Cookbook author seasons friendships with fun food

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Cookbook author Marlene Sorosky was on a remote military post with her husband in the south of France when she decided to throw a dinner party for the local commanding officers.

The 21-year-old had never cooked much while growing up in Los Angeles, so she wrote home to her German Jewish mother for recipes and ended up preparing a feast of chicken soup, brisket, kreplach, stuffed cabbage and strudel.

Though Sorosky and her husband were the only Jews on base, her traditional fare was a hit and she got a reputation as a talented cook.

"I still don't know how I did it. I mean, what the heck is soup meat? I was too naive to know I didn't know what I was doing," she recalls.

Over 1 million copies and six books later, Sorosky, now 55, knows what she's doing. For one thing, she doesn't spend two weeks in the kitchen preparing for a single meal, as she did for that first dinner party in France. These days, Sorosky tries out "every shortcut under the sun" so that the social aspect of a meal can outweigh the manual labor. After all, she says, "food's going to be eaten."

In the Danville author's new book, "Entertaining on the Run: Easy Menus for Faster Lives" — which recently won a James Beard Award — Sorosky combines menus with ideas for creative entertaining.

But keep the good china in the cabinet.

While her suggestions are elegant, fun, innovative and fast, they are rarely formal. The idea is to use food as merely an appetizer; the main course, she says, is always the companionship. Whether you try her baked, strawberry-stuffed French toast for weekend guests or her crisp Chinese salad with kiwi vinaigrette for a patio party, Sorosky hopes her quick cooking and entertaining tips will take the hysteria out of hosting.

"It's more important now than ever to get together with friends because we're all so rushed," she says.

If a heart-shaped plate of polenta can make for a romantic dinner à deux, then, Sorosky says, get cooking. If invitations written on plastic footballs will get pals over to watch the game, get writing. And if charoset with oranges, pears and dried cranberries can wake up Uncle Marvin at this year's seder, get chopping.

The author, who grew up in a strictly kosher Orthodox home, included Passover and Chanukah suggestions in several of her previous books. Now, however, after years as a food columnist for several Jewish newspapers and as a Jewish food writer for magazines including Gourmet and Bon Appetit, she is currently writing her first entirely Jewish cookbook.

The new work, "Entertaining on the Run for the Jewish Holidays," is scheduled to come out before Passover 1997. While she travels around the country leading cooking seminars — often to raise money for charities such as the United Jewish Welfare Fund and Hadassah — Sorosky continues to experiment with the kosher recipes of her childhood. She's turning old recipes on their heads — with results like her light, upside-down fruit kugel.

So far, her favorite Jewish creations include stuffed brisket, gefilte-fish mousse, lemon bars and a rhubarb-and-strawberry crisp with a matzah-meal-and-coconut macaroon topping.

Her Passover desserts may be a little different, she admits, but they are no more difficult than the usual holiday sponge cake or bone-dry brownies.

"I want to incorporate fun. And I'm finding it's so exciting to look for ways to do that. I just love it. I don't think I've ever been as excited about any of my other books," she says.

The author's enthusiasm about cooking and entertaining leaps off the pages of "Entertaining on the Run." Even someone with the speed dial set for Domino's Pizza might be tempted to dust off the spatulas and throw a grilled paella party, sending out invitations in padded envelopes filled with tiny seashells. The author not only spices each recipe with similar suggestions for invitations and ambiance, but also pares down cooking instructions whenever possible.

In fact, it was Sorosky's ability to instruct students that first attracted book publishers.

About 25 years ago, the mother of four was conducting cooking demonstrations at her home to raise money for the PTA. She ran a full-fledged cooking school in her house before opening a school and cookware shop in the San Fernando Valley. Finally, her work was noticed not only by local housewives but also by major book publishers.

Now Sorosky is becoming a leading author on entertaining. This year marks the second time she has snatched the prestigious James Beard Award from the potpourri-clutching hands of homemaker extraordinaire Martha Stewart.