The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen by Amelia Saltsman ( Staci Valentine)
Amelia Saltsman grew up in Los Angeles in a Japanese neighborhood with her Romanian mother and Iraqi father, Israelis who met while serving in the army. Her first book, The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook, champions all thing local, fresh, and simple, and lays out her general approach to cooking as opportunistic: first, what do you have? Then, how can you make it shine with the least amount of intervention? Her most recent book, out in time for Rosh Hashanah, is The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition (Sterling Epicure, 2015), in which she offers a seasonal, and global, approach to traditional Jewish cooking, lightening it for contemporary eating styles and ingredients and making it accessible to all.
One revelation here is that Jewish cooking isn’t relegated to the flavors of Eastern Europe, as many a cookbook might lead one to believe. This book is full of recipes from North Africa, the Middle East, and the whole of the Mediterranean, and utilizes ingredients widely found throughout the U.S., focusing on freshness and quality. I spoke with Amelia about the new book last week, and here’s what she had to say.
What inspired your seasonal approach to the book?
Three things: A desire to reconnect what we often overlook today; the innate seasonality of Jewish food, from the late-summer/early-fall pomegranates, apples, and quince of Rosh Hashanah and the etrog (citron fruit) of Sukkot, to the spring lamb and herbs of Passover. That Jewish food can be reframed through the lighter, brighter lens of how we eat today while still being true to its traditional roots. (Take a look at Golden Borscht with Buttermilk and Ginger, page 218.) And the harmonious way the lunar Jewish calendar syncs with the natural cycles of the year.
What do you think will be the most surprising discoveries for people who are accustomed to traditional Jewish recipes?
The great diversity of Jewish cuisine. The Jewish Diaspora, or migration, is thousands of years old, and it’s global. When you say “traditional Jewish recipes,” I immediately assume you mean eastern European food. But Jewish food is actually a patchwork of regional cuisines that includes the deli foods of Eastern Europe and the bold flavors of North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and more. Historically, people have always cooked “local,” using the ingredients and techniques available to them and adapting them culturally, as needed.
Your mother is Romanian and your father, Iraqi. Did growing up with them result in any interesting fusion cooking?
You have no idea! Imagine 1950s SoCal, living isolated from extended family and in a predominantly Japanese neighborhood, and being the child of students who worked to make ends meet at the L.A.-iconic VandeKamp Bakery. I was a food-curious child exposed to an eclectic array of flavors: sautéed calves’ brains; my father’s recreation of an Iraqi breakfast pastry, kahi (reimagined as Cheese and Honey Filo Pie in the book, page 237); Israeli salad; L.A. citrus; canned spinach; American burgers, apple pie, and layer cake; and for me (not my parents), an immediate love affair with the Japanese foods my friends’ parents cooked.
How did your childhood in Los Angeles influence the way you cook today?
Because my little family lived for the most part outside a bubbe-influenced food world, there were no food rules. We took a Catholic approach to what our melting-pot lives had to offer. And because I am the child of Israeli parents and have always lived in southern California’s produce-rich Mediterranean climate, fresh, ripe ingredients have always been important…. aside from that canned spinach.
What are the five or so essential ingredients to have on hand for last-minute cooking in this style?
Honestly, you could manage with just two—great olive oil and salt. Beyond that, I’d add an acid—lemon, good vinegar, or sumac, the tart seasoning ground from the bright purple berries from the sumac bush, popular in Iranian and Middle Eastern cuisines; and some heat, usually from a red pepper—Aleppo, Maras, espelette, or half-sharp paprika—that adds fruity and earthy complexities beyond a Scoville rating.
I love shakshuka, and I've made my way through many different versions. Can you describe your approach to this classic dish?
On a trip to Israel last year, I learned the secret of great shakshuka from my cousin, Pazit Gabai. Begin with her recipe for Matboucha (on page 32 of the book), a long-cooked, but simple, spicy tomato sauce, which she learned to make from her Moroccan sisters-in-law. Such “salades cuites,” or cooked salads, are traditional to North African cuisines, most of which claim some version of shakshuka as their own. Her recipe is basically tomatoes, spicy peppers (jalapeños, or some such), and garlic. When I make a big batch of matboucha from rich, late-season meaty tomatoes, such as the Costoluto Genovese variety, the resulting thick sauce is transcendent. I use some of it to poach eggs for shakshua, and use the rest as a condiment or to simmer black- or pink-eyed shell beans for a hearty rice or grain bowl-meal. (Winter matboucha made from good canned tomatoes isn’t bad, either!)
