Welcome to the first cookbook of Spring 2022. This season’s theme is Legendary Women Cookbook Authors. Before we dig into our first book, I think we need to address an important question…
what makes a legend?
I believe it’s something beyond fame. You don’t become legendary just from being famous. One must DO something to deserve that accolade. And, yes, it must be deserved. A legend is one who leaves an indelible impression on the lives they touch – an impression that leaves others better off and even wiser than they were before. A legend lives in accordance with their deepest beliefs, and they share those beliefs openly with others.
You’ll find legends working where their passions, talent, and values intersect.
And that is exactly where our first legendary woman cookbook author has thrived for decades!
The Jerusalem Post once called Joan Nathan the “matriarch of Jewish cooking.” Although this is a great accolade, it only hints at the depth and breadth of her work and contribution to the culinary world.
Joan Nathan, legendary cookbook author
Like her ancestors – women whose wisdom was transmitted through stories and conversation for centuries before women were taught to read and write – Joan Nathan carries the tradition of sharing culinary traditions and recipes with a greater audience through her published work, classes, and travel programs.
Each of her 11 cookbooks celebrates the diversity of Jewish cuisine, culture, and heritage. She’s been called a “meticulous historian” and an “intrepid anthropologist.” Reading King Solomon’s Table, her 11thbook, will convince you of both.
Although our focus is on cookbooks, all of our legends have extended their reach far beyond the test kitchen. Nathan is a regular contributor to The New York Times and does some TV too! Her PBS television series, Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan, was nominated in 2000 for the James Beard Award for Best National Television Food Show. She was also senior producer of Passover: Traditions of Freedom, an award-winning documentary sponsored by Maryland Public Television.
Nathan has two master’s degrees. One in French literature from University of Michigan and another in public administration from Harvard University. Both have fed her research, writing, and informed her public work with the Jewish diaspora. She has received numerous awards and honors for her work in culinary arts and in the Jewish community at large.
about the book
In the forward to King Solomon’s Table, Alice Waters – another legend, if ever there was one – called Nathan “the most important preservationist of Jewish food traditions”. We couldn’t agree more.
“As a wandering people, Jews have influenced many different local cuisines as they carried their food to new lands…”Joan Nathan
Last season we explored cuisines of the Baltics, Persia, Portugal, and Japan as we cooked off the beaten path. Through King Solomon’s Table, we revisited several of these places (and many more). We even cooked a few of the same dishes, but with fresh eyes and new depth of perspective.
King Solomon’s Table was published in 2017 and is Nathan’s most recent book. To write it she traveled to over 15 countries on 5 continents and interviewed countless chefs, restaurateurs, and home cooks. These personal accounts weave in with the scholarly bits to tell a story of an ancient people who have been prolific emissaries of culture, all while suffering ongoing persecution and oppression.
Personally, I learned more about Jewish history (and world history, for that matter) from the headnotes of the recipes in this book than I ever did in school. I’m not Jewish, but I am now gratefully aware of how much impact the Jews have had the world and especially on the places of my own ancestry.
These recipes reflected my own heritage back to me to see with fresh eyes. I’m betting your experience would be similar, no matter where you’re from. One of the things that I found most fascinating was tracing a food from place to place – so many ingredients and preparations have travelled extensive circuitous routes!
Chicken paprikash. It’s familiar to most as a Hungarian specialty. But the chiles used in making paprika came from South America, brought to Hungary by the Jews. Then this classic preparation travelled the world as the diaspora moved on.
Brazilian Belarusian Grouper (a recipe from this book) exists because of a movement of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Brazil in the 1630s, followed later by those from Belarus in the 1920s. The two cultures, connected by their Jewish heritage, came together, blending their foodways and creating new cuisine that was also distinctly of their new home in Brazil.
In this book you’ll also find recipes that represent Jews who moved from Syria to Mexico and Guatemala blending with Jews in Montreal whose roots are in Romania, Ukraine, and Poland; or Jews in South Africa who came from Lithuania. The combinations become endless thanks to a people who have been travelling the world for thousands of years.
