Hi, I am Jessie!
I’m an attorney by day, but on evenings and weekends, I’m busy working out or cooking in. I am a self-diagnosed bibliophile and when I am not reading a mystery or historical fiction novel, my nose will be in a cookbook. The recipes in this blog will be based on the recipes percolating in my mind – taking into account what’s fresh at the farmer’s market, what looks good at the butcher, and what’s already in my pantry.
This will be a place for me to share kitchen creations I deem delicious and relatively photogenic. The backbone of my cooking is what I learned from my Jewish matriarchs (shout-out to my Mom, Aunt and Grandma!), and many years of obsessively reading cookbooks and cooking magazines. Is getting Bon Appetit anyone else’s favorite time of the month or is that just me?
So, why The Spicy Latke? Well, when I started hosting holiday dinner parties (yay adulting), I thought that some of the traditional recipes I ate growing up needed a glow-up.
The traditional Ashkenazi Jewish flavor profile is fat and salt, without much spice or other flavorful ingredients. This is because after being expelled from Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to live in poverty and had very limited ingredients. They got creative with the unwanted foods (chopped liver anyone?), maximized the use of everything (rendered chicken fat aka schmaltz is the hero ingredient of Jewish cooking) and the only vegetable in sight was going to be pickled. Now that we are living comfortably in the 21st century, these recipes are overdue for a flavor-update that matches our modern palates.
In my kitchen, potato kugel gets some pizazz with paprika, instead of just plain salt and pepper. Brisket is nestled in caramelized fennel, braised in soy sauce and vinegar, and finished with fresh herbs and red pepper – my grandmother’s recipe includes ketchup, 1 bottle of smuckers grape jelly, and 2 packets of Lipton’s onion soup mix (the industrialization of agriculture and advent of food processing meant that grandma’s traditional brisket recipe evolved to include name brands). Latkes are made with sweet potatoes, butternut squash or celeriac root, instead of russet potatoes. And rather than serving plain sour cream with my latkes, I finely dice jalapenos to add some heat – hence the Spicy Latke!
In addition to my Jewish upbringing, my cooking is heavily influenced by a challenge I created for myself last year. Have you heard of Julie and Julia? It’s the true story about a blogger who decided to cook all 524 of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I didn’t want to overindulge in French cuisine, so I chose my favorite cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi, who is known for his unusual flavor profiles and focus on vegetables. His cooking philosophy is “I want drama in the mouth” – now there is a mantra I can get behind.
My goal was to make one recipe each week using one of the five Ottolenghi cookbooks I own:
- Plenty: My gateway book into the world of Ottolenghi. Spotlights vegetarian restaurant-caliber recipes that every home cook can make.
- Plenty More: The highly anticipated follow up to Plenty, delivers beautiful and inventive vegetarian dishes. Some of my favorites dishes are butternut squash with chili yogurt and coriander sauce, root mash with wine braised shallots and cauliflower cake.
- Jerusalem: An exploration of the vibrant cuisine of Jerusalem, created by the diverse Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities within the city. Jerusalem is the home city for Ottolenghi and his co-author Sami Tamimi – they were born in Jerusalem in the same year, but in the Jewish west and Arab east, respectively.
- Simple: The cookbook I reach for the most! Stream-lined recipes, inspired by Middle-Eastern flavors and categorized using the SIMPLE principles: S = short on time, I = 10 ingredients or less, M = make ahead, P = pantry , L = lazy cooking, and E = easy. If you only have room for one more cookbook, this is the one.
- Sweet: A collaboration with Helen Goh, this cookbook shares much-loved desserts from Ottolenghi’s restaurants, alongside new recipes that are bold and a bit unpredictable (think shards of halva folded into brownies and shortbread cookies with star anise).
- Nopi: The Middle East meets the Far East in this collection of recipes from his London restaurant Nopi. The recipes are more complex than Ottolenghi’s other books so if you are new to the kitchen, I recommend starting with a different cookbook (Simple would be a great choice). The book itself is gorgeous (the pages are lined with gold) and the recipes are quite special.
After my year with Yotam, I have my own 10 commandments of cooking:
- Get the basics (kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper) but a couple of interesting spice blends can go a long way. Some of my favorites on repeat are tumeric, chipotle, sumac and za’atar.
- Any dish can go from okay to amazing by adding a flavor bomb like lemon, chile, fresh herbs, tahini or feta.
- Pre-salt your meat before cooking. ¾ teaspoon per pound is the ratio I use for everything from chicken to pot roast.
- All desserts can benefit from a pinch of salt. Try adding some maldon salt to chocolate chip cookies after they come out of the oven – you’re welcome!
- Know your cooking oils and their smoke point. The smoke point is when an oil will start to burn. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is best for salad dressing and dipping. Refined olive oil can be used for roasting and sauteing. Coconut oil is a good substitute for butter in baking. Speaking from experience, it’s better to use the right type of oil than set off your smoke alarm.
- Roast your vegetables at 425 degrees or higher. If the oven temperature is too low, you will miss out on the maillard reaction – the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive, delicious flavor. I promise this will change the way you eat your vegetables. Boiled brussel sprouts are sad, properly roasted brussel sprouts are delicious!
- Texture is as important as taste. If making a salad, have something soft like goat cheese or avocado juxtaposed with something crunchy like radishes or cucumber. Apply this to all your food and it will sing.
- You’re only as good as your ingredients. Shop at the farmer’s market and local butcher (if possible). Let your food be inspired by what is seasonal and available – you don’t want to make a tomato and burrata salad in the dead of winter.
- Make your own damn salad dressing. It’s literally the easiest thing ever – 2 parts fat (olive oil, neutral oil, yogurt), 1 part acid (lemon, apple cider or balsamic vinegar) plus salt and pepper. Add a tablespoon of good dijon mustard and call it a day.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. If a recipe calls for rice, try quinoa, farro or barley. If a recipe calls for lemon, try lime, apple cider vinegar or any other acid you have lying around. Use serrano peppers instead of jalapenos (just be sure to do a taste test for heat) and swap cilantro for parsley. Once you get more comfortable in the kitchen, a dish is limited only by your imagination.
I continue to be inspired to cook out of necessity (a girl’s gotta eat!) but also a way to channel my creativity. My hope for this blog is to share with you all some of my tastiest experiments and maybe help you to spark some kitchen creativity of your own.