The Mile End Cookbook
We grew up frequenting Jewish delicatessens in Toronto, Montreal and New York, developing a keen appreciation for a bagel baked to perfection, expertly cured meat and exquisite, smoky lox. As Jewish cuisine in Vancouver isn’t quite the same, we find ourselves seeking out deli food on our travels – Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Beauty’s in Montreal, Katz’s in New York, Sherman’s Deli in Palm Springs – in order to satisfy our cravings. We were thrilled to discover that the Brooklyn-based Mile End recently released a cookbook divulging all the secrets behind their contemporary interpretations of traditional Jewish Ashkenazi and deli cuisine. This miniscule Boerum Hill haunt has quickly developed a cult following since opening in 2010, and The Mile End Cookbook details the restaurant’s gestation from an idea to a successful business. More than a mere instructional guide, The Mile End Cookbook recounts how two recent graduates from McGill drew inspiration from both Montreal’s enviable Jewish cuisine and their own family experiences to create what is really a labour of love and a testament to the importance of food in Jewish culture.
Noah and Rae Bernamoff, the proprietors of Mile End, first met as students at Montreal’s McGill University in the early 2000s and moved to New York after graduating to pursue careers in law and the arts. What began as dissatisfied law student Noah’s efforts to make Montreal smoked meat at home quickly became Mile End (named after the formerly Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal where many delis remain) – a tiny, four-table restaurant serving up deli classics and traditional Ashkanazi dishes. With no formal training in either the culinary arts or restaurant management, this was definitely a gamble, yet Mile End was lined up out the door from the start and clearly satiated a desire for 21st century versions of traditional Jewish cuisine.
What distinguishes Mile End from a conventional Jewish deli is its combination of classic fare with the current obsession among young, urban chefs with nose-to-tail cooking. Everything at Mile End is made from scratch, and with a deep devotion to schmaltz, as much of the animal as possible is used – from chicken skin to lamb’s tongue. To reflect this philosophy, The Mile End Cookbook is organized in two sections – one which details how to prepare the meat, fish and garnishes that will be used in the second portion which features recipes for complete dishes. Dividing the book in this manner is ideal as it allows those interested in making their own smoked meat, sausages or chopped liver to do so while understanding that those with less time or inclination may purchase these items. Peppered throughout each chapter are short commissioned essays from “mavens” selected for their unique knowledge of everything from pastrami to pickles to the Jewish appetizing tradition. In addition, each recipe includes a brief personal introduction from Noah or Rae detailing the importance of the dish to them. Adding these often nostalgic narratives makes The Mile End Cookbook well worth a read even if you have no intention of actually cooking anything.
As Jewish comfort food was an important part of our upbringing we were interested to see how Mile End’s recipes would rival our childhood memories. We first tested the gefilte fish – a Jewish holiday classic – and were impressed with the clear instruction and limited number of ingredients required to make the dish. The final result was delicious – with fresh and contemporary flavours it wasn’t exactly how we remembered it but we were pleasantly surprised that gefilte fish could taste this good. As it’s nearly impossible to find good Jewish deli condiments in Vancouver we love the extensive section devoted to pickles and garnishes. The Quick Cucumber Pickles were a revelation; we had no idea that we could make cucumbers taste like pickles without leaving them in a jar for upwards of three weeks. This extremely quick and easy recipe has become a staple in our homes. To test their meat expertise we prepared the lamb bacon – which was a bit of a production as the meat had to sit in the fridge for five days – but the tender, succulent final product was well worth the effort and the wait.
This beautifully designed and photographed book is an excellent introduction to Jewish comfort food for the uninitiated and would be welcome in the kitchens of even those well versed in the cuisine. While the recipes may not be exactly as you remember your grandmother making them – they are decidedly contemporary in their approaches and ingredients – the dishes are extremely tasty. The Mile End Cookbook is an excellent addition to the larger effort to revitalize Jewish comfort food in North America, to bring it in from the margins and make it relevant and appealing to a new generation.