April 3, 2017
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When Your Favorite Restaurant Is 3,000 Miles Away, the Solution Is to Cook

There are three things writer Carlye Wisel has missed about New York City since fleeing to the West Coast last year: a tiny handful of people, her chiropractor, and Jack’s Wife Freda, the multidimensional café and cool-kid canteen with locations in Manhattan’s SoHo and West Village neighborhoods.

Since opening up shop a half-decade ago, Jack’s Wife Freda has been filled with many famous and fabulous customers, none of whom were me. I’m just somebody who showed up so early and often, to chow on slices of haloumi and drink cappuccinos, that I proved unignorable. (It helps that even once the plates are licked clean, the convivial wait staff will never kick you out.) Now, with the magic of the restaurant bottled up in the new cookbook Jack’s Wife Freda: Cooking From New York’s West Village, I’m finally able to replicate the experience at home…or at least starve trying.

The spot has amassed popularity for being a bit of everything to everyone—offering picture-perfect dishes that are low-key healthy and an ambience that’s inviting yet also a little exclusive. For those who have never survived the crowds spilling out onto the sidewalks at the Carmine and Lafayette Street locations, Jack’s Wife Freda is New York’s answer to the busy French bistro, with a charm and style honed during owners Maya and Dean Jankelowitz’s tenures at Balthazar and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. Maya worked her way up from hostess to maître d’ at Balthazar, where she met Dean, a longtime waiter who would go on to cultivate Schiller’s relaxed cool. With a sixth sense for caring for diners as they would their own, the two became experts in creatively pleasing and paying mind to individual patrons, delivering a drink here and a favorite table there, a practice that would be folded into their own locales.

The restaurant’s point of view is a beautiful abstract, melding South African flavors, Parisian mainstays, Israeli side dishes, Greek standards, and Jewish home cooking into an all-occasion collection of recipes seemingly made through the world’s most delicious game of telephone. With its quirky name, homespun dishes, and massive social media following, the release of the restaurant’s first cookbook begs the question—is the restaurant’s popularity due to the food’s stellar execution? Is it the crowd? Is it the Instagrams of waffles piled high with fresh berries?

When it opened in 2012, well before restaurants were deliberately painting their walls Instagram-worthy shades of pink and turquoise, Jack’s Wife Freda served colorful creations (the Benedicts are red-purple; the shakshuka is lime green) that were as pleasing to the palate as they were to the eye. When Dean quizzically asked Jack’s Wife Freda chef Julia Jaksic to create something that “smells like Durban,” she researched the South African coastal city’s influence and delivered a fennel-tinged mussels bowl; the same is true of the drizzle-on-everything green hot sauce. “I think they wanted the Israeli [version],” Jaksic explains, laughing. “When they said ‘green hot sauce’ to me, just because of my New York cooking experience and being in kitchens with Mexicans always, of course it’s gonna be jalapeños and cilantro.” Halfway between zhug (an Israeli hot sauce) and a full-on dip, it’s indescribably good, unifying the tastes of their global menu.

Like a Matryoshka doll of hospitality, Jack’s Wife Freda’s essence has always been familial, and the cookbook is even more so. With hand-scrawled fonts and friendly doodles serving as an extension of the restaurant’s irreverent placemat menu and cheeky sugar packets, it all feels so deeply personal. I mean, show me another cookbook with a 12-page introductory essay outlining the truly unbelievable, deeply diasporic history of the proprietor couple and the grandparents behind the bistro’s quirky name. This sense of family is omnipresent, with recipes designed so that anyone, anywhere can re-create them. Hopefully. Chef Jaksic deliberately kept some of the measurements loose, calling for bunches of cilantro in the house-made hot sauce in lieu of specificity. “Because we wanted to approach this as a home cookbook, we felt like ‘4 ounces of cilantro,’ that was a little…not homey, you know?” she explains.

Just like the backstories, the variety of dishes within the cookbook is straight bonkers. There are lamb stews and veggie curries next to cantaloupe juice cocktails and spiced beet dips, fish balls and childhood-favorite chicken livers on toast explained near recipes for egg salad sandwiches or the potato latkes the namesake Jack (Dean’s grandfather) sold as a young boy in the shtetls. Want a healthy lunch, like the miraculously mayonnaise-free tuna salad or avocado toast? There’s a recipe for that, as well as fried zucchini chips with smoked paprika aioli and a caramel-soaked dessert named for the Afrikaans word for “marshmallow.” Readers flipping through the colorful pages in pristinely curated boutiques might be confused about the through line in these flavors, but in person—whether on its inviting benches or your own crumb-filled couch—it all works just as well.

The restaurant famously serves up dishes that are unique but accessible, but after working my way through the book, I realized that there’s nothing downright simple. The food may have an ease about it, and the majority of dishes aren’t difficult to create, but even straightforward ones require finesse and care. Poached eggs with toasted tomato and haloumi, for example—a meal whose name precisely outlines what it is—calls for a 75-minute oven roast of the thyme-covered tomatoes. “I think simple food is the hardest food to make,” Jaksic says, and after shrinking tomatoes in a skillet because I was too hungry to care, I’d have to agree. (It was still fantastic.)

Other items are sneakily difficult, too: Jaksic jokingly references the Goodfellas garlic-slicing prison scene in reference to the mixed preparation of her raw-and-cooked roasted cauliflower, and the duck bacon, which has a dedicated two-page photographic guide to curing and smoking it at home, is the book’s most labor-intensive.

