Released in time for Chanukah by Menucha Publishers, the cookbook is a stunning anthology of recipes and a tribute to her childhood growing up in the vibrant Sephardic Jewish community of Panama City, Panama.
William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra during the bubonic plague of 1605. During the current pandemic, Oak Park mother of three, Vera Newman, 28, wrote, styled and photographed The Marblespoon Cookbook.
Released in time for Chanukah by Menucha Publishers, it is a stunning anthology of recipes and a tribute to her childhood growing up in the vibrant Sephardic Jewish community of Panama City, Panama. It also contains an eclectic mix of dishes inspired by cuisines around the world.
Though all the recipes in Marblespoon follow the laws of kashrut, it is not labeled as kosher or Jewish cuisine and can comfortably find a spot within anyone’s culinary book collection.
“This is not a traditional Jewish cookbook,” Newman said. “You will not find your bubbie’s gifelte fish or traditional chicken soup recipe in here. But what you will find is how to make salmon avocado burgers or a sofrito, which is spicy chicken soup built with a flavorful broth base of corn cobs and sauteed herbs and garlic.”
Born in Panama to Panamanian and Israeli parents, Newman was raised in a Sephardic family where she was exposed to cuisines with roots in Central America, Morocco and Israel. She was born to a family of engineers; one of her grandfathers was the founding dean of the Technological University of Panama. Newman married her husband, native Detroiter Jacob Newman in 2012, and they have lived in Oak Park ever since.
Since her teens, Newman’s family and friends looked to her as the meal planner, putting her in charge of making the grocery lists and selecting ambitious recipes to prepare for weekends away at the beach or large family gatherings for Shabbat or holidays.
Though she said her recipes were not shaped by the pandemic, she pairs essential pantry staples with fresh ingredients to create “unpretentious and family-friendly” meals. Between the recipes are tips on how to purchase the perfect plantain, build a meat or cheese charcuterie or arrange flowers for a centerpiece.
Favorite family recipes in the cookbook include her mother’s walnut wine chicken, meat empanadas that are a popular Panamanian street food, and dulce de leche cookies for dessert.
Newman dedicated Marblespoon to her grandmother, an artist who created carved platters, such as the wood challah board photographed at the end of the book. Her other grandmother, who died two years ago, was a great cook.
Newman is an ambitious self-taught cook, photographer, and marketer. To produce the cookbook, Newman set out some goals beginning in the fall of 2019, all with the hopes of finishing the book and getting it to her publisher by last August. She prepared two dishes each day (except Shabbat) from recipes that she typed into a publishing software program.
Then, with props and purchased backdrops, she styled them for the camera so flavors and somehow even aromas popped out of the photographs she took herself with the help of a few classes, a good camera and a sturdy tripod propped up in her kitchen.
Then, so nothing went to waste, she would serve whatever she cooked that night to her family. Her progress was well underway right up to last February. Then the pandemic hit.
Cooking did become a challenge in those first weeks in March, when fears of a lockdown emptied grocery and produce shelves.
“There were some anxiety-inducing trips to the market, like a 45-minute outing to Trader Joe’s just so I had fresh herbs on hand,” said Newman, who wrote the book all while caring for her three children, ages 6, 5 and 2. “But it’s those fresh ingredients that are the key to what makes a dish special.”
Best of all, Newman shares her menu planning talents by including ideas for Shabbat, holidays and other special occasions between each chapter.
“The flavors that make up a meal must make sense,” said Newman. “There have to be complementary textures and flavors that range from sweet, savory, acidic and don’t forget something bland to round it all out.”
Newman planned to go on a multi-country book tour following Marblespoon’s release this month. She still may go to New York City for some small, socially distanced book signings come early 2021.
As an alternate celebration of her publication, she is planning to stage cooking demonstration events over Zoom in English and Spanish to her 11,150 Instagram followers and will have a small, COVID-safe book release party in Royal Oak with a few close friends once the first boxes of the complete book arrive from the publisher.
Correction (12/15/20): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Newman’s Instagram followers and incorrectly identified the location of her upcoming book release party. The roles of her two grandmothers have also been clarified.