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April 3rd, 2002 Caryn B. Brooks | z-Miss Dish
 

Kissed by Schmaltz

     
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Mitchell Davis: Super Mensch
GENTLE READERS,
Jewish cookbooks often seem to sigh and drop into several categories: 1) Things my dearly departed bubbe used to cook. 2) The history of the Jewish people--with recipes! 3) Going gourmet, Semitic-style. 4) Great Neck, N.Y., Hadassah chapter's fundraising recipe chapbook.

With this in mind, Miss Dish is completely aflutter over Mitchell Davis' The Mensch Chef: Or Why Delicious Jewish Food Isn't an Oxymoron (Clarkson Potter), a serious (but not too serious) Jewish cookbook that's low on schmaltz (although Davis is big on the literal stuff--more on that later) and high on accessibility. Davis straddles many of the traditions of Jewish cookbooking, while creating his own voice and approach. What Miss Dish likes best is that despite Davis' fancy pedigree (he's the director of publications at the James Beard House, as well as a Ph.D. candidate and professor at New York University's Food Studies Program; he has also written a book on foie gras and trained as a chef in France and Italy), he doesn't get tripped up on propriety. Jewish cooking can be a raggedy thing, and Davis isn't above waxing poetic about Hellmann's mayonnaise or suggesting that you squirt some Heinz ketchup onto your brisket before you cook it.

No surprise, Davis is friends with Lisa Schroeder, the chef/owner of Mother's Bistro and Portland's reigning Big Jewish Chef on Campus. To celebrate both the release of his book and Davis' trip to Portland as part of the James Beard Foundation's Dinner of the Decade, she has made him an honorary Mother of the Month and is featuring dishes from his book during April.

Last week, Miss Dish chatted with Davis from his New York office, where he was resting between bouts of cooking a Passover dinner for the Beard House that required 14 dozen eggs and 10 pounds of schmaltz. To be sure, Davis is attempting, in his own way, to lead a schmaltz renaissance (schmaltz is the Yiddish word for fat; traditionally, Jewish cooks used chicken schmaltz in many recipes). "One of the titles [of The Mensch Chef] that we toyed with was Schmaltz Nation," he says. "Because, ironically, I think what makes most of the Jewish food heavy is oil. Bad oil. And I've said many times, when you use animal fat, it isn't as heavy as oil or as greasy, for the same reason lard makes wonderful pie crust." One of his recipes that Mother's is cooking up--breaded chicken cutlet smothered in mushrooms and onions--is kissed by schmaltz. See for yourself. (Mother's Bistro, 409 SW 2nd Ave., 464-1122.)

***

"If we were millionaires, we would have dinner parties every night. Since we are not, we run this restaurant." --Dari Rezai

Miss Dish was reading a eulogy of Rezai by Clackamas Review editor Mike Russell when she came across this line. Rezai, an adored Clackamas restaurateur, died of a heart attack March 4 at 58. Miss Dish firmly believes this philosophy is always alive in restaurants that grab your heart; turning a restaurant into a living room makes everything taste better. Rezai will be missed.

 
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