Any challenge with these recipes likely won’t come from the preparation, but ingredient sourcing; I went to a grocery store, an Asian market, a health-food shop, and a Whole Foods in Los Angeles and still couldn’t find Hungarian paprika (which is a little bit sweeter than regular paprika). After searching for and failing to find kecap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce), I eventually resorted to making my own. When Jaksic tested the recipes in Nashville, she struggled to find watercress and her preferred version of labneh, trying various kinds sold within the city’s Kurdish-American community. While speaking with her, I could hear her concern about the produce also varying from location to location. Here was the chef behind of one of New York’s quintessentially hip restaurants hoping a Montana-based reader could find the right vegetables in the wrong season to lovingly make these creations.

Like recipes passed down between generations, every dish you make and devour from Jack’s Wife Freda’s first cookbook will taste like home cooking, yet slightly different from their own home cooking. My attempt at the famed peri-peri chicken, served with a side of chopped salad, couscous, and hot sauce, was easily one of the best I’ve ever made—but more of an homage to the restaurant than a duplication. When I ran out of arugula and wanted to make the tuna salad again, I used kale and radishes; it was just as delightful. I may be the only one craving an exact replica of this New York institution from afar—which is impossible, for reasons ranging from ingredients to, well, a propensity to lazily chop things with a steak knife—but no matter which way you slice it, these recipes are pretty damn good.

Green Shakshuka

Green Shakshuka

8-10 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1½ pounds tomatillos
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno chili
  • ½ cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1-3 tablespoon green hot sauce (to taste)
  • 1-2 eggs per person
  • chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
  • toasted challah or French brioche, for serving

Shakshuka (shahk-SHOO-ka) is a dish of Tunisian origin, possibly dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and possessively beloved by Libyans, Egyptians, Moroccans, Algerians, and Israelis alike. Simply put, it’s a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast and lunch dish consisting of baked eggs and tomatoes. Growing up in Israel, Maya tried many different incarnations—each family’s variation subtly different and fiercely defended. We knew we wanted a shakshuka on our menu, and it needed to be spectacular. This interpretation of the dish lends a more Latin American spin to the classic tomato sauce. We love the fresh zestiness of the tomatillos, the richness of the egg yolks, and the doughiness of the toasted challah. Ours may break with tradition, but we think that rolling the word “shakshuka” off your tongue is nearly as delicious as eating our version of it!

From Jack’s Wife Freda: Cooking From New York’s West Village by Maya and Dean Jankelowitz. Recipes by Julia Jaksic. Published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by NoamBennyLLC

  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F.
  2. Peel and quarter the onion and place with the garlic cloves in a small baking dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, or until very soft when pierced with a knife. (The onion and garlic can be prepared ahead of time.)
  3. In a large bowl, soak the tomatillos in warm water to peel off the outer husk, then cut in half. Cut the stem from the bell pepper, discard the seeds, and cut into quarters. Also cut the stem from the jalapeño, discard the seeds, and quarter.
  4. Place the peeled tomatillos, bell pepper, jalapeño, and cilantro leaves in a food processor with the roasted onion and garlic. Process until very smooth; it will have a salsa-like consistency.
  5. Transfer to a medium saucepan. Add the coriander, cumin, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tomatillo sauce is heated through. Be careful not to cook too long or your sauce will discolor and the taste will change. Add 1 tablespoon of hot sauce at a time until you’ve hit your desired spice level.
  6. To assemble the shakshuka: Oil a cast-iron pan and set it over low heat. Crack the desired number of eggs into the pan and cover. Allow the eggs to cook sunny-side up until the whites are fully cooked but the yolks remain soft (you can of course cook the yolks through if that is your preference).
  7. Once the eggs are cooked, liberally spoon the shakshuka sauce on top of the eggs and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with toasted challah or French brioche.

Ingredients

  • 1 head fennel
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 pounds mussels
  • ½ cup white wine

“We need a dish that smells like Durban!” said Dean one day.

The Jankelowitz family used to vacation in the coastal South African city during the summertime, and Dean remembers it dreamily for the elegant beachfront hotels and the best Indian food outside of India. After some research, chef Julia began to conjure the smell of fennel, curry, and salt water in the air. She got to work tinkering with various ingredients and flavors and finally served this very same bowl of mussels to Dean, who smiled and said, “Smells just like home.” This recipe makes enough for four as an appetizer or dinner for two. We serve it with crusty toasted bread made with a little of our garlic butter for a more substantial meal.

From Jack’s Wife Freda: Cooking From New York’s West Village by Maya and Dean Jankelowitz. Recipes by Julia Jaksic. Published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by NoamBennyLLC

  1. Cut any green stalks off the fennel and discard any outer discolored layers if present. Coarsely chop into large pieces. Peel the onion and also coarsely chop into large pieces. Coarsely chop 2 garlic cloves, being careful not to mince them too finely.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the fennel bulb, onion, and chopped garlic. Sauté over medium-low heat until the vegetables begin to soften, roughly 10 minutes. Once soft, add the curry, coriander, turmeric, paprika, ground fennel, and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Stir to coat all the vegetables with the spices. Add 2 cups water, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Transfer everything to a blender and blend on high speed for 1 to 2 minutes, adding an additional 1/4 cup water and 1 tablespoon of the butter. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. The mixture should be very smooth, similar to a soup. Season with salt and set aside while preparing the mussels.
  4. Wash the mussels with very cold water and pull off any beards. If you spot any open mussels, discard them. Mince the remaining 3 garlic cloves. In a very large pot over medium heat, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and the garlic. Immediately add the mussels with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, stirring to combine with the garlic. Add the white wine and cover the mussels for 2 to 3 minutes. Lift the lid and stir; the mussels should be starting to open. Add 1 cup of the fennel sauce and the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and cover.
  5. After 2 minutes stir again; almost all the mussels should be open. If they are not, return the lid and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Once most of the shells are open, transfer the mussels to a large bowl, pouring all the liquid on top of the mussels. If you prefer additional sauce, reheat and pour over the mussels.
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