Susie Fishbein has a lot to balance when she plans the menu for her Rosh Hashanah eve dinner, the first meal of the Jewish New Year. The mother of four young children, a "modern orthodox" Jew, the author of the recent "Kosher by Design Entertains" and a member of a large extended family, she tries to please everyone at her holiday table.
This year, for Monday night's dinner, she's leaning toward a roasted garlic chicken stuffed with dried fruits and nuts with rice pilaf and a fresh green vegetable as the main course; and a crunchy and easy-to-make rustic apple pie for dessert -- dishes that are perfect for any autumn entertaining. She'll probably also make won ton-wrapped skinless chicken pieces with an apricot dipping sauce for the children to munch on before dinner.
No pot roast. No potato pancakes. No apple sauce. Definitely not your grandmother's kosher kitchen.
Instead, Fishbein's approach emphasizes healthful fresh ingredients, shorter cooking times and few processed foods. The food is still kosher, but it's more contemporary, more in line with current nutritional information, and as pretty as she can make it. "The dishes should be simple to prepare, look spectacular, but not kill you while you're cooking the meal," says Fishbein.
The high holiday pot roast and roast turkey she grew up with in her parents' home on Long Island was more traditional. "The food wasn't contemporary, but it was very well cooked," she says. "I can smell it now."
Preparing those dishes, and other family favorites such as her mother's stuffed cabbage, was time-consuming. "She didn't complain, but she spent all day doing it," Fishbein says. Instead, using the same ingredients and the same flavors, Fishbein turns out shredded cabbage with meatballs. "It's lighter, and it takes much less time to prepare," she says.
At her parents' home, entertaining centered on feeding family and friends. As observant orthodox Jews, they couldn't drive on the holidays or on the Sabbath. But family members lived at least a 45-minute drive away, so holidays often turned into three-day parties. "When you came, you stayed," she says.
She remembers those times as joyful, but crowded. "There were lots of sleeping bags under the dining room table." And in crunch times, the whole family pitched in -- peeling apples, cracking nuts, even arranging the pickle dish (her father did that).
To help lighten the cooking load, everybody brought something, and the food was served family-style. "The kitchen was a sea of tin foil," she says, "and the food was put out in whatever it was cooked in. It wasn't stuff for a cookbook food shot."
As Fishbein grew up, so did her cooking. The food she fed her family was more like the food she grew up with. "It always tasted good, but it looked more family-style, and I cooked with a lot of sugar."
She remembers making larger quantities of food then and often more dishes than a single meal required -- especially on holidays. "I used to value quantity over quality," she says. "That's not the way I entertain any more."
All that would change over time, especially after she spent some time with her father-in-law. A real estate manager in Manhattan, he introduced her to ingredients that weren't as available in the suburbs as they are today: Asian vegetables from greengrocers in the city; good chocolate; "real" cheeses. "He knew what they were supposed to look and taste like," she says. "Maybe I wanted to impress him, to have some common ground."
By the time Fishbein got involved with co-editing and testing recipes for a community cookbook for her children's school about five years ago, she'd become a much more modern and confident cook. And when that project was finished, she had an idea for something she'd never been able to find: a beautifully designed kosher cookbook with elegant recipes suitable for holiday menus but simple enough for any occasion.
Soon enough, she landed a contract with ArtScroll, a well-known publisher of Jewish books. ArtScroll was interested in bringing out a cookbook. That first book, "Kosher by Design" (2003), has sold more than 75,000 copies. Fishbein is now promoting her second book ("Kosher by Design Entertains") and is working on a third, intended for kids 10 and older who are interested in cooking.
Her success is greater and her audience broader than she ever dreamed. Judging from the kinds of places that ask her to speak or the people she meets at cooking demonstrations, she estimates that a third of the people who bought her first book don't keep kosher. And they're not even all Jewish. That became very clear two years ago at one of her cooking demonstrations at a New York department store. Three Irish women visiting the city stopped dead when they saw her preparing green matzoh balls, made with spinach. "We love those," they said. "They'd be perfect for St. Patrick's Day."