By R.M. Grossblatt
Before Renee Rousso Chernin moved to the Old City in Jerusalem, I sat at her Shabbat table in Atlanta and savored spicy, faux crab fish cakes that I can still taste.
When she was catering for families in Toco Hills, I ordered these fish delights because I thought I couldn’t make them myself. Now that she has included this recipe in her new “Cooking for the King: Chanukah Edition,” I’m ready to start frying. That’s because the recipe looks easier than I thought. So do others, accompanied by colorful photos of food that jump off each page.
My favorite recipes with their pictures include Restaurant Style Mozzarella Cheese Sticks, Bubbly Beer Bread, Sephardic Spinach Soufflé and eight different latkes. “Queen in the kitchen tips” and “prepare ahead” directions make cooking and baking easier.
But the ease of making these dishes for Chanukah and all year isn’t the only reason that I bought this cookbook.
Ever since her first “Cooking for the King: Shabbat and Yom Tov Edition,” published last year, I’ve looked forward to reading more of Renee’s essays. Besides being a talented cook, she’s a gifted writer with nourishing insights.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob writes in his haskama (approbation) for “Cooking for the King”: “Mrs. Renee Chernin models the essence of this book in her life. In her home is found the crossroads of elegance, hospitality and sanctity. This book is not the result of her work, but rather of her being. Now the public has the opportunity to benefit from what is clearly an expression of her soul.”
In her introduction to the Chanukah edition, Renee writes: “The Jewish calendar is a cycle of opportunities. Each season, each month, each holiday brings in its own shefa, its particular flow of goodness from Above. When we know what the shefa of the season is we can actively become vessels for that goodness to flow into our lives.”
A special light and time of miracles seem to be the shefa of Chanukah. The holiday comes in the Northern Hemisphere at the “coldest, darkest month of the year,” Renee writes. “Yet it’s the warmest, most light-filled holiday.”
Renee believes in miracles. The book almost wasn’t published. In an interview, she told me, “Every time that I turned around with this book, I hit a wall.”
She thought it would have to be printed next year. Then she got a new publisher, and the book came out in time for Chanukah. “Anything’s possible,” said Renee, a moderator of TheKosherChannel.com.
Besides miracles, Renee believes in finding ways to reach out to others. An example is the story behind her Comeback Sauce, a condiment for salads, sandwiches and the tasty fish cakes.
“Comeback Sauce is more than a recipe; it’s an outlook on life,” Renee said.
When her Sephardic grandfather Solomon Rousso immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and opened a restaurant in Montgomery, Ala., he often added something special to his customers’ sandwiches. Frequently, that something was extra slices of his famous pickled tomatoes.
“He gave them (his customers) a good feeling” Renee said, “and a reason to come back again and again.”
Renee sees in this “a layer of Southern hospitality, a splash of good business” and a caring for others. “Whether it’s a shared joy or concern, a genuine compliment, sincere praise or words of wisdom offered at just the right time, that’s called Comeback Sauce,” she said.
Besides Comeback Sauce, she offers such dips and sauces as Avocado & Lemon Salad Dressing, Quick and Easy Olive Oil Herb Dip and Tzatziki Sauce to accompany Spanakopita Latkes.
Her recipes sport fun titles such as Onkeles Salad (instead of Caesar salad), Anything’s Possible Potato Soup and Breezy Barbeque Brisket. Renee also includes classics such as Fettuccini Alfredo. For the latter, she tells the story of how the dish got its name and how the family who invented the dish helped Jews during World War II.
Although some anecdotes are serious, much of Renee’s writing is humorous and playful. Introducing a dish called Nuts About Kale Salad, Renee acknowledges that she wasn’t a fan of kale, and she decided to avoid it, hoping the trend would go away. When it didn’t, she studied it.
“I learned the good, the better and the bitter truth,” she said. “Kale is a nutritional powerhouse, but it needs some help.” She found that “giving the leaves a rubdown releases the bitterness, and it becomes silky and sweet,” like a person after a massage.
For me, “Cooking for the King: Chanukah Edition” is a massage for the Jewish woman’s heart and soul. The many messages throughout the book lift my spirit. And the exciting recipes challenge me to try something new even after I fry the faux crab fish cakes and dip them in the Comeback Sauce.