“Fress: Bold Flavors from a Jewish Kitchen.” By Emma Spitzer. Mitchell Beazley. $34.99

With a full house over the holidays, cooks like me are torn between spending time in the kitchen and wanting to spend it with everyone gathered in the living room, playing games, doing jigsaw puzzles and catching up after a long absence.

My weakness is cribbage. If there’s a game proposed, I’m wiping my hands on the kitchen towel and peeking around the door frame.

That means this holiday season, writer Emma Spitzer was on my side. In “Fress: Bold Flavors from a Jewish kitchen,” she offers up plenty of recipes that feed large groups without requiring too much prep or hours in the kitchen.

Influenced heavily by her youthful travels through the Middle East and the Algerian roots of her in-laws, Spitzer calls for spices and ingredients I see in my local halal market but never know quite how to use – baharat, ras el hanout, freekeh, za’atar, dates, dried limes and Medjool dates.

But Spitzer’s commentary on recipes and clear instructions make even a novice cook feel comfortable working with new ingredients.

Thankfully, “Fress” doesn’t presume a lot – there are recipes for staples such as hummus and labneh. Spice mixtures are provided, as are recipes for dukkah and harissa, which appear in several recipes throughout the cookbook.

Spitzer, a contestant on the U.K. MasterChef, is also mindful of food trends, but marries them to her vision of comfort food. She wryly observes that “cauliflower is having what you would call a moment,” then offers her own take on how to cook it: battered in turmeric, with chile and saffron yogurt, or pan-fried with caramelized onions, toasted couscous and almonds and topped with pomegranate seeds.

As I planned meals for visiting houseguests – and eyed the cribbage board parked at the end of the table – I decided to make Sweet Honey Chicken, attracted by the Medjool dates and sweet potatoes that studded the chicken and shallots. It was a one-pan meal that needs one hour of cooking time and presents beautifully for a buffet.

One of my favorite things about the recipes in “Fress” were the unexpected combinations – a risotto topped with minted sour cream; a noodle kugel that calls for orange blossom water and sesame seeds; harissa ketchup and mayonnaise; and a banana dessert using tahini.

Spitzer’s comments on recipes explain how she updated or overhauled traditional recipes, and she offers variations that give the cook confidence. A simple eggplant dip made with yogurt is a “virtuous” version – but she suggests adding more olive oil and crème fraîche for a more indulgent dish. Bourekas originally cooked by Spitzer’s grandmother with cheddar and spinach get an update with a chard and ricotta filling. A risotto-reminiscent dish is really orzo cooked with preserved lemon and butternut squash.

“Fress” is destined to be a well-thumbed – and well-loved – addition to my cookbook shelf.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

SWEET HONEY CHICKEN

Serves 6

6 skin-on chicken leg quarters or 12 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, or a mixture of thighs and drumsticks

12 shallots, peeled but left whole

3 sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into wedges

2 bay leaves

5 sprigs of thyme

12 Medjool dates, pitted

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rice or couscous, to serve

½ cup toasted sliced almonds, to garnish

 

FOR THE SAUCE:

1/3 cup liquid honey

1/3 cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

¾-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1¼ cups red wine

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the chicken, skin-side up, on a baking pan and arrange the shallots and sweet potato wedges around the chicken.

Mix all the ingredients for the sauce together and pour evenly over the chicken and vegetables, ensuring that everything is well covered. Season generously with salt and black pepper, then tuck in the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Cover the pan with foil and roast for 30 minutes.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees, and remove the foil. Add the dates and give all the ingredients around the chicken a good stir in the sauce, then cook, uncovered, for a further 30 minutes until the chicken is nicely golden and everything has slightly caramelized.

Serve the chicken over a bowl of rice or couscous with lots of the sauce, scattered with the sliced almonds to garnish.