Award winning cookbook author Joan Nathan will be in Scottsdale on Friday, November 12 to participate in Culture, Comedy and Cuisine at The Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center.
The event, a Jewish book and cultural arts affair taking place November 3-14, showcases authors like Nathan, whose life work and food from her newest cookbook will be featured at a luncheon.
Nathan introduces us to the idea that there’s more to Jewish food than chicken soup and potato latkes in her latest cookbook Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, $39.95).
The Jewish food I grew up with, like chicken soup and potato latkes, was seasoned with salt and pepper, garlic powder and paprika. There were occasional dashes of celery salt and onion powder as well as fresh herbs like parsley and dill. Onions and celery cooked in chicken fat added depth of flavor to our meals, but that was the extent of my mother’s repertoire of flavorings for our typical American New York Jewish meals.
My mother’s dishes were a reflection of my family’s origins (Eastern Europe) and the influences of cooking in New York during the middle of the last century. I never knew there was any other kind of “Jewish” food until I started to travel.
Nathan knows a lot about the kind of Jewish food I grew up with because she’s written Jewish Cooking in America, highlighting those dishes. But Nathan also knows there’s a lot more to Jewish cooking than salt, pepper paprika and chicken soup.
Nathan has been intrigued with Jewish cooking in France since she spent her junior year studying at the Sorbonne way back in the 1960s. During that trip, Joan spent time visiting and eating with French Jews, learning about the diversity and somewhat exotic French Jewish cuisine.
Unlike other cookbooks, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous is a historical narrative as well as a recipe reference.
This is actually a cookbook you can sit down to read. Nathan has not only spent a lot of time eating with Jews in France but she’s also done her homework by researching the history of the Jews in France.
According to Nathan, France and the Jews share a long history, dating back to 39 C.E. and probably before.
“The cooking of the Jews of France is inextricably linked to their complex history. It was reflected in their origins. Jews have come in waves from Spain and Portugal, the Balkans, eastern Europe, North Africa, and initially from ancient Palestine, bringing their cooking practices with them.”
I asked Nathan if she thought the recipes in Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous were French Jewish or Jewish French. She was hesitant at first to make a declaration but decided the recipes were French Jewish.
You’ll recognize many of the dishes as typically French: there are quiches, fricassees and tians. Some have been tweaked to adhere to dietary laws while others reflect the influence of the origin of the immigrant to France.
There are many fascinating sections but one particularly enlightening story is about the link of French Jews to the production of foie gras, an ingredient regarded as quintessentially French.
According to Nathan’s research, the Jews helped develop the technique used to fatten up the ducks and geese in France.
“Rather than trying to produce a delicacy, the Jews wanted to force-feed the geese to produce extra cooking fat, since dietary prohibitions excluded the use of lard.”
Whatever the reason, the end result is both cooking fat and luscious foie gras.
The essence of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous, is best stated in the following quote from the book:
“Wherever I visit Jewish homes in different countries, the tables may be set differently and the accents of the Hebrew prayers may vary but the spirit of the meal is fundamentally the same.”
According to Nathan, Jewish food has no boundaries. Jewish food is more easily defined by the dietary laws than by geographic boundaries.
Nathan’s recipes in Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous show the complex nature of how place and time affect culture and identity.
And, yes, chicken soup is indeed a prototypical Jewish dish except that it might be flavored with ginger by Jews living in China or saffron or in the Mediterranean or jalapenos in Mexico or shallots and leeks in France.
As I flipped through the book, reading the historical references and notes before each recipe, Salade Juive (Moroccan Confit of Tomatoes and Peppers with Coriander) kept catching my eye, both because the photo along side is enticing and because the ingredient list includes some of my favorite flavors: cumin, cilantro, coriander.
From Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan
Yield: 8 Servings, or about 4 cups
4 pounds bell peppers, red, green, or yellow (8 to 10, depending on size)
One 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, drained, or 2 pounds ripe red tomatoes (7 to 8, depending on size)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Put peppers on a hot grill, turning them as they get charred, roast them over a gas grill using a prong to turn them, or put them in a 450-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the peppers to a plastic bag and seal it. When they are cool, peel them, and remove the seeds and stems.
If using fresh tomatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water for a minute or two, remove with a slotted spoon, and cool in a bowl of ice water. When cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the skin.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Roughly chop the tomatoes and peppers, and add them with the wine, coriander seeds, cumin, salt to taste, tomato paste , and chives to the frying pan. Cook slowly uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir in the cayenne pepper and the lemon juice, and sprinkle with the fresh cilantro. Serve as a salad or an appetizer.
The Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center
Joan Nathan Luncheon
Friday, November 12
Visit http://vosjcc.org for details or call 480-483-7121
Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $39.95, Amazon: $26.37)