Consider chopped liver.

If it's not part of your culture, this classic Jewish appetizer may be little-known--and its allure hard to understand.

For the record, the basic version mates cooked chopped chicken livers, hard-cooked eggs, chicken fat and very browned onions. The liver can be broiled or sauteed. And cooking oil can be substituted for chicken fat--and these days, it usually is.

But there are variables. Some families increase the proportion of eggs and onions to liver. Others add chick peas. Or herbs and shallots and nutmeg. Or peas and pecans.

In fact, sometimes what passes for chopped liver is made without any liver at all. That's usually when the dish accompanies a dairy (i.e., meatless) meal in a kosher home. But the liver-less versions could just as well be the first course in a meal where the main dish is a heavy one.

All of which brings up the underlying premise of cookbook author Faye Levy's new "1,000 Jewish Recipes" (IDG Books, $35): Jewish food is anything but monolithic. No two households eat precisely the same way. Tradition, family history and current realities all play a part. The book, released just in time for the High Holiday season, which begins Friday evening, demonstrates the range of culinary influences at work in Jewish kitchens today.

"So many people think of Jewish cooking as what they get at the deli," says Levy, who was in Washington recently to promote her book. "They say it's so boring. They're just not in touch."

Neither was Levy, 49, when she started her culinary odyssey. Growing up in an Orthodox home in the Washington area, she didn't give much thought to the food her Polish-born mother cooked--the meatloaf, gefilte fish, American spaghetti and meatballs, roast chicken or even the Jewish American "chow mein" she'd make with leftovers from the chicken and canned mushrooms.

Certainly nobody expected young Faye to cook--she was working too hard at her studies at the Hebrew Academy and then at both Bethesda-Chevy Chase and the Midrasha Hebrew high schools to have much time for the kitchen.

But since then, she's lived in Israel, Paris and Los Angeles (her current home), and her professional life has revolved around food. She's written cookbooks (20 of them) in Hebrew, French and English.

This time, her aim was to gather recipes that reflect the many facets of Jewish cooking in America today. "I wanted to write a book that was really complete," she says. "A book that has everything."

And it does. Some of the recipes are traditional, while others are healthful and light, and still others rely on old flavors or dishes presented in more contemporary ways. All are kosher, and most are fairly easy to make.

No matter what you're looking for, it's probably there. Matzoh balls? Six versions: light, extra-light, cholesterol-free, dill-flavored, spiced with curry and an Alsatian-influenced one with almonds and ginger. And three recipes for matzoh stuffing.

Kugels? Twenty-four recipes, ranging from a classic dairy noodle kugel with pears, lemon and golden raisins to a peppery, sweet style served in Jerusalem synagogues after Sabbath morning services to a more contemporary springtime version with asparagus, carrots and thyme.

Salads? Too many to count. From Alsatian herring to Moroccan carrot to spinach with goat cheese to creamy Israeli to Queen Esther's.

Chicken dishes? Lots of those too, including baked chicken with tzimmes and kneidel, braised with 40 cloves of garlic, old-fashioned roast, and chicken in the pot, Yemenite style.

And don't forget chopped liver, or some version of it. Eight different recipes: The basic heart-stopping variety, a reduced-fat version that replaces some of the oil with chicken stock, a patelike spread and five different vegetarian versions. "It's the appetizer for holiday meals," says Levy.

(For anybody wondering how something without any liver in it can masquerade as the real thing, Levy points out there's a full-flavored common denominator in most of them: well-browned onions. "The taste most people crave comes from the onion, the egg, the oil," she says, adding that the nuts, lentils or vegetables provide the meaty texture.)

All this--some 600 pages--comes from a woman who started cooking in order to be a good Jewish wife. She was 19 then, a new bride and living in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. The jump-start came from her mother-in-law, who, when she heard about her son Yakir's plans to marry an American studying in Israel, said: "Wait a minute. She doesn't know how to cook."

True enough, Levy says, though she did watch her mother bake ("I liked to lick the bowl"), and that familiarized her with the principle of measuring ingredients. Living with her in-laws briefly, Levy tried to learn to cook. "It probably was a good idea for one of us to learn," she says, "and Yakir was in the army." But she found it difficult. Her mother-in-law, a Yemenite Jew, not only cooked with flavors and spices new to Levy, but also gave instructions like "add water until the dough feels good."

