Disclosure: Artscroll supplied me with a review copy of Secret Restaurant Recipes and gave me access to the authors for an interview. Opinions expressed are my own.
The recently released Secret Restaurant Recipes is an especially attractive cookbook: large 9”x9” format, nicely designed layout and lots of photos of beautifully plated food. Add to this the intriguing theme of recipes “from the World’s Top Kosher Restaurants,” and you have my full attention.
Authors Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek spent a year getting recipes from popular kosher restaurants and then testing them and adapting them for the home cook. In the book, they reveal that “not everyone believed that we’d be able to complete a book like this, and our publisher agreed that if we could, it would be a great accomplishment.”
I asked Victoria and Leah how the challenge of creating this cookbook compared to their work on their earlier cookbooks. Leah explained that the “most difficult part was getting the chefs to give over the recipes. When we wrote our own cookbooks, we could easily go into the kitchen and create a dish. Here, we had to wait to get each recipe. Once it finally came in, we had to test it. If it didn’t test well, we’d have to get back in touch with the chef to perfect it. We couldn’t just make changes on our own, because it had to be authentic.” “Believe it or not,” added Victoria, “tracking down and testing other people’s recipes is way, way more time-consuming that simply writing our own in our kitchens.”
Favorite Recipes Pried from Chefs
So what do they consider to be their greatest moment of triumph with this project? Leah: “My favorite is Shredded Short Rib tacos. It’s from Reserve Cut and we got that recipe at the last moment possible.” Victoria: “I think the Bourbon BBQ Ribs from T Fusion is a big prize. Great spice rubs and BBQ sauces are usually the last secrets a chef would want to give away.”
Some Recipes Flopped in Home Kitchens
There were some failures, too. Victoria revealed that “some recipes from very popular restaurants simply didn’t test well in home kitchens. It was a shame to have to leave some restaurants out, but at the end of the day, the recipes need to work well for the home cook.”
Part of the problem is that restaurants have access to ingredients and equipment not available to the home cook. “Steaks are definitely the hardest to covert for the home cook,” Leah pointed out. “Steak flavor usually comes from aging the meat and all the flavor on the hot grills restaurant cooks have. We chose the meat in the cookbook that is easiest to covert for the home kitchen.”
Victoria gave another example: “In some restaurants, the main flavor for a dish comes from house-made stocks, like beef or veal stock. If the dish was dependent on that flavor, it wouldn’t be a practical choice for this book. Restaurants have lots of dishes on their menus, some doable for the home cook and some not, so we tried to only pick the options that would work.”
Best Cooking Tips
Besides better equipment and ingredients, restaurant chefs have something else in working their favor: finely honed technique. Every recipe in the book has a sidebar with cooking tips from the contributing chef.
When asked for their favorite tip, Leah and Victoria agreed. “Hot pans,” said Leah, referring to the trick of heating pans to get them good and hot before adding any food so that the food sears properly. “I think that tip changed the way we cook,” added Victoria. “Now, when I cook, I put the pot over the fire before I do anything. Proteins and veggies come out so much better when they’re cooked in a hot pan.”
Here is something else chefs do that Leah says that home cooks can emulate: “Prep in advance like the restaurants do. If all your components are prepped the morning of or even the day before, the dish comes together so quickly.”
Kosher Restaurant Trends
Working on this cookbook, poring over menus, gave the authors a good bird’s eye view of the kosher restaurant scene. When asked about the big trends, Leah offered that she thinks that “barbecue is a growing trend, more restaurants are smoking meat. That’s hard for home cooks to recreate at home.” Victoria pointed to the “small plate trend. Lots of new restaurants aren’t categorizing their food as appetizers or entrees. In those places, it’s less about the formal meal and more about the tasting experience.”
But, what about desserts?: “The trend in desserts is the seasons,” Victoria told me. “Unfortunately, too many kosher restaurants are stuck in a molten cake rut. Lots of chefs do ‘food only’ and it’s an expense for a restaurant to employ a pastry chef. Then…there is the other extreme. Driven chefs use each new season as a reason to reinvent their menu, including their desserts, and feature the flavors most suited to the time of year.”
Secret Restaurant Recipes, Part II?
When asked if they had more material for a sequel (Secret Restaurant Recipes, Part II), the authors were cagey: “You never know!”
