Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit JTA.org.
NEW YORK, Nov. 20 (JTA)--Some women have a knack for savoring life. Shoshana Barer, author of The Jewish Maven Cookbook, is that rare combination of glamour girl and domestic goddess.
While her background was conventional, adventure was destined to be her life's path.
"My mother was from Poland, and Yiddish was my first language,” says this graduate of a yeshiva.
Born in the Bronx, Barer married young and went West.
During the 1970s, she settled in Reno, Nev., and had two daughters. But then her marriage dissolved.
Undaunted, she moved her girls to the rugged Big Sky country of Montana, where she lassoed a cowboy, who became her second husband. Believe it or not, he was Jewish. The fact that her chopped liver contains onions fried to a crackling crunch was part of the attraction, along with her high cheekbones, sultry eyes and long dark hair.
Among her many talents, Barer is a great cook and loves to entertain. As Chanukah rolls around, she sips champagne while making the crispiest latkes on either side of the Rockies.
”I get my fry genes from my mother,” says Barer. “She wasn't a good cook, but a great fryer.”
“Frying is an art,” she explains. The temperature of the oil must be just right. Hot enough to sputter, but not so hot that it smokes. Furthermore, the right oil must be chosen. Barer recommends peanut oil. Like a pro, she knows when to flip foods sizzling in oil, so they become brown--not burnt.
For that reason, she could be called the high priestess of Chanukah fare, a holiday revolving around a one-day supply of purified oil that defied the odds and lasted eight days. Back in 165 B.C.E., Judah Maccabee and his small band of heroes defeated the Syrian Greek army, restoring the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and regaining religious freedom for Jews. Since then, oil has become a reminder of this miracle and the cooking ingredient of choice during Chanukah's eight days.
”Chanukah is my favorite holiday,” says Barer, who at 60-something is now a proud grandmother. Throwing a holiday party every December, she invites her family and friends. She decorates her dining table to the hilt with dreidels and gelt--chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. She places seven menorahs in windows and on tables. When lighting Chanukah candles, Barer designates a menorah for herself and another for her granddaughter. Her daughters and other guests must share the remaining five.
“Everyone stands around while I fry latkes, eating them so quickly, I never get a chance to use a platter.”
After dinner, there's a rush to open presents and clear the table for the dreidel game, which goes on for hours.
”We eat a lot of fried foods at Chanukah, because they are tasty, and I love delicious food,” Barer says. “Nothing beats french fried potatoes or fried fish.” Although latkes are always popular, Barer fries an array of succulent dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
”My family prefers my fried matzahs to lox and bagels or any gourmet breakfast in this world,” says Barer, explaining that it was her husband's favorite dish. After 24 years of blissful marriage, he passed away four years ago.
”He always liked fried matzah with cream cheese on top. Well, that was fine until one day when he did the unthinkable. He poured maple syrup all over it. I guess being from Montana, he didn't know any better.”
That's because Big Sky country is famous for pancakes.
But Barer admits her fried matzah is delicious with syrup, as it is with bacon--kosher bacon, that is.
At holiday luncheons, she often prepares fried herring. “It has a taste like nothing else, so it's worth smelling up the kitchen.”
The Jewish cooking maven's advice for this problem? Keep the doors and windows open and a fan going.
”Just remember, I have more requests from lunch guests for fried herring than for any other dish in my repertoire. I must be doing something right.”
Because of its texture, rice a la Jewish maven is Barer's signature dish. With generous amounts of sesame seeds and almonds, mushrooms fried in schmaltz and grivenes--chicken skin that's sauteed until nothing's left but chewy bits), there's a lot of heavy crunching involved in eating this delicacy.
“I remember a particular Chanukah dinner at my home,” says Barer. “I put out a bowl of grivenes. Everyone exclaimed how bad it is for your cholesterol. But when I walked back into my dining room a few minutes later--not a crumb was left. Surprisingly, nobody died the next day, or even got sick.”
So with all this rich food, how does this attractive woman keep her trim figure? It's not surprising that she watches the size of her portions.
After losing her husband, Barer built a log cabin in Montana, where she began reinventing herself again.
”I never thought I'd be a writer,” she says. “But here I am working on book No. 8.
Infusing the mystery-horror genre with humor, Barer created Sammi Mitchel, the beautiful host of the fictitious “Jewish Maven TV Show.”
She invented this spicy character to heal from her husband's death. Now part of a series of mysteries, Sammi next appears in The Vessel due in December.
Her first novel includes a luscious Chanukah dinner prepared for a new love interest.
Barer's editor said the food sounded so enticing, she urged the author to create The Jewish Maven Cookbook. (Descriptions of Shoshana Barer's books can be seen at www.sablepublishing.com.)
In real life, the Jewish cooking maven has recently started seeing a wonderful man. She claims he'll be the last great romance of her life. But who knows? She's got a lot more love and latkes to sizzle.
Recipes from The Jewish Maven Cookbook” by Shoshana Barer
FRIED MATZAHS (for Breakfast or Brunch)
1 cup heavy cream or milk
2 tsp. water, plus more for softening matzahs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 box matzahs
Butter, lots of it (about 1/4 pound)
Cream cheese for spreading (a good 8 ounces)
Optional: bits of raw onion and/or lox
In a bowl, beat eggs with cream. Add 2 tsp. water, salt and pepper. Beat again. Pour into a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with sides. Reserve.
Run one sheet of matzah under hot water, until damp and slightly softened. (Not too wet or it will break.)
On a medium-high flame, melt one tablespoon of butter in a large frying pan.
Dip both sides of the softened sheet of matzah into the batter. Then move to the preheated pan and fry matzo until light golden brown, but flexible. Add more butter, if needed. Flip over and repeat. (Don't fry matzah until it's stiff.)
Place matzah on a platter. Spread cream cheese over matzah. If you like, sprinkle onion and lay lox on top of cream cheese. Roll up matzah and secure with a toothpick. Repeat with remaining matzahs.
Yield: One box serves 4-6 people, but you'll find you can never make enough!
FRIED HERRING (for Brunch or Lunch)
12 ounce jar of herring in wine sauce or other marinade or brine
2 Tbsp. light cream
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp. white pepper
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, or more if needed
1 large onion, sliced into rings
Place contents of jar in a colander and rinse under cold water. Discard pieces of marinated onions, if any. Move fish to a ceramic or non-reactive container. Fill with water and submerge fish.
Cover and refrigerate over night, or longer, changing water once.
In a colander, drain water from fish.
In a shallow bowl, mix the egg and cream together. Mix flour and pepper and place on a piece of wax paper.
One at a time, dip herring fillets in flour, then in the egg mixture, and again in flour.
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a skillet. Fry herring fillets on both sides until nicely browned, adding more butter as needed.
Drain fillets on paper towels and place on a platter.
Meanwhile in another skillet, fry onion in butter until golden brown and sprinkle on top of fillets.
The Jewish cooking maven serves fried herring with boiled potatoes bathed in melted butter and garnished with minced parley; sliced tomatoes; and lots of Jewish rye bread slathered with butter.
Yield: 18 small pieces of fish fillets
RICE A LA JEWISH MAVEN (Dinner)
2 Tbsp. blanched almond pieces
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. melted margarine or schmaltz (from recipe below), or more if needed
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
2 cups long grained uncooked rice
1/2 cup chives
Grivenes (see recipe below)
Cover 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil. Place almonds on one and sesame seeds on the other. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 minute or until light brown. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Sesame seeds will be ready first. Reserve.
Melt 2 Tbsp. margarine or chicken fat in a skillet on a medium flame. Fry mushrooms until nicely crisp but not burnt. Reserve.
Prepare rice according to package instructions. Two minutes before rice is ready, stir in all other ingredients and simmer.
This dish is filling enough to be a meal in itself, but the Jewish cooking maven loves serving it with chicken, crusty rolls, and a bottle of champagne.
Yield: 6-8 servings
SCHMALTZ AND GRIVENES
Several chicken necks and several backs
large onion, diced
Garlic powder, salt, white pepper and paprika to taste
Pull the fat and skin off of the necks and backs and cut into small pieces. Use meat for soup or other purposes.
Put fat and skin in a frying pan. Add the onion and seasonings and stir. Sizzle on a low flame, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crisp. May take 30-60 minutes.
Cool to warm. Remove the onions and skin, which is now reduced to cracklings called grivenes.
Pour liquid chicken fat, the schmaltz, into a measuring cup.
”I don't use chicken fat every day, but on holidays--always,” the Jewish cooking maven says.
POTATO LATKES (Anytime)
10 pounds potatoes (about 15)
1 large onion, diced
4 large eggs
1/2 cup matzah meal
1 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup peanut oil, or more if needed
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. white pepper
Optional Toppings: sour cream, caviar, applesauce
Peel potatoes and submerge in ice water until needed.
Dice one potato at a time and grate finely. Place in a large bowl.
Grate onion finely. (By now the Jewish cooking maven claims you should be crying from the onion so sip a glass of champagne as you work. Your eyes will still smart, but you won't mind as much.)
Add onion to grated potatoes.
Liquid will form in the bowl. Drain as much of it as possible.
Add remaining ingredients (except toppings) and blend well with a spoon. (The Jewish cooking maven likes the taste of raw latke batter. “Try it and see what I mean,” she says. “Could it be the champagne?'')
Place half of the oil in a large frying pan and heat over medium flame.
Filling a soup spoon with latke batter, form 3 x 4-inch pancakes. Drop pancakes into heated oil. The batter should sizzle immediately. When golden brown and firm in the center, flip over and repeat. Add more oil as needed.
Drain latkes on paper towels. Serve immediately with the toppings.
Yield: about 100 latkes