Nathan is a master at tracking down the keepers of family culinary traditions, like the great-granddaughter of an Alsatian settler in a small town in Arkansas who taught her to make a snail-shaped pastry called schnecken. Whether through serendipity or advance planning, Nathan manages to get invited into kitchens both lavish and modest all over the world. Ever curious, she elicits stories of migration, recipes in all their nuance and invitations to return.
Every recipe in Nathan’s latest masterful cookbook, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Knopf), has a back story. She writes of visiting El Salvador, where the Jews drive to Guatemala to pick up their orders of kosher meat and other ingredients. The country has one synagogue, and when she went to a potluck dinner there, the sisterhood president brought latkes made of yuca, a local root vegetable.
There’s a joyousness in her writing and an approach that’s infectious, a sense that the reader too could wander into an Indian home in Kerala and learn to make Idli, steamed rice dumplings. Nathan understands that food is about more than food and appreciates the great pleasure in breaking bread — better yet, kubbanah, Yemenite overnight breakfast bread — with others.
The vegetables have stories, too, like a recipe for “Slow-Cooked Silky Spinach and Chickpeas” from Athens, which used to be cooked in a communal oven overnight — the recipe has been around for 2,000 years. Her recipe for a “Bulgarian Eggplant and Cheese Pashtida,” with origins in Spain, comes from the cleaning woman of a friend of a man she met at a party in Jaffa.
Nathan grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and then Providence, R.I. She says that her mother did little cooking until Joan was about 18; their family meals were made by a cook, and she remembers some great southern dishes. Her father loved good food and food adventures. One of the first times she realized that different people eat different foods was when she was about 13 and living in Larchmont, where there weren’t many Jews, and her family brought bagels from the Bronx to a neighbor they suspected might also be Jewish.
Later on, when working in Jerusalem as Mayor Teddy Kollek’s foreign press attache, Nathan began to learn and take great interest in the different foodways of Jews from different communities. She wrote her first book, The Flavors of Israel, there.
Returning to the U.S., she worked for New York City Mayors John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, and in 1974 she co-founded the Ninth Avenue Food Festival. That first year, with practically no budget, the festival attracted a crowd of about 150,000 people who turned up to stroll and taste local foods — at the time, there were many family-owned bakeries and shops on the far West Side.
Since then she has written 10 additional cookbooks, including Jewish Cooking in America and The New American Cooking — both of which won James Beard Awards — and, most recently, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. She hosted a PBS television series based on Jewish Cooking in America. Now 74, Nathan lives in Washington, D.C., and on Martha’s Vineyard. She and her husband, Allan Gerson, have three grown children.
Her research for this book of more than 170 recipes took her beyond kitchens into some great libraries around the world. At Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, she held the earliest known “cookbooks” — clay tablets with 44 recipes inscribed, from about 1700 B.C.E. In England, she visited the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University to look into food-related ancient documents, and she found letters about the ancient spice trade along with some very early versions of shopping lists.
What has kept Jewish cooking vibrant over the centuries is the fact that as Jews have moved from place to place, they have both been influenced by and have influenced the food cultures around them — incorporating local ingredients and flavors and passing along their own — to varying degrees, always with attention to the distinctions of kashrut, and the traditions of the holidays.
She also studied archaeological findings and biblical texts for their references to food of the times, when bread, wine and olive oil were, as now, diet mainstays. King Solomon’s wives, who came from many lands, would have brought pomegranates, dates, olives and other foods, along with varied methods of preparation.
“Our mythology of Solomon and his reign overflows with a table full of food from the then-known world,” Nathan writes in the book’s introduction, which provides a brief history of Jewish cuisine and its evolution.
When people talk about food, they are often remembering foods they loved; in fact, the taste of food (along with texture and smell) is closely linked to memory. But, says Nathan, memory and notions of authenticity can be deceiving. Pointing to a single delicious chocolate rugelach we are sharing at a Manhattan cafe, she says, “This rugelach is probably better than what our grandmothers might have made. We now have better quality ingredients, better chocolate, better techniques.”
And food looks better these days. “Traditional Eastern European cooks didn’t have much money and they made food with great care, but the food wasn’t pretty. Now, we’ve changed so much. You eat first with your eyes. There are so many colors available.”
When I ask if there’s a spiritual side of food, she says, “I love doing Shabbat dinner. I’m not particularly religious, but I like to bring all these recipes to the table and have people talk. What I like about Shabbat gatherings at our house is that you forget about the time and just relax.”
Among the recipes included in King Solomon’s Table are, for post-Passover, a “Multi-Seeded Fennel-Flavored Challah”; “Delkelekh, Cheese Danish” pastries (great for Shavuot); and “Libyan Saefra, King Solomon’s Cake,” a dairy-free Sabbath cake infused with dates, cardamom, cloves and orange juice.
And there’s “Gondi Kashi, Rice with Turkey, Beets, Fava Beans and Herbs,” a recipe shared by an Iranian Jewish woman, Violet Sassoni, who moved to Los Angeles in 1979 — the dish had been described to Nathan by Sassoni’s daughter, a food blogger, as a dish “unlike any other.” The Sassoni family traces its links to Persia to about the 15th century, when many Jews moved there from Spain. This spring dish might have been made for Passover by those who eat kitniot, or legumes, during the holiday. When it’s perfectly cooked, each grain of rice is separate, capturing the flavor of the meat and herbs.