She persevered because she wanted to please her husband, and when they moved into their own apartment, she began cooking from cookbooks. Soon she discovered she was rushing home from her sociology classes to prepare meals. "I became obsessed with it," she says. "I couldn't wait until I got to my cookbooks to see what page we would eat that night . . . . It became a passion--something I really lived to do."

Over time, by living in a country that attracted emigres--and their traditional recipes--she absorbed a great deal. "Israel is an ultimate fusion experiment," she says. "There are a lot of people from many places living in a very tiny place. People from Yemen might live next-door to people from Poland. My husband and I lived on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. Different aromas came from each apartment, and when people invited you over for coffee and cake, and something was simmering on the stove, you'd say, 'Well, what's that?' "

After six years in Tel Aviv, the couple set out for the United States, stopping first in Paris--they had just enough money for Levy to take a six-week course at Anne Willan's La Varenne, the widely respected English-language French cooking school Willan started there. They stayed almost six years.

While her husband bought and sold cars, she got a job typing at the school in exchange for more classes. Then, determined to finish studies for a diploma, she proposed (and got) a job editing and testing recipes for the school. After all, she always took down every word the chef-instructors uttered.

The Paris sojourn expanded her culinary repertoire in more ways than one. The food at the school, where the couple ate their midday meal was, of course, classical French. And it also wasn't kosher. "It was kind of shocking," says Levy, who had never encountered ingredients like bacon or ham before. At night she cooked on a tiny two-burner stove or ate at friends' homes or kosher restaurants. And they also sampled Chinese food, Vietnamese food, vegetarian food. "It was really interesting to see what people can do with different limitations," she says.

By the time they left--first briefly back to Israel (where she began what turned out to be a three-volume book on French cooking in Hebrew) and then to the States, Levy had co-authored a French fish cookbook with Fernand Chambrette, one of the school chefs, and she knew she wanted to write about food.

And that's what she's continued to do in Los Angeles, where the couple has lived since 1982, initially in Santa Monica and now in the San Fernando Valley. Testing recipes in her own home, she has made a career writing for newspapers and magazines (including a regular column on basic culinary techniques she penned for Bon Appetit for six years). And then there are all those cookbooks.

So what is she planning to make for Rosh Hashanah this year? She's not sure. It depends on what looks good in the market. But she's pretty sure she'll make something with fresh figs from the three fig trees in their garden to go with the holiday blessing for tasting the new fruits of the season. Maybe figs with red wine and sugar and lemon. And her Moroccan chicken with prunes, almonds and couscous. They're in the book. And her mother's chocolate applesauce cake with honey frosting too.

And, of course, chopped liver.

A Favorite Appetizer, Four Ways

Chopped Liver the Way My Mother Makes It

(6 to 8 servings)

This is a most popular appetizer in Jewish cooking and can be found in almost every deli. But it's very easy to make at home. The secret is to brown the onions thoroughly and to season the chopped liver well. My mother and I use oil for sauteing the onions but you can substitute chicken fat if you like.

At some delis beef liver is used, but in my family we always make it with chicken liver. The liver is broiled, not sauteed, because broiling is necessary to remove the blood to make it kosher, instead of simply salting, as with other meats.

Some people prefer their chopped liver to be chunky rather than smooth, and so they either chop the mixture with a knife or grind it in a meat grinder. If you like it smooth, simply use a food processor.

Serve the liver with any bread or cracker you like. Traditional choices are rye bread, challah or, on Passover, matzoh.

From "1,000 Jewish Recipes" by Faye Levy (IDG Books, $35).

1 pound chicken livers

Kosher salt to taste

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 large hard-cooked eggs, coarsely grated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Lettuce leaves and tomato slices for serving (optional)

Line the broiler rack with foil, adjust the rack 3 inches from the heat and preheat the broiler. Rinse the livers and pat dry on paper towels; cut off any green spots. Place the livers on the broiler rack, sprinkle with salt to taste and broil until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Turn, sprinkle with salt to taste and broil until cooked through and no trace of pink remains, 3 to 4 minutes. Use a sharp knife to check. Pour off and discard any juices from the foil; set the livers aside to cool slightly.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and browned, about 15 minutes.

