Jamie Geller, author of new cookbook Joy of Kosher, speaks on food, family and entertaining.
Bestselling cookbook author, founder of the Kosher Media Network, wife and mother of five, Jamie Geller makes busy her business. So it’s only natural that Geller should offer up a cookbook that does—not double—but triple duty for kosher and non-kosher cooks alike.
Her newest cookbook, Joy of Kosher, the follow-up project to bestseller Quick & Kosher, includes more than 100 recipes, each with a distinct option to either “Dress It Up” for entertaining or “Dress It Down” for everyday. Each recipe features ingredient variations, garnish suggestions, presentation notes, wine pairings and holiday menu suggestions—plus ways to simplify, if you’re looking for a low-key family meal.
We had the opportunity to chat with Geller about her journey from “The Bride Who Knew Nothing” to powerhouse holiday hostess and everything in between.
Relish: We need to know more about this nickname that you received when you got married—The Bride Who Knew Nothing.
Jamie Geller (JG): [Laughs] I didn’t receive it—I gave it to myself. I wear it with pride, really. When I got married I really did not know how to cook. I mean, really. My parents were immigrants to the United States; my family is from Transylvania. My mother had a dream for me to be something like the first woman president of the United States, not some barefoot, pregnant person in a kitchen somewhere, since there are so many opportunities available to women in the United States.
She never taught me how to cook…I used my oven for storage when I lived in Manhattan. I never used it once. And that is why, when I got married, I was the bride who knew nothing.
Relish: Was there a specific event that sparked your desire to learn how to cook?
JG: When my husband looked at me and said “What’s for dinner?” And I said “I don’t know, you tell me.”
Relish: And now that you’re an expert at it, which pantry staples could you never live without, especially around the holidays?
JG: Okay so first of all—olive oil…After kosher salt, I cannot live without olive oil. Obviously I have to measure it when I’m writing a recipe, but in real life I never measure it. It’s like sacrilegious; you cannot have enough olive oil. And then I always have either coconut or soy milk on hand. I also cook a lot with Earth Balance, because if we can’t use butter for kosher reasons I opt for healthy, accessible alternatives…and I do a lot of lemon and lemon zest.
R: What inspired the “dress it up + dress it down” concept present throughout Joy of Kosher?
JG: That is the special part about this book…I feel really, really proud of it. You know, I was the bride who knew nothing when I got married, and now, ten years and five kids later, I’m just the woman who has no time. So I still cook fast and fresh and family-oriented food that’s real food for real people, because that’s what I need, but we love to entertain.
I have this theory that when you’re entertaining, it is not the time to start experimenting…there’s so much as a hostess or a host that you have to juggle when you’re entertaining. Why not take your every day recipes, the tried-and-true, the fail-proof that the whole family loves…and just dress them up?
R: And personally, are you more of a “dress it up” or “dress it down” type?
JG: I’m both…I feel like we eat with our eyes. So even if it’s just us at the table, you still want something to look pretty. I don’t like to serve things on disposables; I always like to have a splash of green on the dish, or just a little something to give it a little bling.
R: Aside from opting to use tried-and-true recipes for holiday occasions, what other advice would you give to a novice holiday host?
JG: First of all—plan. Planning and being organized is your absolute best friend…you set the tone—your energy. So if you’re frazzled, or you’re pulling things in and out of the oven or running back and forth, it doesn’t set great energy for the place or the event that you’re hosting.
Another thing I say is—do not apologize. If something didn’t come out the way it was supposed to, don’t announce it to the table. Nobody knows what the recipe was supposed to be like; nobody knows what ingredients were supposed to be in it; nobody knows what flops you made. They’re there to enjoy your company.
Oh, and delegate! People really like to be involved. If they don’t ask, it’s fine. But if someone asks… delegate something. Even if it’s something as simple as drinks or paper goods, or if you want to delegate a dessert—go for it. It doesn’t make you seem like any less of a host. In fact, it makes you seem more warm and welcoming.
R: Around the holidays, how do you handle decor and what are your tips for others?
JG: The first thing I have to tell people is: don’t go over the top, meaning don’t do everything. There’s nothing worse than an overdone table where you can’t see the food or the people around you. It’s like people in fashion say, “Look in the mirror and take off one thing before you leave the house.” That’s kind of how I feel about the holiday table. Don’t go buck wild, ya know?
What I’m really into right now is dessert tables. They look beautiful—the adults appreciate them, and the kids also appreciate them. You can make them whimsical, modern and bold. With Hanukkah coming up, we’re also celebrating my son’s birthday, so we’ll do different candies and doughnuts and funnel cakes and cupcakes…
R: So do you a kids table when you’re entertaining for the holidays, or do you all eat together?
JG: When it’s a smaller gathering, then yes, I love having everyone eat together. But if it gets to a point where I’m having 50 [guests], you can’t sit everyone in any kind of way that is conducive to conversation. You end up with some kind of long table where you’re only able to speak to the one person across from you and maybe the two people on either side of them and the two people on either side of you. You want to create conversations, you want to create an intimate and entertaining environment. So when it gets big, I do break things up and do kids’ tables and adult tables.
R: Do you bring the kids in the kitchen with you?
JG: Yes, and the number one thing I’ll tell you is when you start to cook with kids—double the time. So if it’s supposed to take half an hour, just know that it will take an hour, and enjoy it. If you’re rushing, that’s not the time to get the kids in the kitchen.
The earlier you can get them involved, the more you’re arming them with awesome life skills. Also, with our kids, we always feed them table food whenever it’s appropriate. That way we’re all eating the same thing, and their palettes expands. Of course you still have picky eaters, but these types of things allow them to be open.
R: For when you’re trying to celebrate the traditional, what are your favorite Hanukkah traditions?
JG: The miracle of Hanukkah is that when they went to rededicate the temple after its destruction, they found oil to light the temple lights. It was supposed to be enough oil to last for only one day, but it lasted for eight. So that is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days…and the miracle of the oil is why we eat fried foods.
Therefore we do latkes, which are fried potato pancakes and every variation thereof; we do doughnuts, or in the book, there are funnel cakes and Hanukkah cookies shaped in different Hanukkah shapes.
To start building your ultimate Hanukkah menu, see the holiday recipes hand-picked from Joy of Kosher below. For more on Jamie Geller and her holiday hosting tips, visit Jamie’s website, Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller.
This basic challah recipe will see you through the holidays—and beyond.
A hearty, healthy vegetable soup, perfect for the holiday season.
The addition of fragrant spices transforms these cookies into a holiday-worthy treat.