Decorated chefs and food writers invited the internet into their kitchens for cooking demos, panels and one-on-one conversations during The Great Big Jewish Food Fest, a 10-day virtual celebration of Jewish cuisine at the end of May.

It was so special to see these culinary legends in their homes and navigating their kitchens, including Einat Admony, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, Molly Yeh, Michael Twitty and Ruth Reichl. Organizations like MAZON, OneTable, Schusterman Family Foundation and James Beard Foundation also hosted discussions, and funds were raised during programs to support the food industry, which has been devastated by COVID-19, and those experiencing food insecurity.

While the kitchen has kept people grounded during quarantine, The Great Big Jewish Food Fest united us. Here are 10 things I learned from the finest in Jewish quarantine content.

Finish broths with a little bit of pickle brine. 

Whether you make your own pickles or buy jars from the store, don’t pour the brine down the sink. Acids brighten up any dish. Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz from The Gefilteria say you can also use pickle brine to make salad dressings, martinis and breads. Icon Joan Nathan even loves pickle soup.

Pickling at home? “Pickles should punch you in the face with garlic,” said Yoskowitz. You can also pickle prunes for a sweet option, according to the hosts of “Unorthodox.”

Use every part of a lemon.

Zest them, juice them, brine them, keep them in your kitchen always.

In a wonderful Shabbat cook-along hosted by Gail Simmons, all three participating chefs—Adeena Sussman, Einat Admony and Michael Solomonov—agreed. Sussman recommends zesting lemons before juicing them. Microwave the zest for 90 seconds, then put it in a container. You’ll have dried lemon zest whenever you need it! Admony preserves lemon rinds by mixing salt, sugar and spices (including coriander) in room-temperature water and a little bit of olive oil. Solomonov said just salt would also do the trick.

(Bonus tip/controversial opinion: Sussman and Admony don’t rinse their rice.)

Rethink chickpeas. Raise your hummus game.

Food writer Ruth Reichl claims peeling chickpeas makes all the difference in hummus. Solomonov suggests warming up your chickpeas if your food processor sucks. Every chef basically said that using canned chickpeas are cheating—cook your own. Oh, and hummus should be served at room temperature.

Tahina is a “mother sauce.”

This combination of tahini, garlic, lemon juice and water can elevate dishes and roasted vegetables. According to Solomonov, tahina is a “mother sauce” (five French sauces from which all others are made), joining the ranks of béchamel, hollandaise, tomato, velouté and brown/Espagnole sauces. Add pistachios, harissa, fresh mint, spices (like cumin, coriander and a pinch of cayenne), or even throw in an avocado to make green goddess dressing.

Add community cookbooks to your collection.

Regional and community charity cookbooks showcase how people adapt family recipes to local ingredients. These gems have so much personality, according to scholars Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Darra Goldstein, whose cookbook collections, if combined, total over 12,000. From Abilene, Texas, to the Dutch island country of Curaçao, community cookbooks are special and unique.

Cookbook writer Claudia Roden said it best: “People value food that belongs to a people and that really has meaning.”

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Take risks with “basic” recipes.

Experiment with tahina. Spice up brownies with sumac, cinnamon or cardamom and/or by adding one cup of anything you want: pretzels, potato chips, pistachios, etc. As Jake Cohen, editorial director at feedfeed, put it, “Go as wild as you want!”

Cheeseboards make your life easier.

A favorite of Cohen’s, cheeseboards can buy you time with guests if you’re still cooking when they come over. You know, whenever quarantine ends and we can have people over again. Cohen’s recommendations for a perfect cheeseboard:

  • One soft goat cheese
  • One soft triple cream (like Brie)
  • Two or three semi-firm cheeses (anything between gouda and Gruyère)
  • One “curveball” (like a blue cheese)
  • Dried fruit (if you want to use fresh fruit instead of dried, keep it seasonal—strawberries, peaches or even heirloom tomatoes are perfect for summer!)
  • Nuts for texture
  • Jam, honey or honeycomb 
  • Two types of crackers (one seedy, one basic)
  • Herb sprigs to add aroma

Take the time to slice the semi-firm cheeses with any sharp knife (slice, take off the knife, slice, take off the knife). Let guests “do the work” for creamy and crumbly cheeses. Once your cheeses are on the board, pour your jam or honey in the middle and fill in the gaps with the other accoutrements. Make sure they overflow so the board looks flush.

Remember: It’s better to have more cheeses in smaller amounts than fewer cheeses in bigger amounts. But don’t feel like you need to get fancy!

Save older spices by creating your own Havdalah spice blends.

“Spice King” Lior Lev Sercarz says a fun activity is to come up with your own signature besamim (aromatic spices). Deepen your connection to Havdalah by cooking with your spice blend throughout the week. And don’t discount dried citrus.

Make avocado toast with challah.

Enough said.

“Getting everything from the internet is cheating.”

Nathan was adamant when she said this to Reichl during their discussion of Jewish American culinary history. Finding a recipe online is fine, but you don’t know how a dish is supposed to taste if you haven’t had it. Cooking is generational, and it’s the old cooks you really learn a lot from. Sit in their kitchens, get their handwritten recipes and deepen your understanding of people’s cultures.

Roden said something similar in her discussion with cookbook author Leah Koenig: “This is what the world can learn from you that no one else can give them.”

Watch the archived sessions here.