Transfer the livers to a food processor or blender and pulse to chop. Add the onion mixture and pulse to chop. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and gently mix in the eggs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 30 minutes. (May refrigerate for up to 2 days.)

If desired, serve in scoops on lettuce leaves with tomato slices.

Per serving (based on 8): 106 calories, 6 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 147 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 68 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Easy Mock Chopped Liver

(8 to 10 servings)

My mother and many of her friends make vegetarian "liver" pate this way. It's easy because the only cooking necessary is sauteing the onions. The browned onions are combined with canned peas and chopped nuts. My mother feels that pecans are the best nut to use. And she insists that for the best texture, a meat grinder rather than a food processor should be used to blend the mixture.

Serve this pate on a bed of lettuce garnished with tomato wedges and radishes, with fresh breads or crackers.

From "1,000 Jewish Recipes" by Faye Levy (IDG Books, $35).

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

Two 15-ounce cans peas, drained

1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) chopped pecans

1 large hard-cooked egg, coarsely grated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer the onion mixture to a food processor or blender. Add the peas and pecans and process. Scrape the mixture into a bowl. Add the egg and mix gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 30 minutes.

Per serving (based on 8): 161 calories, 4 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 369 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Vegetarian Chopped Liver, Israeli Style

(6 to 8 servings)

Eggplant, mushrooms and plenty of sauteed onions give this spread great flavor. Serve it in scoops or oval spoonfuls on a bed of mixed baby lettuces and garnish with cherry tomatoes, or serve it as a spread with fresh or toasted pita bread.

From "1,000 Jewish Recipes" by Faye Levy (IDG Books, $35).

3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 1/2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 to 8 ounces mushrooms, diced

Cayenne pepper to taste

1 or 2 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped or coarsely grated

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften and just begin to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the eggplant and salt and pepper to taste and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is tender, about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, covered, stirring and mashing the vegetables occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender, about 15 minutes. If you prefer a finer-textured spread, transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree.

Scrape the mixture into a bowl and set aside to cool. Season with salt and black and cayenne peppers to taste. Add the egg(s) and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 30 minutes.

Per serving (based on 8, using 1 egg): 100 calories, 3 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 42 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

My Favorite Vegetarian Chopped Liver

(8 to 10 servings)

My mother and I have an ongoing debate about the best way to make mock chopped liver. She uses green peas and pecans, while I prefer chickpeas, green beans and walnuts.

This version is light, as I substitute vegetable stock for part of the oil and use only a small amount of nuts. When I prepare it in cooking demonstrations, everyone loves it. By the way, I don't think it has the same flavor as chopped liver; I simply like it as a delicious appetizer. However, some of my students find it tastes just like chopped liver. One tasted it and called it "a miracle on a plate."

Serve it with fresh bread, toast, crackers or matzoh, or with a green salad.

From "1,000 Jewish Recipes" by Faye Levy (IDG Books, $35).

3/4 pound green beans, ends removed, halved crosswise

1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped

Two 15-ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained, or 3 cups cooked chickpeas

1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) chopped walnuts

About 1/4 cup vegetable stock or broth

1 large hard-cooked egg (may substitute the whites of 2 large hard-cooked eggs), coarsely grated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the green beans and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. They should be more tender than usual for ease of chopping. Rinse the beans with cold water and drain well.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. If using less than 3 tablespoons oil, cover the skillet so the onions do not burn.

Meanwhile, transfer the green beans to a food processor or blender and process. Add the drained chickpeas and process. Add the walnuts, 1/4 cup of the stock or broth, and the onion mixture and process until smooth. If you prefer a moister pate, add stock or broth, 1 tablespoon at a time, processing after each addition. Scrape the mixture into a bowl. Add the egg and mix gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 30 minutes.

Per serving (based on 8, using 1 whole egg): 100 calories, 3 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 42 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber