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NEW YORK, Aug. 9 (JTA)--In 1981, when Mandy Bachrach was in the second grade at the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Skokie, Ill., several mothers collected recipes for a school cookbook. There were no photos or frills, just basic directions for brisket, matzah brie and other traditional Jewish foods.
"It was the usual spiral-bound community cookbook with contributors' names next to their recipes," says Bachrach, an illustrator and the mother of six children, three of whom attend her alma mater.
After a couple of lapsed attempts at updating the school's first effort, an administrator posted a notice in its newsletter asking for volunteers to produce a new cookbook.
"I was the only one who responded to the notice," says Valerie Kanter, a polymer clay artist and the mother of five children, four of whom attend the Arie Crown School.
The school's staff told her: "The cookbook is your baby. Take over."
You can't do this by yourself," Bachrach told Kanter, a friend who lives nearby. At that moment, Crowning Elegance: A Kosher Culinary Experience was conceived, with Kanter as editor and Bachrach as assistant editor.
What makes Crowning Elegance different from all other community cookbooks? It's a coffee-table volume with a real binding and more than 400 glossy pages of sophisticated recipes accompanied by 180 breathtaking photographs.
In a collaborative spirit, each woman brought something "to the table." Bachrach comes from an Ashkenazi background; Kanter hails from the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. This diversity influenced the range of recipes they chose.
"I'm totally connected to my roots," says Kanter, explaining that she still wears the gold bangle bracelets customary among Syrian Jewish women. "I return to Brooklyn twice a year to see family and purchase Middle Eastern ingredients."
Initially, the pair formed a committee to help them. They sought trendy, elegant fare. All kosher, of course.
"We have a community of women--and some men--who love to cook," says Kanter.
"We gathered recipes from committee members and weeded out the ones everyone has, such as potato kugel," says Bachrach. "We wanted to introduce new ways of cooking or old recipes with new twists."
Next, they needed an objective method of selecting the best recipes. They asked 25 school parents to prepare their most delicious dish and invited community members to tasting parties.
On a given night, 40 to 50 people gathered to sample the results, the chefs remaining anonymous. Kanter set an elegant tone by using fine china, stemmed crystal and silver flatware.
"This wasn't a gorging party but a serious tasting of each dish," she says. Each participant had to taste a minimum of 20 foods and then fill out a rating sheet.
Menu themes included Thanksgiving, dairy, meat, Chinese, Middle Eastern or appetizers. Participants were asked to keep socializing to a minimum so they could concentrate on their palates.
"Seventy percent of the tasters had to like a dish to qualify for possible inclusion. Some recipes showed promise but required refining before they were tried again," explains Bachrach.
Judging was a sumptuous experience--once the manuscript was completed, Kanter says, many husbands kept asking, "When are you having another tasting party?"
But this was only the beginning. They now had to produce a book.
Bachrach explains that they wanted to "get away from the spiral-bound approach and give our cookbook a more professional appearance." Recipe contributors are credited at the front of Crowning Elegance, but no names appear beside recipes. Gerta's gefilte fish and bubbe's chicken soup have been replaced by trendy, gourmet fare such as sake chicken, Cuban salsa, focaccia and praline truffles.
With no publishing house to back them, Kanter and Bachrach managed to produced an upscale cookbook that can compete with any title on the market by drawing on the school's parent community--professionals in a variety of fields.
Interior designer Miri Rosenwasser has a flair for setting sensational table scenes. During photo shoots, she provided pieces from her outstanding collection of china, terrines, vases and napkins.
"We also mixed in stunning tableware from people who entertain a lot," says Bachrach.
During 12-hour days in volunteers' homes, Jay Friedman--a professional photographer who worked free of charge--often shot 40 different setups in succession. A true craftsman, Friedman's results are so irresistible that readers are tempted to dip their forks into pictured dishes.
In addition to its cornucopia of international recipes, Crowning Elegance features menu and wine suggestions for special occasions, such as Autumn Shabbos, Yom Tov, Break-the-Fasts, Oriental Dinners and Summer Barbecues. The cookbook is available at selected bookstores and can be ordered online at www.crowningelegance.com.
With the Jewish New Year approaching, what are Kanter and Bachrach likely to serve?
"Spinach, orange and pomegranate salad is yummy and sweet because the dressing contains honey," says Kanter. It's also a colorful, refreshing salad that will brighten your holiday table.
"Even though we're Ashkenazi, my family loves the Moroccan couscous soup," says Bachrach. This hearty autumn soup is brimming with chickpeas, vegetables and short ribs. It's especially warming for Rosh Hashanah this year, which falls in October.
Braised stuffed veal breast is a dish worthy of Rosh Hashanah's importance; it contains raisins, which like apples and honey symbolize sweetness in the New Year.
Apple spice cake is an old-fashioned confection exuding traditional autumn spices, prepared by hand the way it was when the recipe was created in 1958.
