In the JoyofKosher Kitchen with Reyna Simnegar

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Tamar Genger MA, RD
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Joojeh Kebab

We are so excited to invite Reyna Simnegar into our kitchen.  Another bride who learned cooking from her husbands' family.  Reyna, who grew up in Venezula, took a crash course in Persian cooking taught by her mother-in-law to be so that her new husband wouldn't starve when they got married.  She mastered the art taking short cuts when she could and then wrote it all down for her future daughters-in-laws and us to learn from. Reyna's book, Persian Food from the Non Persian Bride will teach even the most inexperienced cooks to prepare delcious Persian meals in not time at all.

1. Tell me about your Jewish journey.

I didn’t know there was any “Jewish blood” in me until I was 12 years old.  At the time, my aunt Sarah told me our family was originally Jewish and that our last name had been changed from Peres to Perez to disguise us as Catholics due to the threats of the Inquisition. I thought this was crazy since Venezuela is such a friendly country to Jews, but considering the Inquisition was abolished in 1832 (352 years active) it really made sense that my great grandparents felt the need to remain hidden. There is a lot to the story and I am currently writing a book about it, but to put it in a “nut shell” at 15 I decided to convert to Judaism and today I am so grateful because that was the most important and powerful decision I have made in my life.

2. What did you really feel when your husband-to-be “politely suggested” it was time to pay a visit to his mother’s kitchen to learn the art of Persian cooking and what was it like spending that much time with you mother in law?

I was supper happy! You see, my Kallah (Bride) teacher taught me that in relationships it is much more important to be smart than to be right! Also, he was not suggesting in any way I needed to learn how to cook, or that my food was not good enough and I needed to learn from his mom. I was already a great Latina cook…but it was Persian food that enticed him! Making my husband happy has been tremendously rewarding and paying that “visit” to my mother-in-law’s kitchen allowed me to create a great relationship with her. Not only that, I am in love with Persian food…so it was a win-win situation!

3. How does your Venezuelan background influence your cooking?

My Venezuelan background is extremely important to me and I certainly make a lot of Venezuelan and Latin American food in my home. In fact, I am currently in the making of a Latin American Kosher cookbook. However, I am incredibly devoted to keeping Persian cuisine as genuine as possible. After all, I have to feed a true Shirazi man! Hence, no matter how Venezuelan I might be, there is no way I am making a “Basmati Arroz con Pollo.” Venezuelan cuisine is as genuine and legendary as Persian cuisine and they both deserve their respective separate places in my kitchen.

4. What advice do you have for the busy home cook?

I am a perfectionist, so when it comes to being a busy mother of 5 kids (and a husband) I must run my household like an army base! I have kept a diary of my menus for every single Shabbat and holiday for the past 7 years. I make notes of what was successful and what was pathetic. I make sure my table is always set a day before…that puts me in the mood and gives me time to be creative. I have a love affair with my freezer and even have pictures of how my drawers should be organized so that my cleaning help does not misplace my beloved gadgets. I plan the Shabbat menu on Tuesday, shop on Wednesday and cook on Thursday and Friday depending on how much company I have (usually over 20 people every Friday night). I think that cooking, even if it takes 5 minutes, has to be fun so I always play good music while I cook and dance a lot. I do not wear an apron and often cook on high heals because they make me feel fabulous. And last, leftovers are not my enemy; they are a source of inspiration!

5. I love the pictures of your kids cooking, what advice do you have for getting kids in the kitchen?

In all honestly it took me a long time for me to let my kids in the kitchen. I love cleanliness and neatness and my kids always make a big mess. It was therapeutic (and incredibly difficult) to finally allow my kids to get flour all over the place. I think in my case I just needed to “let go” and enjoy their sweet little dirty faces licking the bowl clean of cake batter. To get them interested, I treat food like toys. I use tons of cookie cutters in all areas of the kitchen…even when I make Tadig! They love checking eggs for me and also help me brading Challah. Even my 2 year old likes cutting onions (with a plastic knife)! Go figure! Since I have 5 little boys, I have to make sure they will be able to make amazing dinners for their wives!

6. What are the most popular misconceptions about Persian cuisine?

Most people, even some Persians, tend to think Persian food is difficult to make. Some also tend to think it takes a long time to achieve. Both are wrong. Persian food is extremely easy to make when you have the right ingredients and a user-friendly recipe.   Up until now, there was no Persian cookbook out there that allowed for both.  I feel blessed to be able to share the short cuts to Persian cuisine keeping it genuine. I get so many incredible letters from young Persian brides that felt apprehensive about making the food of their ancestors and were finally able to conquer it using the cookbook.

7. What is your favorite food?

I love all food. Period. I am a huge fan of dining and one of the highlights when I travel is to eat at Kosher restaurants all around the world. My favorite restaurant is Darjeeling in Paris. This is the only place where I allow myself to over eat to the point of no return! I was just in Chicago and I have to say that Shallots was amazing! I love Sassi Sushi Bar and Café in Encino, CA. There are way too many fabulous restaurants to be able to mention them all…I am getting terribly hungry now!

8. What is your least favorite food?

I like everything. I really do. Even gefilte fish and kugel! I love it!

9. What was your most memorable cooking moment?

I must say my best cooking memories come from my childhood and teenage years while learning to cook from my Mother and Grandmother. Specially learning to make Venezuelan desserts and Paeya. Another of those moments was learning to make Persian Dolmeh from my husband’s Grandmother. However, the most memorable cooking moment must have been when I struggled to make Turkish Coffee for the Crown Prince of Iran HIH Reza Palavi. I was so nervous and I had no idea how to make it…but at least I tried!

10. What is your earliest memory of cooking?

I honestly feel I was born in a kitchen! I come from a very traditional culture where women spend much of their lives in the kitchen making their families and husbands happy. These same women will assure you the man is the “head” but the woman is the “neck” and you know how the rest goes! My earliest memory from cooking is licking cake batter from my Mother’s old Electrolux mixer. She is the best baker in the world, although my aunt Anna (the French Pastry Chef) is pretty good too! By age 10 I was already an expert at making desserts and at eating them too!

Here are few recipes from my book for you to sample:

tomato persian rice

Tomato Persian Rice

Joojeh Kebab

Chicken Kebab

Refreshing Lime Syrup

Refreshing Lime Syrup

***GIVEAWAY*** In order to have a chance to win a copy of Reyna's Book "Persian Food from the Non Persian Bride" leave a comment below telling us your favorite kosher ethnic dish. Winner will be picked at random. US residents only. Contest ends July 13 2011 at 9 am EST.

THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. WINNER TO BE ANNOUNCED SHORTLY.