June Hersh is the author of Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival (May 1st, 2011) all proceeds are donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and The Kosher Carnivore, the Ultimate meat & poultry cookbook (St. Martin’s Press September 2011), a portion of the proceeds go to Mazon – a Jewish response to hunger.
1. Your career has taken you in many directions, from school teacher to resource coordinator and only recently to cookbook author, how did you decide to write a cookbook?
I have always been an avid and passionate home cook. I enjoy experimenting with new flavors, exploring innovative techniques and creating my own recipes. After having sold our family business, my sister pronounced, “ we have done well, now let’s do good.” I knew that meant I would need to find an outlet that would tap into my skills, do what I enjoy while somehow doing good. When I considered what I enjoy most, other than my family, it was writing and cooking. It just seemed like a natural progression for me to combine the two and write a cookbook.
2. Your first book, Recipes Remembered shares the remarkable stories and authentic recipes of Holocaust survivors. It is such a unique concept and a great way to preserve our history. What was it like to talk to these survivors and how did you come up with idea of connecting their stories to food?
My family had become supportive of the Museum of Jewish Heritage- a living memorial to the Holocaust. Although I am not the child or grandchild of survivors, the message of the Museum resonated with my family and me. They honor the legacy of the past while illuminating the future. I felt that a cookbook based on the food memories of the remarkable community of Holocaust survivors who comprise a large portion of the Museum’s membership would be a perfect vehicle for preserving their stories while bringing a sense of joy and celebration to the book. Speaking to the survivor community was the single most profound experience of my life, (except for giving birth to my beautiful daughters!) I learned from the survivors that you can endure the worst life has to offer and with strength and resilience and a fair share of luck, make a meaningful life. Stories of food and family gatherings brought the survivors to a place where they felt safe and secure. Food is a thread that weaves throughout our lives and always seems to bring us to a happy place. Using food as the theme connected their warm past, through their dark years of the Holocaust and ultimately to their survival and flourishing lives.
3. There are contributions in this book from many professional chefs and cookbook authors. Did you get to meet all of them? What was it like and is Ina Garten Jewish?
I met some of the “celebrity chefs” in person, as a New Yorker we are blessed to be surrounded by some of the most notable chefs, many of which are Jewish. My daughter did extensive research to search out Jewish chefs across the country. I reached out to Gale Gand a wonderful chef in Chicago and Michelle Bernstein, one of Miami’s premier chefs. While we did not meet in person we corresponded often. Their warmth and generosity of spirit was so gratifying and I am happy to say that no chef turned me down. As for Ina, I do believe she is Jewish and I see her husband Jeffrey often in my neighborhood. I was so thrilled that she contributed such a delicious rendition of chopped liver. These chefs were able to bring to life some of the food recollections that a survivor could not recreate. I found it a wonderful side note that many of the survivors were so excited to be included in a book with such illustrious chefs.
4. Your second book, out this fall, is all about cooking meat, what inspired you to write this?
I make no secret of the fact that I am not kosher. While I was very familiar with keeping kosher, my mom was raised in such a household, I was not. In writing Recipes Remembered, I made the decision that the book should be strictly kosher out of respect to the Holocaust survivor community. I learned so much about kosher laws and found most of them to be eye openers. Before writing that book I did not know that the back half of the animal is not kosher here in the US, I didn’t appreciate the art of creating a silky sauce without butter or cream in a meat dish, I never realized how the kosher cook needs to innovate or swap out ingredients when following a mainstream recipe. It occurred to me that there were plenty of “meat Bibles” on the market for the basic home cook, but those contained cuts of meat that a kosher cook would not use. Additionally, the sides were not parve so creating menus is a challenge. I felt the market was ripe for such a book aimed at kosher cooks or as you like to say, the kosher curious. In The Kosher Carnivore you could prepare every single dish in the book, place them all on one table and be able to enjoy each and every one without breaking a single kosher rule. Moreover, the kosher consumer generally goes to a butcher, rather than choosing meat from a case. I wanted to educate that consumer, especially those new to kosher, how to buy meat, talk to their butcher, choose the right cuts and assure the best finished result. I presented this idea to St. Martin’s Press and they enthusiastically agreed that the time was right for such a primer.