A labor of love, Crowning Elegance--its title chosen for the Crowns, a prominent Chicago Jewish family for whom the day school is named--has absorbed every spare minute of Kanter and Bachrach's time since 2002. Juggling several roles, each woman conceived her fifth child while nurturing the cookbook. Since then, Bachrach has given birth to a sixth child.
"Crowning Elegance had our heart and soul for the past three years," says Kanter, who like Bachrach, considers the book her child. Launching it with love, they wish their creation a sweet future, the hope of all Jewish people everywhere at this special time of year.
SPINACH, ORANGE AND POMEGRANATE SALAD
1 medium pomegranate
2 bunches fresh spinach leaves, coarsely torn, stems discarded (about 8 cups)
2 navel oranges, peeled, pith removed, segments halved
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1) Slice pomegranate in quarters. Remove seeds and set them aside.
2) Place spinach in a large salad bowl. Add oranges, red onion and pomegranate seeds.
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
In a small bowl or jar, combine olive oil, red wine vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Drizzle salad with dressing and toss to coat. Serve immediately.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Experience level: Beginner
Yield: 8 servings
MOROCCAN COUSCOUS SOUP
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 pound short ribs
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 head green cabbage, cut into thirds
1/2 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
3 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch slices
2 chicken legs and thighs
10 cups water
1 tsp. turmeric
5 Tbsp. chicken-soup flavoring
salt and white pepper to taste
1 (10-ounce) pkg. couscous
parsley or cilantro sprigs, optional
1) In an 8-quart stockpot over medium flame, heat oil, add onions and saute until translucent. Add short ribs. Turn until browned. Add chickpeas, zucchini, cabbage, squash, carrots, chicken, water, turmeric, chicken-soup flavoring, salt and white pepper.
2) Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 3 to 4 hours. Taste and adjust salt and pepper before serving.
3) Prepare couscous according to package directions.
For a hearty soup, place a few tablespoons of couscous in individual soup bowls. Ladle broth with vegetables, meat and chicken on top of couscous. As a main course, place all of the couscous on a large serving platter and spoon vegetables, meat and chicken on top. You may use the broth as a starter on its own with a simple garnish of fresh parsley or cilantro.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 4 hours
Experience level: Beginner
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
BRAISED STUFFED VEAL BREAST
2 cups day-old Italian bread cut into 1/2-inch squares
1 cup rice milk
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
4 medium cloves garlic, slivered
1/2 lb. sliced pastrami, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup pine nuts toasted (optional)
1/2 cup dark raisins soaked in warm water to re-hydrate, drained
coarse salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
olive oil for drizzling, plus 2 Tbsp.
1 (4-lb.) veal breast. Ask butcher to separate meat from bones. Take home meat and bones.
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1 cup red wine
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
1) In a large bowl, soak bread in rice milk for 5 minutes.
2) Using clean dry hands, squeeze out and discard excess rice milk. Add parsley, garlic, pastrami, pine nuts (if using) and raisins. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
3) Drizzle with olive oil to moisten and mix thoroughly to combine.
1) Line counter with one or two 18-inch pieces of plastic wrap. Place veal on plastic wrap. Make a deep slice along side of veal breast, and fan open like a book. Lay another 18-inch piece of plastic wrap on top.
2) Using the smooth side of a mallet, pound veal until it's about 1/2 inch thick, being careful not to tear veal. Discard top sheet of plastic wrap.
3) Rub surface of veal with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Lift veal and place 3 strands of kitchen twine across plastic wrap. Place veal across twine.
4) Spread stuffing evenly over veal, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Place the eggs lengthwise down the center.
5) Roll up veal jellyroll style, using plastic wrap for support. (Don't roll plastic into veal. Discard it after veal is rolled.) Tie twine securely around veal.
6) Rinse veal bones. In a large roasting pan, over medium heat, place about 2 Tbsp. olive oil.
7) Carefully lift veal roll and place in roasting pan. Sear stuffed veal breast on all sides. Add wine, tomato sauce, water and veal bones.
8) Cover and simmer for 1 hour, turning and basting occasionally. Discard bones before serving.
Preparation time: 30 Minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Experience level: Intermediate
Yield: 6 servings
APPLE SPICE CAKE (Pareve)
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cubed
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
11/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup margarine, melted
1/2 cup nuts, optional
1/2 cup raisins, optional
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8x8-inch baking dish with nonstick spray.
2) In a large bowl, combine apples and sugar. Let stand 10 minutes.
3) In a small bowl, sift together salt, flour, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice.
4) Pour egg and margarine over apples. Mix to combine. Mixing by hand, add dry ingredients and nuts and raisins (if using) to apple mixture. Mix until just incorporated. Push mixture into the baking dish.
5) Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Invert onto wire rack to finish cooling. (If left in a baking dish, cake will become too moist.) When completely cooled, cut into squares, three down and three across.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 to 55 minutes
Experience level: Beginner
Yield: 9 servings.