Jewish cookbook doyenne Joan Nathan takes a tour de France

In the 1950s, when Joan Nathan’s German-born father sent her to stay with relatives in France “because he thought fluency in foreign languages should be part of a young girl’s education,” he set the stage for a lifelong love affair.

Not only did Nathan go on to get a master’s degree in French literature and spend her junior year at the Sorbonne, she also became America’s best-known author of Jewish cookbooks. Like her other works, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous,” subtitled “My Search for Jewish Cooking in France,” is not simply a cookbook. It is the story of a “gastronomic journey” through France’s rich Jewish history, celebrating diverse culinary traditions.

Her preferences change with the seasons. In winter, she favors “some of the old Alsatian recipes,” she said, noting that the cuisine typically regarded as French Jewish is more than likely rooted in Alsace. The border region between France and Germany, which attracted émigrés from Eastern Europe, is known for its kugels, quiches, charcuterie (smoked or pickled meats, such as corned beef and tongue), chopped liver pâté and Sabbath stews or cholent.

Joan Nathan suggests serving Alsatian pear kugel with prunes as a side dish with brisket photo/courtesy of “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous”

When the weather turns warm, Nathan enjoys the lighter salads brought to France from North Africa. She includes recipes for beet leaf salad, an orange and black olive combo, and roasted red pepper with lemon and garlic. Interviewed recently by phone en route to various appearances, Nathan will be in the Bay Area from Dec. 7 to 12, speaking at several venues.

Nathan took a circuitous path to a culinary career.

Earning a master’s in French from the University of Michigan, she went on to earn a second master’s in public administration from Harvard. Living in Israel for three years, she worked for Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem and co-authored her first book, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” with Judy Stacey Goldman. It was published in 1975.

After her Jerusalem foray, she worked for New York’s first Jewish mayor,  Abraham Beame, and co-founded the city’s Ninth Avenue Food Festival. Ten books followed, eight of which were about Jewish cuisine in America and Israel.

“I didn’t start out to be a food writer. I was young and didn’t really know what I wanted to be. It just sort of happened,” she said. “All of a sudden, I wrote my first cookbook with Judy as a lark, and it became a career for me. One thing led to another. It certainly was a good fit while my children were growing up. It gave me flexibility and independence — and I’ve learned so much.”

The mother of three grown children, Nathan lives in Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, Allan Gerson. In addition to her books, she has hosted a PBS series titled “Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan.” She also contributes frequently to the New York Times and has received two James Beard Awards.

“Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous,” with the vibrant vignettes and historical gems that typically punctuate Nathan’s works, represents her first foray into the cuisine of Europe.

With influxes from Africa, Spain, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, France has a 2,000-year history of Jewish migration, and many of France’s notable culinary contributions may have originated in Jewish kitchens. Dishes associated with Jews include fougasse, a bread baked in the shape of a ladder; braised shoulder of lamb; and macaroons. During the Inquisition, Nathan said, “people who liked macaroons were accused of being Jewish.”

She also “would be willing to guess that Jews were the first to bring eggplants into France.” Jews brought chocolate to France, “but as a drink, and were the first chocolate-makers,” she said.

Some dishes regarded as uniquely Jewish may have originated in the French-German border region. Among them is kugel. “Even matzah balls were really invented in Alsace and southern Germany. They came from the word knoedel, which is German for dumpling,” she said.

Farther south, while hiking in the Alps, Nathan was taken aback by a bowl of soup with a big dumpling in it. “My God, that’s a matzah ball!” she exclaimed.

In terms of kashrut, Jews have always adapted the cuisine of the region in which they found themselves. Certainly, the meat dishes with rich cream and butter sauces are less adaptable — although “today you could use soy milk,” she said. But the more healthful Mediterranean fare — the couscous of her title — and the desserts translate easily.

Although her book includes forays to restaurants, Nathan focuses on food prepared in the home, observing that the Jewishness of France’s Jews is often hidden behind the shutters of their dwellings, where they keep their traditions alive. While she “noticed people looked at us as different,” she never experienced anti-Semitism, she said. “People, mostly American Jews, kept telling me about it, but I never found it.”

“Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France”
by Joan Nathan (287 pages, Knopf, $39.95)

Author’s local appearances

Joan Nathan will discuss and sign her latest book, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous,” at the following venues.

Call for reservations and ticket prices.

Dec. 7    12 p.m. at Hayes Street Grill, 320 Hayes St., S.F. Sponsored by the JCC of San Francisco.

(415) 292-1200. 7 p.m. at Kehilla Community Synagogue,

1300 Grand Ave, Piedmont. (510) 547-2424.

Dec. 8    7 p.m. at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way,

Palo Alto. (650) 223-8699.

Dec. 11    12 p.m. at the Pasta Shop, 1786 Fourth St., Berkeley. (510) 250-6004. 8 p.m. at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. (415) 388-1818.

Dec. 12    11 a.m. at a brunch and book-signing at Berkeley Hillel, 2736 Bancroft Way. Sponsored by Berkeley Hadassah. (510) 848-0414.

Joan Nathan recipes perfect for holidays

Here are two recipes from “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous.” Joan Nathan suggests serving the pear kugel as a side dish with brisket for Shabbat. Gâteau de Hannouka, as it is known in France, is an apple dessert sometimes known as “Jewish apple cake” because oil is substituted for butter.

Alsatian Pear Kugel with Prunes

Serves 6 to 8

5 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 lbs. (4 cups) ripe Bosc pears

2 small onions (about 1⁄2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄2 loaf white bread (about 7 ounces)

3⁄4 cup sugar

6 Tbs. butter or parve margarine, melted

3 large eggs

11⁄2 cups pitted prunes

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

juice of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch springform pan with 2 Tbs. of the oil. Peel pears and cut all but one of them into 1-inch cubes.

Heat remaining 3 Tbs. of the oil over medium-high heat in a skillet. Lightly sauté onions until they are translucent. Remove from heat, salt lightly and allow them to cool slightly.

Soak bread for a few seconds in lukewarm water, and squeeze dry. Put in large bowl and, using wooden spoon or spatula, mix with 1⁄4 cup of the sugar and the butter or parve margarine. Stir in eggs, onions and half of the diced pears, setting aside remaining pears for the sauce.

Pour batter into the springform pan, and bake for 11⁄2 to 13⁄4 hours.

While the kugel is cooking, make the sauce. In a heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, put 1 cup water, the remaining 1⁄2 cup sugar, the prunes, cinnamon, lemon juice and the remaining diced pears. Cook this compote mixture uncovered for 30 minutes.

Finely grate the reserved whole pear and stir it into the cooked compote.

When the kugel is done, remove from oven and set on a rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Unmold from the pan onto a serving platter, and spoon half of the compote over it. Serve the remaining compote on the side.

Note: You can make this kugel using only prunes or plums in place of the pears, and use them in the sauce as well.

Gâteau de Hannouka

(Polish Chanukah Apple Cake)

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing pan

5 apples (3 Fuji and 2 Granny Smith, or any combination of sweet and tart apples), peeled, cored and cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces (about 6 cups)

grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1⁄3 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped

11⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1⁄8 tsp. salt

2 Tbs. chopped almonds

11⁄4 cups plus 2 Tbs. sugar

4 large eggs

1⁄4 tsp. almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a Bundt pan or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Toss apples in a large bowl with the zest and juice of the lemon, the walnuts and the cinnamon.

Pulse together the flour, baking powder, salt, almonds and 11⁄4 cups of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. With food processor running, add the eggs, oil and almond extract, processing until just mixed.

Spoon 1⁄3 of batter over the bottom of the pan. Scatter apples on top, and cover the apples with the remaining batter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 Tbs. sugar (you’ll need less if using a Bundt pan).

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. The cake will take a shorter time to bake in the shallow rectangular pan than in the Bundt pan.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].