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Read All About It : From once-obscure Asian cuisines to classic French to the lastest grain craze, the variety of cookbooks available for gift giving swells as Christmas approaches. To help cull the best from the rest, The Times' Food Staff has reviewed the year's most intriguing cookbooks. : The Jewish American Kitchen by Raymond Sokolov (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $30, 192 pages, illustrated).

December 17, 1989|ROSE DOSTI

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Jewish-American kitchen, having been raised in a neighborhood where the rich smells noodle kugel, hamantaschen and chicken soup wafted through open tenement windows. I loved the honey cake that Becky Schwartz, who lived on the fourth floor, used to bake and send up to our apartment for us to sample now and them. Her kichlach weren't bad, either. So I could easily translate my pleasant experiences to Sokolov's upbringing as a Jewish boy who watched his mother--or was it grandmother--(I have no idea because Sokolov, unfortunately, doesn't say) cook the Jewish food Americans cook. In fact, the absence of a personal touch in a subject so highly subjective is baffling. The back cover blurb mentions that Sokolov ate his first Jewish meal in 1941 but remembers none of it. (Sokolov is editor of the Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts Page and a food columnist for National History magazine). He spent of his childhood in Paris, which may explain the absence of any experience with American-Jewish cooking. Who could blame the fellow?

So you get an impersonal, clinical but erudite account of what Jewish food is and how it evolved from many cultures of Jews who lived throughout the world and made their final home in America. Jews from Palestine (now Israel), Romania, Montevideo, Eastern Europe, Yemen, have all contributed to the Jewish food Americans know and love. For those who never quite understand the dietary restrictions of religious Jews, there is a solid and lengthy explanation showing the bond between religion and food in Judaism.

"Steak with maitre d'hotel butter is not kosher, obviously. But it is also forbidden to consume meat and milk foods at the same time even when the foods themselves don't come into physical contact with each other. You can't eat bread and butter side by side with chicken. Or, to put it more generally, whichever you eat first, milk or meat, determines what you can consume for the rest of the meal."

The recipes, punctuated by a stream of wonderful photographs (as you would expect from coffee-table book publishers) are on target. You'll find what you expect to find: the familiar, favorite and true knishes, chopped liver, chicken soup, lox and eggs, roast chicken, tsmmes with meat, boiled flanken, stuffed cabbage, kugel, kasha varnishkes, mamaliga (Romanian cornmeal mush), gefilte fish, matzo balls, challah, rugelach, cheesecake, strudel and a good egg cream (chocolate soda and cream).

And I can't wait to try them.

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