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7 October 2011
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11 October 2011

What’s for dinner?

joan nathan book

We are delighted to invite bestselling cookbook author Joan Nathan to the Library on Wednesday 19 October at 19h30. She will present her latest book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. In a journey that was a labor of love, Joan Nathan traveled the country, and along the way, she unearthed a treasure trove of recipes as well as the moving stories behind them. Here she tells us a little bit about the process.

Writing a cookbook for me is a little like going fishing. First I have an idea; I choose the body of water I want to explore. This time it was the food of the Jews of France. Like many other Americans of my age, I had spent a summer living with a family in France during high school and then studied abroad in Paris during my junior year in college. I, like so many, fell in love with France, and, of course, the food.

Before I started working on this book, Sonny Mehta, the editor-in-chief of Knopf, warned me that French Jews, like Frenchmen in general, are more reserved than Americans. He suggested that I call the book in Search of the Jews of France. Boy, was he right. It was a real search. Although I knew many French Jews, we rarely talked about their being Jewish. Just before World War II my relatives migrated to France, but no one talked about that either.

The next step in my fishing trip is casting the line, testing the water. Sometimes you catch a real nugget of history, a recipe, a great interview. And sometimes you run into dead zones. That is the risk…and that is the fun.

Luckily for me, I live right near the Library of Congress in Washington. My first task was plunging into the Rare Book Room and reading through all the old cookbooks. I found a lot there. For example, when early cookbooks called for sauce a la portugaise, I knew that it included tomatoes and was most likely Jewish. Mary and Philip Hyman, culinary historians living in Paris, and Richard Delerins, a French academic specializing in cuisine, nutrition and health, were great helps in finding the old recipes.

Next I read lots of history books to get an idea of where and when and what had been Jewish in France. In the course of my reading, I realized that at least half the recipes would likely be North African since there are about 250,000, if not more, North African Jews in France today.

That research was only the tip of the iceberg. To really understand the foods of the Jews of France, I had to meet people. So using a map, I divided the country into different areas, knowing that I would spend half my time in Paris since half of the 600,000 Jews in France live there, and began to plan my trips.

Then the fun came. Through my relatives and French friends, I made contact with Jews all over France. I had so many adventures, many of which I will relate later this month at the Library. Sometimes people wanted to size me up before they opened their doors to me so we met at cafes. But most of the time, I was, to my surprise, invited into their homes for dinner, collecting so many recipes that way.

Of all the adventures, though, was one in the Luberon. I drove two hours from San Remy-de-Provence, the home of Nostradamus, to go to a restaurant in Gordes whose chef I was told was Jewish. When I walked in I immediately announced that I was writing a book on the food of the Jews of France and that somebody had told me that the restaurant had a Jewish chef. “Pas du tout,” Elisabeth Bourgeois, the chef, replied. My companion and I decided to stay anyway. As we dipped into a delicious, jam-like, cooked tomato salad, we asked her where she got such a fabulous end-of-summer salad. “Oh, ca, c’est la salade juive,” she replied. It seems that a woman who worked for her for many years was a Jew from Morocco and Elizabeth loved the recipe so much that it was put on the menu. Good story, great recipe. And when I parted, Elisabeth’s husband Philippe said to me, “You know, way back when, Elisabeth might have Jewish roots.” I knew then that I had caught a truly big fish.

salad juive

Salade Juive from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Knopf, 2011.

4 pounds peppers, red, green, or yellow (about 8 to 10 depending on the size)
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained or 2 pounds ripe red tomatoes (about 4 to 6, depending on the size)
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cumin
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh chopped chives
½ teaspoon hot cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Put the peppers on a hot grill, turning them as they get charred, 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. 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 fresh tomatoes or the canned, if using, 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 hot pepper and the lemon juice and sprinkle with the fresh cilantro. Serve as a salad or appetizer.
Yield: 8 servings or about 4 cups

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