Out-of-the-Ordinary and High End
Now, for my own take on the cookbook: The book is a lot of fun to read, with interesting tidbits about the different restaurants, chefs and menus. The cookbook is full of unusual, intriguing recipes. If you are a serious kosher “foodie” who enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, you will be very excited to have recipes for such gourmet specialties as Cereal Milk Ice Cream with caramelized corn flakes, Sweet Potato Tortelloni with Orange Brandy Cream Sauce, Osso Bucco, Côte de Bœuf, Duck with Sour Cherry Reduction, Porcini Crusted Eye of Rib with Mushroom Wine Reduction, Deviled Kale Salad with Kabocha Squash, Heirloom Tomato Salad (with watermelon, avocado, sprouts, cucumber and a wildflower honey dressing) and Ahi Tuna Two Ways.
But, if you are not that committed or experienced a cook, bear in mind that this is a book of recipes from (mostly) fancy restaurants. Some of the recipes are a bit involved to make, with many calling for deep-frying. A lot of the recipes call for fairly expensive, unusual or special occasion ingredients (like truffle oil, porcini mushroom powder, sun-dried tomato paste, duck breasts, hangar steak, sushi grade ahi tuna, Chilean sea bass, ground star anise, whole chipotle peppers, red miso paste, praline extract, etc.).
Experimenting with new ingredients is how you expand your palate and repertoire, so it isn’t intrinsically a bad thing that the cookbook calls for ingredients you might not already have in your pantry. And sometimes you want to splurge on expensive types of fish or cuts of meat. I mention the large number of out-of-the-ordinary/high-end ingredients called for in the cookbook because some people might find it very off-putting to have to stock up on them to make the recipes.
Some Easier Recipes, Too, Plus Lot of Fried Dishes for Chanukah
All the above being said, there are some recipes that look fairly simple to make and that don’t call for expensive or esoteric ingredients. Examples: Quinoa and Spinach Salad, Chermoula Chicken Breast, Cannelloni, Yakisoba Pan Noodles and Portobello Mushroom Soup.
If you get this cookbook for Chanukah, there are a lot of fried dishes in here that you can make as a special holiday treat. Most obviously, you can make the Zeppoli Cinnamon Doughnuts with Hot Chocolate Sauce from the California restaurant Tierra Sur. A more out-of-the-box but still very appropriate choice would be the Popover Potatoes (basically fried mounds of potato puff dough) from Brooklyn’s Chagall Bistro.
Eggplant Tofu in Garlic Sauce
The first recipe that I tried from this book was the Eggplant Chicken in Garlic Sauce, from Segal’s Oasis Grill in Phoenix, Arizona (you can see the pages of the cookbook where this recipe appears on the Artscroll website). The recipe gives the option of replacing the chicken in the recipe with an equal amount of tofu, with the caveat that the cooking time for tofu might be different. The results were excellent, if a bit salty because I used regular soy sauce instead of the low sodium soy sauce the recipe recommends. The recipe only makes enough for two servings. Next time, I would stretch out the recipe to serve four by adding more stir-fried vegetables (broccoli and snow peas, plus more shredded carrots).
Eggplant Chicken (or Tofu) in Garlic Sauce
From Chef/Owner Daniel Gilkarov, Segal’s Oasis Grill, Phoenix, Arizona. Adapted from Secret Restaurant Recipes, by Leah Schapira and Victora Dwek; reprinted with permission from the copyright holders: Artscroll/Mesorah Publications. The restaurant uses the long, skinny Japanese eggplant–use that kind of eggplant for this recipe if you can find it. The yield for this recipe is only two servings, so adjust amounts if you are cooking for more people.
1 lb eggplant, cut into 1½-inch chunks
kosher salt, for sprinkling
1 lb skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces (or 1 lb. tofu, cut into 1″ cubes)
3 Tbsp cornstarch, for dredging
3 Tbsp chopped garlic
¼ tsp chili pepper flakes
⅓ cup shredded carrots
canola or vegetable oil, for frying
⅓ cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cornstarch
Sprinkle eggplant chunks with salt; allow to rest for 20-30 minutes (this process will prevent eggplant from soaking up too much oil during frying). Rinse salt from eggplant and drain well.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, black pepper, and cornstarch. Set aside.
Prepare the chicken (or tofu): Place cornstarch into a shallow dish; toss the chicken (or tofu) in cornstarch to coat very well.
Heat 3-inches oil in a wok or 1-inch oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add chicken to hot oil and pan-fry until golden, 2-3 minutes per side (tofu will take longer to cook). Remove from oil and set aside.
Add the eggplant to the same pan and fry until light golden, 2-3 minutes. Remove from oil and set aside. Discard oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the wok or pan.
Add garlic and chili pepper flakes and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Return chicken (or tofu) and eggplant to the pan. Add carrots and sauce and stir-fry for 2 minutes, coating all the ingredients well with the sauce.