The Complete Guide to Jewish Food, and What on Earth That Means

Deena Shanker wrote . . . . . . .

All too often, and to the dismay of everyone who knows better, Jewish food gets boiled down to bagels, matzo balls, and brisket.

These are staples, to be sure, but they all hail from the same part of the world—Eastern Europe—while Jews have, at one point or another, populated almost every corner of the earth. Thanks to their historic roles as both merchants and, often, refugees, Jewish cuisine encompasses flavors from Tunisia to Toronto, India to Israel, Babylonia to Brooklyn.

Joan Nathan, a two-time James Beard Award winner and the author of 11 cookbooks, is already well known in Jewish kitchens.

But her latest book, King Solomon’s Table, out today, is a crowning achievement. Six years in the making, it is filled with recipes from all over the globe, the stories behind them, and the histories of both how Jews influenced the local cultures they were part of and how those cultures left indelible marks on Jewish cuisine. Nathan tracked the legends of the biblical King Solomon and his global trading empire to create a cookbook with recipes for all occasions and for people of any religion, though the ancient Jewish dietary laws create a common, mostly unspoken thread throughout the book.

Nathan spoke with Bloomberg about Jewish history, culture through cuisine, and how much stands to be lost with the loss of every immigrant. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for clarity and space.

Many of the recipes in King Solomon’s Table are quintessentially Jewish—the chopped liver, the fried artichoke. Others seem more of a place than of a culture, like the leafy green salad with vinaigrette or the Minestra di Fagioli. What makes a food Jewish and not just a food that Jews happen to eat?

Jewish food is wandering food, but the essential quality is the allegiance, at least in the back of your mind, to the dietary laws. Also, Jews have always been merchants, since the time of King Solomon, when they went out to the then known world looking for gems, spices. They were looking for whatever was new. Even today, we are obsessed by food. The third quality is that we’ve been kicked out of so many countries, which is so relevant today, and that we’ve had to adapt to the regionality of other countries, but always with the dietary laws in mind.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were at the Russian Embassy for a dinner, and it was very Russian. One of the dishes was a really good hard-boiled egg with scallions and chives, and as we left the Embassy my husband said to me, “That was Jewish food.” And I said, “No, Eastern European Jewish food is Russian food. It’s what the Russians ate.”

This cookbook is a reminder that the Jewish story is an immigrant story. I can’t imagine that when you wrote this book you knew what would be going on in the world when it came out.

No, I absolutely didn’t. I started out thinking I’d write something on modern Jewish food, but I didn’t realize the complexity that I was going to find. So I probably spent six months working on the introduction [tracing the Jews’ history through biblical Israel to Babylon, Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, North America, and modern Israel]. I’m so pleased people are reacting to that, because to me it really pulls the book together and shows what Jewish food is.

I think [the anti-immigrant fervor] is so ill-advised. For one thing, it’s because of immigrants we’ve got all these new foods. But also, everyone in America is an immigrant, unless you’re Native American. Everybody. And so I think it will create a Dark Age of cuisine, if nothing else.

One theme of the book is fleeing. Jews are often on the run, from the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany. It’s well timed for Passover, another story of Jews on the run. Did Jews save Jewish foods, or did Jewish food save the Jews?

That’s a good one. I think this is a comfort that Jews have gotten. My mother just died, she was 103, and you know I miss her a lot, and going to synagogue and listening to the prayers, and also the music and the foods, were really comforting to me. And I realized, throughout history when people were trying to persecute the Jews, the Jews got stronger. Instead of escaping their religion the way a lot of people did, they got strength from their religion.

Today, in a world where everybody is trying to become homogenized, a sweet-and-sour cabbage that was served year after year makes you who you are, in a sense. And the stories around food also make us who we are. Eating together is a comfort, and I think that’s so important, and that we need it desperately. So, it’s both.

With talk of apocalyptic bunkers and the Doomsday Clock, any life lessons for your readers, from someone who has traced the history of a people that have seen many, many historic upheavals and survived to tell the tale?

We’re just passing through a phase, I hope.

The book is mostly classics, but it includes a few modern reinterpretations, like savory hamentaschen. Is there a tension between maintaining the authenticity of a revered classic and revitalizing it?

I think that sometimes revitalizing is a little dumb, because a good recipe is a good recipe. The savory hamentaschen was such an unusual recipe, I saw in Joy of Kosher. I thought it was really kind of cool. But other than that I had just good, traditional recipes.

I’ll give you a quick example. When I was working on this book, I heard about this dish, blueberry buns shtritzlach. It’s an iconic Jewish recipe in Toronto. I found an old recipe for it and I thought this is OK, it’s not great. Then I had to ask, would I put it in the book? And this young woman who sometimes stays at our house [Sarah Weiner, executive director of the Good Food Awards] walked in when I was testing the recipe and said, “That looks just like my grandma’s shtritzlach.” And I had never heard of it in my life, and she said, “But hers is better.”

So we made hers, but I realized it still needed a little more butter to make it really good, so I changed the recipe slightly and it was delicious. Authentic it might not be, but it was very close to it. And that to me is really important.

The best part is that the two recipes I had for this came from women who lived in towns 30 miles apart in Poland. And I realized they both had religious families and left before World War II. When the Germans came in, the Jews, because of their clothes, were very visible and were wiped out immediately. I’ve often thought about wiped-out recipes.

There are a lot of Passover recipes in this cookbook, both for the Seder and for the rest of the week. A lot of people think of Passover food and groan. By including these recipes in a year-round cookbook, are you suggesting we eat Passover food year-round?

For me, Passover [whose rules forbid leavened bread] is a time of year—talk about your origins—when you can try to go back before processed foods of the ’50s and look at some of these old recipes and have fun with them. A flourless chocolate cake is good all year round—it wasn’t something made for Passover. Same with the Persian cardamom cake and the hard-boiled eggs with spinach.

Shortly before my mother died, I came to visit her, and I brought with me my new book. And it’s heavy. I’d thought, should I bring it, should I not bring it? So I brought it. My mother looked at the book, she was so excited. She went through the book and said, “I love your book, it’s just amazing, and I hope you get some real attention from it.” And then she said, “And you started with my mother’s egg recipe with spinach.”

And I said, “What?’”

And she said, and this is a 103-year-old mind, “Yes, you’ve got my mother’s spinach recipe.”

She didn’t have a great relationship with her mother, or she felt she didn’t, and she was trying to make up for it in later years, and she said, “Yes, it’s her recipe.”

She was saying it was a way for me to remember her mother. She didn’t know she was going to die the next day. And now I have to find that recipe.

And what is Passover? It’s memory.

Source: Bloomberg


Opinion: The Vegetable Cookbook You Need

Paula Forbes wrote . . . . . .

Six Seasons is the first cookbook I’ve trusted in a long time.

As a cookbook reviewer, I am required to be suspicious of every new book I crack open, in order to figure out what traps it has set for the unsuspecting home cook. What shortcuts did the author take? What assumptions did he or she make? I want to be able to hold up the book to you and say: This book is watertight. Buy it with your hard earned money; trust it with your groceries.

But in order to say that with authority, I must hunt for the leaks. Cookbooks almost always have leaks. Sometimes it’s obvious at a glance that a book’s basically a sieve; other times hairline fractures take time to discover. My shelves are filled with cookbooks that have a fabulous premise and recipes that just don’t work. Books from beloved restaurants that feel hollow in print. Gorgeous books that either under- or over-estimate their readers, becoming pretty doorstops in the process. Books that are great, but…

Portland chef Joshua McFadden and his co-author Martha Holmberg have produced a great book. Period. No except. It’s a book to lean on, to cozy up to. It’s a fever dream of what tomatoes tasted like when you were a little kid. It’s your grandmother’s advice on dealing with a bumper crop of zucchini, if your grandmother cooked at the hippest Portland restaurants.

Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables is the latest in a recent batch of cookbooks (Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork, Steven Satterfield’s Root to Leaf) that aim to help readers cook seasonally. Its title refers to the idea that, as far as vegetables are concerned, the concept of four seasons doesn’t really cut it. McFadden instead splits the year into six: Spring, Early Summer, Midsummer, Late Summer, Fall, and Winter. This allows him more nuance with his recipes, which pair same-season produce with punchy, often Italian ingredients like olives, salami, citrus, cheeses, and fresh herbs.

And it passed every test I could throw at it. McFadden’s goal here is “to encourage and energize cooks of all skill levels…in your efforts at seasonal and local eating.” It’s a noble and lofty aim, but Six Seasons accomplishes this in part by providing a monstrous volume of recipes: 225, by the publisher’s count. Imagine going to the farmers’ market—as seasonal, local cookbooks cajole you to do—and returning home with snap peas. On one hand, we have a cookbook that has one recipe for snap peas; on the other, Six Seasons has three, plus advice for preparing them simply. Which one will you reach for again, when you return home with broccolini, or collards, or perfect, tiny sweet potatoes?

Another goal the book achieves is addressing “cooks of all skill levels.” Never before have I seen so many fascinating, delicious, easy recipes in one book. “I hate chef books that presume home cooks have the time, money, and skills—and desire—to replicate restaurant-style recipes,” McFadden writes. “Not to mention the dishwashing staff!”

I promise you, beginner cooks, there are dozens of recipes in Six Seasons that are well within your grasp, and they result in sophisticated, modern, fun dishes. McFadden’s great talent is his ability to combine unexpected ingredients (turnips and radicchio and prunes, fennel and Tallegio, snap peas and pickled cherries, collards and hazelnuts and grapes), which means he can do so in simple preparations as well as complex ones. In other words, Six Seasons and its delicious good ideas are accessible to most. And, in a world full of chef cookbooks that view simplification as condescension, I’m grateful for it.

McFadden’s local and seasonal is not my local and seasonal—living in Texas, no cookbook’s is—but it’s not a deterrent as it so often is. Instead, the difference in geography opened the entire book to me at once. I found snap peas for a snap peas with pickled cherries and peanuts salad in the spring section, turnips for the turnips with prunes and radicchio in the early summer section, and the kale for McFadden’s famous “Kale Salad That Started it All” from the winter section. Again, this is where the sheer number of recipes came in handy: I was able to find recipes that fit the unique growing season of Central Texas because I had enough options to choose from.

I could not stop testing recipes from this book. There were just too many delicious options: grilled radishes with dates and sharp cheddar; a celery salad with sausage and provolone, beet slaw with pistachios and a Thai-ish peanut sauce. Everything is enlivened with spice and acid and a slug of good olive oil; every page I flipped to was something new, something I suddenly, desperately wanted to try. Try them I did, and with great success. I didn’t want testing to end.

My frenzy of testing taught me that I could rely on Six Seasons and its bounty of vegetable knowledge. In fact, it’s about as close to a perfect cookbook as I have seen. What McFadden and Holmberg have achieved is no small feat: This is a book that will educate nearly everyone who picks it up, a book beginner and seasoned cooks alike will reach for repeatedly. It’s the rare book that achieves what it sets out to do, and manages to do so in a manner that is both appetizing and engaging. It is accessible without sacrificing its artistry.

Six Seasons is solid. It does not leak.

Source: Lucky Peach

‘The Dorito Effect’ – The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavour

A few years ago I sat with a friend and looked at a menu, and we wondered why everything seemed to be flavored like a taco. Or Caesar salad or maple syrup. I couldn’t quite say what about it bothered me, but I held a conviction that something was wrong in a thing — a Mexican snack, salad dressing, tree sap — being turned into a flavor.

I remained wary without knowing why. In “The Dorito Effect” an illuminating and sometimes radical book, Mark Schatzker shores up my unease with good evidence.

Over the last 70 years, American animal and plant breeding has focused on yield, pest resistance and appearance — not flavor. The pleasure of an ingredient’s taste did not seem to have practical value. Schatzker cites the national Chicken of Tomorrow contest sponsored in the late 1940s by the grocery chain A.&P. Chickens were bred and judged for uniformity of size, volume of breast, hatchability and feed efficiency. Their taste was not considered. Supermarket chicken since — at the cost of flavorful meat — has been big and able to get that way very fast: According to a gruesome statistic from a 2013 article in Poultry Science, if humans grew as quickly as the Chicken of Today, “a three-kilogram (6.6-pound) newborn baby would weigh 300 kilograms (660 pounds) after two months.”

The story has been repeated with tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, wheat, corn and more: all bred for size, speed of growth, pest resistance, shelf life, appearance — not taste. The pleasure of eating seemed superfluous. As Schatzker puts it, “Hedonism, as any puritan can tell you, never leads to virtue.”

Except that in pursuit of flavor, it does. “In nature,” Schatzker writes, “flavor never appears without nutrition.” Flavor means nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids have flavor. Phenylethanol, a chemical compound humans love and often describe as a “rose note” in tomatoes, is made by an essential amino acid, which its presence signifies. Flavor’s purpose is to help us become like ingestive homing pigeons. Our bodies learn to draw connections between flavors and the physiological responses they signal. Through this post-ingestive feedback, latent intelligence in our digestive systems is animated. We can seek out and find what we need, nutritionally, and stop eating once we get it.

A perfect case is illustrated in an old study, begun in 1926, conducted by a Chicago pediatrician named Clara Davis. She foster-parented 15 babies “who’d never been exposed to ‘the ordinary foods of adult life’ ” and for six years let them eat whatever they wanted, in any order, from a list of 34 foods including “water, potatoes, corn meal, barley, beef, lamb, bone jelly, carrots, turnips, haddock, peaches, apples, fish, orange juice, bananas, brains, milk and cabbage.” They chose balanced diets — sometimes strange ones: One child ate liver and drank a pint of orange juice for breakfast. Their preferences changed often. Another child, who had started off with rickets, was early on given a glass of cod liver oil as medicine. Over the course of his illness, never encouraged, he drank it “ ‘irregularly and in varying amounts’ of his own free will until he was better,” Schatzker writes. This unconscious wisdom has been subsequently studied in goats and calves, showing ­repeatedly that if the body can make nutritional connections via physical feedback from flavor, it will be a good nutritionist.

But for the body to develop credible associations — including feeling satiated — between dark greens and iron, or eggs from free-ranging chickens and carotenoids, or tomatoes and phenylethanol, it needs to be communicated with honestly. Otherwise it can’t learn. “All over ­nature, animals . . . limit their meal size not ­because they’re stuffed and couldn’t possibly eat another bite, but because they’ve hit a secondary compound wall,” i.e. met nutritional needs beyond calories. Synthetic-flavor technology makes bland ingredients attractive without supplying the myriad benefits of the real thing. The twin forces of flavor dilution and fake flavor have short-circuited the biological basis for mutable appetite.

One particularly wonderful thing about Schatzker’s thesis is that if flavor is the voice in which the nutritional benefits of the natural world call out to us, then the impulse to eat taco-flavored Doritos, Caesar wraps and maple-flavored ribs is not the opposite of but rather akin to impulses toward $6-a-pound heritage-breed chicken, or dandelion greens. They are both, as Schatzker puts it, “unconscious strategies against dilution.” Access, not moral fiber, is the difference between one person’s search for flavor and another’s.

Aside from changing the status of flavor — from frill to nutritional essential — the most radical thing about “The Dorito Effect” is that Schatzker doesn’t suggest returning to agriculture of simpler days. His solution is technological. He suggests turning to what started the mess in the first place: breeding. The trade-offs of flavor for pest resistance, for example, weren’t inevitable. Schatzker writes of five successful contemporary breeding experiments — of chicken, tomatoes, potatoes, cacao beans and lettuce — that keep a focus on factors like yield and shelf life, while adding flavor to the list of priorities. It’s doable; it just needs to be done.

The book has two real flaws. The first is the weak climax of Schatzker making a meal of naturally flavorful ingredients. I find it impossible to drum up excitement for these meal scenes, fixtures in food journalism. The confirmation bias of the writer makes them valueless. They’re tautologies. If the meal fails, the argument doesn’t hold and the book isn’t published. Besides, the project is undertaken every day, successfully, in plenty of restaurants that have built their reputations and filled their dining rooms by serving meals that don’t include genetically diluted ingredients. There are plenty of home cooks doing it too.

There is also the strange omission of one American chef who not only serves full-flavored foods from heirloom seeds, but publicly works with breeders to do exactly what Schatzker recommends. Dan Barber has collaborated with Michael Mazourek at Cornell and Steve Jones at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center to breed varietals of squash and wheat for intense flavor, high yield and pest resistance. (Disclosure: I briefly worked as Barber’s research assistant 11 years ago.) In other words, one of the country’s most respected chefs already understands the flavor principle and is, from a populist perspective, breeding seeds that match Schatzker’s priorities. But Schatzker doesn’t mention Barber, never mind ask him to cook the book’s triumphant meal.

The other problem is the writing. So much good research and reasoning deserve better sentences than they get. Schatzker refers to himself as a “card-­carrying member,” uses “Mc” to signify “industrial” and makes winking references to the libidos of teenage boys. ­Cliché stands in for an original prose voice. There is trace of mind in the subject, but not in its expression.

Still, other than in Dan Barber’s book, “The Third Plate,” this is the first time I’ve read of improving our food through smarter breeding, and the first assertion that human appetite may possess an intelligence equal to that of human love — another belief I’ve long held, also without knowing why.

Source: The New York Times