat. Cover and marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, soak skewers in water to cover.

2. Prepare dipping sauce: Melt preserves in a small saucepan over low heat or in a microwave. Stir in the next six ingredients, whisking to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Line a sheet pan with foil and set aside. Preheat the broiler to high.

4. Broil: Carefully thread the chicken strips onto the skewers, weaving back and forth. Place threaded skewers onto the prepared sheet pan, arranging in a single layer. Broil skewers for 8-10 minutes per side, turning once during broiling.

5. Serve: Transfer skewers to a large platter and serve hot with Apricot Dipping Sauce. (Sauce can be served at room temperature.)

Rainbow Carrots With Charred Dates and Tahini

Serves 6-8

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15-20 minutes

Difficulty: Easy-peasy GF/Vegan

This dish can be made with regular carrots as well, but the vibrant colors of rainbow carrots make this dish beautiful to the eye!

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2½ pounds rainbow carrots (about 10-15 carrots), peeled and sliced on the bias, ⅛-inch thick
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons coriander
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 8-10 Medjool dates, pits removed and quartered
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint tahini, for drizzling

Cook’s Note: The carrots need to be thinly sliced in order to cook quickly and evenly in this dish. For easiest prep, use the slicing blade of a food processor or a mandoline.

Serving Suggestion: This dish can also be plated and served in small cups/mini bowls as individual portions.

Directions:

1. Sauté: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrots and season with salt, coriander, cumin and crushed red pepper flakes. Sauté, stirring often, for about 10-12 minutes or until the carrots are crisp-tender and slightly browned with color.

2. Squeeze the juice of one orange over the carrots and stir to incorporate. Transfer the carrots into a serving bowl and return empty pan to heat.

3. Char: Add dates to the pan, cut sides down. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until edges get charred and caramelized. Transfer dates to the bowl with carrots.

4. Add mint and orange zest to the carrots; toss to blend.

5. Serve: Drizzle with tahini.

The Carnivore’s Lasagna

Serves 6-8

Prep Time: 1½-2 hours

Cook Time: 30-35 minutes

Difficulty: Worth the wait

The meat sauce used in this recipe is versatile and hearty—a perfect winter’s meal, whether used in lasagna or for topping pasta or gnocchi. While not “mandatory,” adding layers of bechamel sauce (white sauce) commonly used in traditional meat lasagnas lends creaminess and helps to bind the layers of the lasagna.

Ingredients:

  • 1 (16-ounce) package lasagna noodles
  • Meat Ragù:
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled Italian plum tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

Bechamel Sauce:

  • 4 tablespoons margarine or butter substitute
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups oat or soy milk
  • 1-1¼ pounds ground beef
  • 1-1¼ pounds ground veal
  • 8-10 large fresh basil leaves, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • ¾ teaspoon oregano
  • 2-3 teaspoons sugar, or more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Note: No-boil lasagna sheets can be used as well. If using, do not cook meat ragù for extra time to thicken. (The noodles will absorb the extra moisture.)

Directions:

1. Prep lasagna: Boil lasagna noodles al dente according to the package’s instructions. (If preparing in advance, rinse with cold water. Drain and set aside.)

2. For ragù: Place tomatoes in a large bowl and crush them into small pieces with your fingers (or pulse in a food processor); set aside.

3. Heat the olive oil in a wide, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, garlic, pepper flakes, and salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the ground beef and veal, stirring constantly to break up the meat into small bits. Continue stirring until all of the meat is browned (no longer pink).

5. Add the tomatoes, dried basil (if using fresh, add in later with wine), oregano, sugar and black pepper, and heat until the sauce begins to simmer. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes. Stir in the wine (and fresh basil, if using), and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, or until sauce is thickened. (For a heartier, thicker sauce, continue cooking for an additional 30-45 minutes.) Season to taste with more salt and pepper as needed.

6. Degrease: If there is excess fat on the surface, skim off with a spoon or use a paper towel to blot and remove fat.

7. While ragù cooks, prepare Bechamel Sauce: Melt margarine in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon until a light brown paste forms (the roux), about 2 minutes.

8. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oat milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened—5-7 minutes. Remove from the heat. Place a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper directly on the surface of the sauce to prevent skin from forming; set aside.

9. Assemble: Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a 9x13-inch lasagna pan with nonstick cooking spray. Ladle about 1 cup of the meat sauce onto the bottom of the pan. Spread evenly and place 5 lasagna sheets over the sauce, overlapping each one to form a layer. Ladle a generous layer of the meat sauce over the noodles (about 2-3 cups) and spread evenly. Drizzle a layer of the Bechamel Sauce over the meat sauce (about ¾ cup) and cover with another layer of noodles. Repeat with sauces and a final third layer of noodles. Cover with remaining sauces and spread evenly. Cover with foil and bake for 30-35 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Sweet Potato Latkes

A little bit of spice complements the warm flavors of sweet potato. The natural sugars in sweet potatoes can cause sticking in the pan. Do not try to move about or flip the latkes until a golden crust forms on the bottom of each latke.

Ingredients:

  • 2½ pounds medium sweet potatoes (about 3-4), peeled and grated (see cook’s note)
  • 4 scallions, finely chopped
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Canola or vegetable oil, for frying

Directions:

1. Combine: In a large mixing bowl, stir together potatoes, scallions, flour, eggs, and spices.

2. Fry: Heat about ¼-inch oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot (not smoking). Working in batches, spoon potato mixture (approximately 2-3 tablespoons per latke) into oil and flatten with the back of the spatula. Cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer latkes with a slotted spatula to a rack or place on paper towels to drain.

3. Serve hot with applesauce and sour cream or Maple-Apple Cream (recipe below).

Maple-Apple Cream:

  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons maple syrup
  • ½ apple, peeled and grated

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk to blend.

Cook’s Note: For easiest prep, use the fine shredding disc on your food processor.

Do Ahead: Latkes are best made fresh out of the pan, but if making in advance, reheat uncovered on a sheet pan in a single layer in a 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes or until hot and re-crisped.

Follow Naomi Ross at @naomirosscooks on Instagram or visit her website at: www.naomirosscooks.com

By Bracha Schwartz

 

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