5. Where did you find butchers to give you tips on kosher meat? And can you share any with us here?
Living in Manhattan makes sourcing just about anything pretty easy. There are several well- regarded kosher butchers on both New York’s Upper East and Upper West side. The butchers were more than happy to answer my questions, let me hang out with them as they did their thing, and were eager to educate me on the various cuts and their characteristics.
The most important thing I learned was to choose the right cut of meat for your preparation. Buying a rib eye is great when you want a perfect steak, but it is overkill for a stir-fry. Similarly, a cut of meat from the tougher shoulder region makes for a great slow cooked braise, but try and quick grill it and you’ll need a hacksaw or a new pair of dentures.
The best advice I can give is to talk to your butcher. Be picky, let him know you know what you are looking for and then use him to help guide you. I can tell you I avoid skirt steak, too salty and prefer 2nd cut brisket for the juiciest finish and an often overlooked hanger steak for those who like a beefy meaty flavor. I also suggest trying various sausages, usually they are prepared in the butcher shop fresh with great flavors such as fennel or garlic. They add a real kick to any dish.
6. What is your earliest memory of cooking?
I remember my great grandmother Esther who spoke Ladino and came to America from the Isle of Rhodes. She brought to my usual Ashkenazi home, the flavor of the Sephardim. I remember her cooking with her own hotplate, because she was very particular about what she ate, and mixing rice with tomatoes or spinach.
My mom was a good cook, but especially at the holidays, and I can still remember the kugel pan we had that looked like it had been unearthed after centuries of use.
My dad cooks with flair and abandon and as a child he would introduce me to foods other kids didn’t want to go near.On Sunday nights he would create a feast, Chicken A La King with biscuits, or chicken livers Maurice, his signature dish.
7. What is your favorite food?
One of the reasons I became an avid cook is because I am an insatiable eater. I am lucky I don’t want a ton, because I eat anything and everything with gusto. My perfect meal would be crispy fried chicken with mashed potatoes. I was so pleased that I was able to create what I think is the quintessential fried chicken recipe for The Kosher Carnivore. Egg whites replace the usual buttermilk soak and some cornstarch in the flour helps give you that added crunch. For the potatoes I cook buttery Yukon Gold in chicken stock for added flavor, then mash them with some of that broth and roasted garlic. You don’t miss the butter or cream and neither does your waistline.
8. What is your most memorable cooking experience?
I would definitely say that learning how to make matzo meat cakes with my Grandma Rose is my most memorable cooking experience. This is a recipe from Rhodes that we ate annually at Pesach. She taught me year after year and I just wasn’t getting the hang of it. But with patience and guidance I finally managed to prepare my own meat cakes for our Passover dinner. Problem was, when I turned the pan over to release them, most of the matzo stuck to the pan and I was left with topless meat cakes. A little more practice and a few tweaks made me a meat cake master. So much so that my nephew suggested I open a meat cake stand on the street and sell millions of slices. Problem is, one pan takes close to 3 hours, so a meat cake empire is probably not in the cards. I included the recipe in The Kosher Carnivore and hope that readers will feel free to email any questions they have while preparing them. They take some finesse but are worth it.
9. What advice do you have for the busy home cook?
Focus on one terrific element in a meal and let the rest be easy breezy. If you make a complex meat dish, keep the sides simple. And learn to roast a chicken. Whether you embellish it with lots of herbs and stuffing or simply treat it to a salt and pepper massage, you can pop it in the oven and know that you will have a delicious dinner in the time it takes for you to check on the kids homework, have a soothing bath or catch up on your emails.
Try these recipes, a sampling from my books:
***GIVEAWAY***Do you want to win a copy of June Hersh's book "Recipes Remembered"? To be in with a chance, let us know in the comments below what the first kosher dish you learned to cook was. Must be a US Resident 18 or over. Contest Ends August 3 2011 at 9 am EST. Winner will be chosen by online randomizer from valid entries only.
Coming soon (pre-order) available now: