Joan Nathan is the author of ten cookbooks and a regular contributor to The New York Times. She is the author of the much-acclaimed Jewish Cooking in America. Her latest book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, chronicles 2,000 years of Jewish history through memorable stories and 200 delicious recipes.
1. When did you decide to be a cook book author and journalist?
I went to Jerusalem in my twenties and landed a job with the mayor of Jerusalem. We ate food at the homes of many people. I found that there was hostility towards the mayor, but all the barriers broke down when he broke bread with them. I saw Jewish food from all over the world and learned to cook from watching them.
I look at Jewish people in three ways, first their identity as associated with Kashrut (the dietary laws), then where they are living at the moment and finally, their history. Similarly, I look at food in three ways, there is every day food, traditional food (from our history) and dress up/restaurant food.
I look at food as part of culture and history and I believe it is important to preserve old recipes and make them usable in our modern time.
2. What is Jewish Cooking in France?
Jews have lived in France for 2000 years, but to define their cooking first and foremost is the kosher dietary laws. Then just like everywhere else, Jews adapt the food and recipes of their country. In France, the food has a certain style. A goal to feature good ingredients such as fruits or vegetables and less of the filler. For example, they make a Jewish apple cake, Gateau de Hannouka, with more apples, less flour and less sugar.
Just like in America we Americanize our Jewish food, in France the Jewish food is Francofied. There are smaller daintier matzo balls, (Bouletted de Paque, Knepfle, or Kneipflich) made from broken up matzo as opposed to store bought matzo meal. They often have them for Shabbat Lunch in their Pot au Feu, Sabbath Beef Stew (the French Cholent)
3. What was your most surprising discovery?
How connected the Jews are to the food of France. They trafficked the food, the wine was up and down the Rhone river b y the Jews, they were the grain merchants, they went to India for spices, they brought eggplant seeds to the south of France. The first Jews in France started off in Provence, Rashi lived near there and you can learn a lot about French food from Rashi.
They did not have olive oil anymore, so they used goose fat. Jewish people introduced chocolate as a drink and were known as the best chocolate makers. Today half the Jews in France are from North Africa, so that brings a lot of other flavors.
4. What was your most memorable meal in France?
The first Passover seder I went to when I was 21 years old blew me away. The food got me started on Jewish food all over the world. Everything was in French or Hebrew with a French accent and it was all beautifully plated and elegant. The charoset was ground a little more and there was a stuffed veal, it was something you don’t forget.
Another one was at a Russian restaurant where I had blini with caviar. In Strasbourg, with my editor, we enjoyed a perfectly cooked white asparagus dish at the peak of asparagus season. I have enjoyed hundreds of special meals in France, they are all delicious. The simplicity and elegance they provide is unparalleled.
5. What is your favorite French food?
I like anything with artichokes. I love the lemon tart that is in the book, it is really tart. The Salade Juive (Moroccan Confit of Tomato and Peppers with Coriander) is a wonderful dish that is great for Shabbat. I love the Alsatian Kugel, Alsace is where kugel originated as the second food alongside the pot a feu for Shabbat. It is made in an upside down clay flour pot using leftover bread, eggs, sautéed onions and pears and plums. I want to look into how kugels turned into cakes, the transition.
I also love the Chicken with Fennel, wild fennel is an old Jewish dish since wild frennel grew in Provence. Jews like fennel and eggplant.
6. With the challenges of assimilation, emigration and rising anti-semitism, what is the future of Jewish cooking in France?
First, I have never had any anti-Semitic experiences in all my time in France. In America and Israel, Jews feel comfortable, but in every country Jews try to stay under the radar. The French are more reserved and the Jews in France are even more reserved. I don’t think there will be any impact now on Jewish cooking in France. The fact is that France has the 3rd largest Jewish population after Israel and America, there is a reason Jewish people come back to France. There are 30 kosher stores in Paris alone, lots of kosher restaurants all over, even a kosher sushi place, in the heart of the latin quarter, right across from a church. I was most impressed with the amount of righteous gentiles that went out of their way to help save Jews in the war.
7. What can the American home chef learn from the French cook?
French women cook beautifully and elegantly and they make everything at home. They can teach Americans how to cook well with great recipes. I love the recipes in this book.
I urge you to read my introduction, it makes you look at food differently, food is not just a recipe, especially Jewish food, because we have such a wonderful history.
8. Describe your best cooking moment?
There are too many good ones, but I love when I am working on a recipe, testing it over and over and it finally comes out and you think... Eureka!
9. What do you have planned next?
I am not sure, I have a few ideas, but nothing settled yet, I will let you know.
Here are a few recipes Joan Nathan has shared with the JoyofKosher community
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