Which recipes in the book would you recommend to novice cooks or those new to this style of cooking?
There are plenty to choose from! Because my cooking is mainly about showcasing the natural lusciousness of great seasonal ingredients, my recipes tend to be very simple, often as basic as shoving something into a hot oven to roast and caramelize or pulling together interesting assemblages of contrasting flavors, colors, and textures. Start with the tastiest ingredients you can find, and dishes like Roasted Carrot and Sweet Potato Tzimmes or Autumn Slaw with Beets, Carrots, and Kohlrabi will sing. And a salade composée of pickled herring, boiled potatoes and eggs becomes a contemporary work of art. I’d also refer readers to the Roasted Vegetable Primer in my first book, The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook, which shows beginners how to get incredibly diverse results from one simple technique.
What are your current favorite restaurants in Los Angeles?
I especially enjoy the way Suzanne Goin of Lucques, AOC, and Tavern restaurants has redefined Cal-Med to include eastern Mediterranean flavors. And I love how innovative chef Jeremy Fox at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica uses gribenes (a Yiddish word for fried chicken or goose skin) within decidedly non-Jewish dishes. Perfect examples of how a market-driven, seasonal approach meshes seamlessly with traditional elements.
Who/what are the chief inspirations for your work?
Without a doubt, the passionate farmers who grow for flavor first. Their perseverance and dedication to quality and to being good stewards of the land have transformed the way I think about food. I try to show my respect and gratitude by simplifying my cooking to better show off their efforts!
And my two grandmothers, Mina and Rachel, whose cooking I first tasted when I was ten-years-old on our first trip to Israel and forever changed my life.
Saltsman will be at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on Sunday, September 27 from 3-5pm.
(makes six servings)
2 cups Matboucha (see recipe below)
2 Tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt (optional)
Generous handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley
Labneh, homemade or store-bought
Thickly sliced country bread, toasted, or pita bread
In a 12-inch skillet, thin the Matboucha with water, to the consistency of thick spaghetti sauce. Add the olive oil and set over medium heat. When the sauce is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low.
Using the back of a large spoon, make an indentation in the sauce at the 12 o’clock position. Crack an egg into the depression. Repeat with remaining eggs, spacing them evenly in the pan. Cook until the eggs are set to your liking, about 7 minutes for over-easy. Cover the pan to hasten cooking, especially if you like your eggs more well-done.
Season the eggs with salt, if desired, and shower the parsley over all. Serve directly from the pan into shallow individual bowls, accompanied by labneh and bread or pita.
(makes about 2 ½ cups)
2 ½ pounds meaty tomatoes, such as Roma or Costoluto Genovese, or 1 can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes
2 to 4 chiles, such as jalapeño or habañero or a mix, 2 to 4 oz.
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp sweet paprika
1 ½ tsps hot paprika, or to taste
½ cup grapeseed or other mild oil
Kosher or sea salt
To peel the tomatoes, either use a swivel-blade vegetable peeler or immerse them in boiling water and slip off the skins. If you like, cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze them to remove the seeds. Skip this step if the seeds don’t bother you. Chop the tomatoes into ½- to 1-inch pieces. You should have 3 ¼ to 3 ½ cups altogether. Place them in a wide pit or a deep sauté pan.
Mince the chiles and add them to the pan along with some or all of their seeds for added heat. Add the garlic, stir in the paprika, and pour the olive oil over all. Start cooking the mixture over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat as necessary to keep it from bubbling without burning and cook until very thick and glossy, about 1 hour. Use a splatter screen to keep your stove clean, if you like.
Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and sugar, adding about 1 teaspoon of each. Let cool and transfer to 1 or 2 tightly capped jars. The condiment will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week and in the freezer for up to two months.