In King Solomon’s Table you’ll find dishes from places you expect like the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and Persia. But also, from places you least expect… India, Mexico, Morocco, Sri Lanka. This book is a culinary traveler’s dream!
the cooking part…
For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. Here’s what we chose from for this book…
breakfast chilaquiles-style matzo brei shritzlach (Toronto blueberry buns) malai (Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding) snacks socca (chickpea pancakes with fennel, onion & rosemary) caramelized shallot and goat cheese tatin scourtins (buttery olive biscuits) salads homemade herbed labneh with beets & puy lentils spanakit (spinach salad with walnuts & cilantro) Tunisian carrot salad soup tchav (chilled soup with sorrel, rhubarb, & greens) harira (spiced Moroccan vegetable soup) Yemenite chicken soup vegetables carciofi alla giudia spinach with pine nuts and currants slightly sweet and sour cabbage entrees couscous con le sarde Syrian Mexican chicken tagliolini colla crosta double lemon roast chicken sweets tahina cookies Fany Gerson’s Ukrainian Mexican rugelach aranyaluska, Hungarian pull apart cake challenge time! hand rolled couscous salmon gefilte fish mold with horseradish beet sauce t’beet, Baghdadi sabbath overnight spiced chicken w/ rice & coconut chutney
notes on what we cooked
Malai – cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding comes highly recommended by those who made it. It’s delicate and simple and a perfect backdrop for seasonal berries or cherries. It makes a perfect not-too-sweet brunch casserole or dessert anytime.
Smoky shakshuka wasn’t on our assignment list, but so many people couldn’t resist making it. Later, during our Q&A session with the author, we learned that it’s a personal favorite of hers as well.
Tunisian carrot salad was a huge hit – most of us made this recipe and all of us will make it again and again. I love how simple things like carrots can become extraordinary with the right seasoning. This is a dish you splurge on the good carrots for. Especially if you get them right from your garden or local farmers’ market.
Socca is a pancake or flatbread made from chickpea flour with ancient origins. Today, you may find as street food in Southern France or on the Ligurian coast of Italy, although they are known throughout the Mediterranean and in Africa. This recipe most resembles the Ligurian style, which is more of a crepe than a flatbread. They’re perfectly paired with fennel, Provençal herbs, and olives. They’re naturally gluten-free and vegan, so great for everyone.
Moroccan harira is a spiced vegetable soup that is prepared similarly to Greek avgolemono with the addition of lemon juice and egg to an already hearty mix of vegetables and legumes. This was one of the top three recipes for our group. Rave reviews from all.
Yemenite chicken soup was a total sleeper – I didn’t expect the response we had from it. Seems it’s so good it’s replacing some long-loved family chicken soup recipes! Let me know if you try it and what you think!
Slightly sweet and sour cabbage was another in the sleeper category. I didn’t expect so many people to fall in love with a cabbage dish. Simplicity and clean flavors are always favorites here.
Couscous con le sarde is a spin on a traditional Sicilian dish, pasta con le sarde. This was one of my personal favorites. The pasta version is a go-to comfort food for me. This version is so much lighter and delicate. The next time I make it I’ve vowed to try making my own couscous from scratch, just to try it (that recipes is in the book as well). I paired mine as the side for one of the fish recipes (notes to follow).
Speaking of Sicily, the eggplant caponata recipe in this book is exceptional! Here’s another one that was not on the assignment list, but several people made it and recommended it to the group. It’s so similar to my own recipe that I’ll refer people to this book in the future when they ask.
Snapper with Preserved Lemon and Capers is so simple and so easy that just about anyone could put this together as a weekday meal in under 30 minutes. But it also wows guests at a dinner party, and nobody knows how easy it was! Some people substituted cod, another did it with the snapper. I made mine with salmon instead of snapper for a dinner party. Served it with a platter of the aforementioned couscous, and a yogurt sauce that I got from another recipe in the book. Everything about this book encourages you to mix, match, and enjoy!
I mentioned chicken paprikash earlier – although I didn’t make it myself, those who did were happy with the outcome of this spin on a classic.
T’beet: Looking for something a bit more challenging? Something with a rich background story and huge payoff for the effort you put in? You must make the t’beet. It’s a rice and chicken dish from Baghdad that bakes overnight in a very low oven, making it ideal for the sabbath. The recipe dates back to medieval Iraq. It’s redolent with exotic spices. It yields the most savory crunchy tadig (bottom crust from the baked rice). The eggs that bake with it make a perfect snack or breakfast the next day. And, even if you don’t make the t’beet, you MUST make the coconut chutney that goes with it. You can thank me for that recommendation later!
Tahini cookies were described as cookies for grown-ups and were also highly recommended by those who made them.
You may be wondering if there was anything in this book that we didn’t like. So far, this has read like a paid promotion! I would happily share any challenges experienced along the way, but honestly – none were noted this time. It was unanimous that we all loved our experience cooking from King Solomon’s Table.
Moreso, we loved having a chance to meet and speak with Joan Nathan personally during out Zoom call. She is a fascinating conversationalist and was eager for our comments and feedback. She oohed and ahhed at all our photos, and left us convinced that she is indeed a legendary woman, cookbook author or otherwise!
What’s your definition of “legend”? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
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As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment.
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