“Noshe jan,” Nathan’s host said, as she served the dish. “May your soul enjoy it.” ♦
Sandee Brawarsky Special to the Jewish News
HOMEMADE HERBED LABNEH WITH BEETS AND PUY LENTIL SALAD BOWL
Shana Boltin — an occupational therapist from Australia and a pickler and volunteer for Gefiltefest, London’s annual Jewish food fair — prepared this salad for MedVeg, the kosher vegetarian pop-up restaurant she runs with an American friend.
You can buy labneh from Middle Eastern markets, but it is so easy to make yourself from yogurt, as long as you allow an extra 24 hours — the process is described below. Make this salad in steps and make it your own by varying the dish seasonally and to your own taste. Here is my take on Shana’s unique and tasty recipe. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
2 cups plain yogurt
½ tsp. salt
1 clove garlic, grated on a Microplane
1 Tbsp. za’atar, oregano or other herbs (see note), or crushed chili
1 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Beet and Puy Lentil Salad Bowl:
2 large orange and red beets, trimmed but with a little stem left on
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup rolled oats (not instant)
½ cup dried French lentils, preferably Puy
½ cup green fresh or frozen peas, thawed if frozen
¼ cup chopped walnuts
Handful of arugula
6 to 8 herbed labneh balls
To make the labneh: Put the yogurt of your choice in a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a medium bowl in the refrigerator overnight. The whey will drip out of the yogurt, leaving a thick, creamy labneh. Discard the whey and scrape the labneh into a bowl. Then add the salt and garlic and mix well with a spoon.
Put the spices or herb combination that you choose in a small bowl. Wet your palms and roll about 2 Tbsp. of the labneh into a very soft ball. Gently roll the ball in your spice or herb mix.
Pour a little olive oil into a pint-size (or so) glass Mason jar. Put each ball in the jar, then pour in oil just to cover. Don’t worry about wasting the leftover oil — it makes a great salad dressing.
To make the salad: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub the beets with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and wrap individually in foil. Bake on a pan about 1 hour, until tender but not completely soft when punctured with a fork. Let the beets cool, then peel. Using a sharp knife, slice the beets very thinly.
Spread the oats on the pan and put them in the oven for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the lentils in a medium pot with water to cover and boil for about 30 minutes, until cooked but not mushy. Strain and set aside.
Scatter the lentils, oats, peas, walnuts and arugula in a serving bowl. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and a drizzle of the oil from the labneh balls, then dot some of the labneh balls over all, reserving any leftovers for a later use. Arrange the beet slices around the edge of the bowl and serve.
Note: Play around with this dish, adapting it to the seasons. In the summer, I like to substitute tomatoes for the beets and use a combination of fresh herbs from my garden with the labneh. If you don’t want to make your own labneh, you can buy it or substitute crumbled feta or any other cheese with this dish.
ROMAN RICOTTA CHEESE CROSTATA WITH CHERRIES OR CHOCOLATE
From De re Coquinaria (Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome), compiled by Roman gourmet Apicius in the first century c.e.: ‘Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well to incorporate thoroughly, strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve.’
When in Rome, do as the Romans do: Head straight to the tiny nondescript Pasticceria Boccione (also known as the “Burnt Bakery” or the “Jewish bakery”) in the ghetto ebraico (Jewish Ghetto) near the Tiber. There, four sisters make the same slightly burnt baked goods until they run out each day. Whether composed of tourists or locals, there is always a line outside.
One of the popular staples is a rich ricotta cake wrapped in a crostata crust, called Cassola, a Christmas must in Rome. According to Clifford Wright, the Jews of Rome learned to make whey cheese in Sicily and brought the technique with them to Rome.
I have added a delicious Italian crostata that I learned from an Italian Jew in place of the heavier crust that Boccione uses. I love the hint of cinnamon with sour cherry jam made from Amaro cherries — or any jam that has a slightly sweet, slightly sour flavor — mixed with the rich ricotta cheese. You can also use chunks of chocolate in place of the jam. Yield: about 12 servings.
½ cup sugar
12 Tbsp. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2½ cups whole milk ricotta
4 large eggs, separated
¾ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. vanilla
½ to 1 tsp. cinnamon
½ cup fresh, frozen, or dried cherries (defrosted and drained if using frozen)
½ cup dark chocolate broken into small pieces or chocolate chips
½ cup sour cherry preserves
For the crust: Put the sugar, butter, egg yolks, flour and salt in a large bowl and either rub everything together with your fingers, or quickly pulse the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade until the dough forms a ball. Either way, do not overwork the dough. Cover in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for a half hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, place the rack in the top third of the oven and grease a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough into a 13-inch diameter quasi-circle. Fold the dough gently and press into the pan. Trim and flatten the edges with a knife. You want this to be quite rustic. Prick with a fork and bake for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven and set aside.
To make the filling: Stir together the ricotta, egg yolks, sugar, flour, lemon zest, vanilla and cinnamon with a spoon in a medium mixing bowl.
In the bowl of a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until almost stiff peaks form and fold gently into the ricotta mixture with all the cherries and/or the chocolate.
Spread the cherry preserves over the entire crust, then spoon on the ricotta mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Bake in the top third of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the center is set and golden brown; or do as the Romans do, and let it get slightly burnt on the top.
Note: I like mixing the chocolate and the cherries, but if you prefer, use just one or the other.
Recipes excerpted from King Solomon’s Table by Joan Nathan. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.