Since I write about food, it should probably come as no surprise to you that publishers send me cookbooks from time to time (ok, all the time) in case I find them interesting enough to write about. In addition to receiving emails with subjects like “Celebrate National Beef Jerky Day!,” I find this to be one of the more glamorous perks of the job. I especially like it when something unexpected comes through the mail slot – like last month when I opened up my copy of Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig, featuring photography by Sang An, whose name and happy, light-flooded food shots I remember from my days at Real Simple. Since it’s my sister, Lynn, who usually hosts the big Jewish celebrations in my family, I set the book aside with the intention of passing along next time I saw her. But here’s the funny thing: I kept coming up with reasons not to give it to her. What kind of reasons? I’ll name a few: Roast Chicken with Fennel and Lemon, Upside Down Apple Cake, Spinach Shakshuka, Roasted Beet Salad with Preserved Lemon, Jeweled Rice Pudding, Creamy Sorrel Soup with Harissa, Chocolate Banana Bundt Cake, Fennel Gratin, Miso-Roasted Asparagus, oh wow, oh wow. This book is a wonderful resource for the holidays, yes. But it’s a treasure for everyday cooking, too — it’s also got a little of that Balaboosta thing going, making you wonder why you haven’t considered getting on board with the Mediterranean diet until now. Not because of the health benefits, but because, well…good grief look at what you get to eat for dinner. Anyway, lucky you guys, you get a little teaser of Koenig’s book here, that lovely Roast Chicken with Fennel & Lemon, and a Spinach Matzo Lasagna just in time for Passover. P.S. For those of you who are guests at the Seder table this year, I’d be willing to bet you’d score big points with the host if you showed up with a copy of Modern Jewish Cooking all tied up in a bow. Pick one up for my sister, too, wouldja?
Serves 8 to 10
A Note from Koenig: Over the last decade, matzo lasagna has quickly and emphatically entered the Passover mainstream. Its rise has partly to do with the need it fills for a substantive main dish to serve during the holiday’s weeklong bread ban. The other reason for its popularity? It’s delicious, and remarkably so. Softened matzo provides a convincingly noodle-like base for the rich ricotta and mozzarella, tangy marinara, and tender spinach threaded throughout the layers. I like to imagine that, fifty years from now, my future children and grandchildren will swear that Passover is not Passover without spinach-matzo lasagna.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 ounces baby spinach
4 cups full-fat or low-fat ricotta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups grated mozzarella
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
9 sheets matzo
4 cups good-quality marinara
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan set over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach and cook, tossing with tongs, until the garlic is fragrant and the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 cup of the mozzarella, and the parsley. Season generously with salt and pepper and set aside.
4. Fill a shallow baking dish with water. Dip 3 sheets of the matzo in the water and let soften for 1 to 2 minutes. (Not longer—you want the pieces to feel soft, but not mushy or soggy. They should still hold their shape.) Spoon half of the marinara into the bottom of a 9-by-13-in baking dish. Shake the excess water off of the softened matzo pieces and arrange in the baking dish, breaking the sheets as necessary to fit. Top with about half of the ricotta mixture, followed by half of the spinach mixture. Repeat with half of the remaining marinara, another 3 softened sheets of matzo, and the remaining ricotta and spinach mixtures.
5. Soften the remaining 3 sheets of matzo and arrange on top. Spoon the remaining marinara over the top, then sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1 1/2 cups mozzarella and the Parmesan.
6. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 45 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the cheese is lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let stand for a few minutes. Serve hot.
Roast Chicken with Fennel and Orange
LK: With just a few simple additions, regular roast chicken becomes extraordinary. This version slips sweet fennel and slices of bright orange—both popular ingredients among Mediterranean Jewish communities—under chicken thighs and legs to soften and soak up the juices while the bird roasts. The result is a super-flavorful meal in a pan: tender vegetables, caramelized citrus fruit, and a gorgeously browned bird scented with thyme.
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 1/4 cup
2 navel oranges; 1 zested and juiced, 1 cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon dried thyme
3 medium fennel bulbs, halved, cored, and cut into 8 wedges each
2 small yellow onions, quartered through the root
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 lbs. skin-on chicken legs and thighs, trimmed of excess fat
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the 2 Tbsp of the olive oil, orange zest and juice, and thyme.
2. Arrange the fennel and onions evenly on the bottom of a roasting pan or on a large rimmed baking sheet, and top with a layer of orange slices. Drizzle with the remaining 1/4 cup oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, then dip them into the oil–orange mixture, turning to coat. Arrange the chicken pieces, skin-side up, on top of the fennel and orange and roast for 30 minutes. Spoon the pan drippings over the chicken, then continue roasting until the skin is browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of one of the thighs reaches 165°F, 25 to 30 minutes more. Transfer the chicken to a platter with the roasted fennel, onions, and orange, and drizzle with the pan juices. Serve hot.
All photos by Sang An.