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French Food with Jewish Roots (and vice versa)

Joan Nathan's "Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous" (Alfred Knopf, 2010)About…a month ago, already? Two? Oy! I decided my next serious food post was going to be a review of Joan Nathan’s current bookQuiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Alfred Knopf, 2010). And I’ve been looking through this book for much of that time, trying to figure out what to say first and what I’d want to cook from it that I haven’t tried before.

An initial read attracted me very much: Nathan, who worked as an aide to Teddy Kollek back in the 1970s, when he was still the gregarious and widely-admired–in fact the last widely admired and liked–mayor of Jerusalem, came back to the States as interested in people as in food, and has balanced the two focuses in most of her cookbooks ever since.

In this book, she starts out by visiting her French cousins and branches out to meet all sorts of people–deli owners, a gefilte fish maven, Holocaust survivors and one of the farm women who sheltered some of them during the war, the new wave of North African Jews from Morocco to Egypt who arrived in France after the mass expulsion from Arab countries in the 1950s;  the Provençal Jews who trace their ancestry back to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal, the Alsatian Jews whose dishes, despite coming from the heart of the original Ashkenazi community, are not as familiar as I would have expected.

Throughout the book she’s collected personal stories of all kinds, visiting home cooks, restaurant chefs, purveyors of spices and other specialty items that Jews initiated and led the European trade for–particularly chocolate and coffee. And she has dug up a few surprises as well.

Paul Bocuse, for example, is widely considered the grand old man of French haute cuisine, so much so that a major international competition is named for him. Nathan discovered that he keeps one stockroom of the banquet hall  at his restaurant in Lyon kosher-only for Jewish events, under local rabbinic supervision! Pierre Troisgros, another great name, was one of seven French chefs who came to Jerusalem for the 3000th-year anniversary celebration. The reasons are enlightening and rooted, as many of the stories in the book are, in the complex relationships of French Jews with their non-Jewish neighbors during and after World War II.

All in all, the food in this book takes a definite second place to the people. Not that the food is bad or uninteresting, but this time somehow, Nathan’s interviews with everyone she met turned out more vital and fascinating–to her as well as to me, I suspect–than what they eat and cook and why.

And (is it an accident or the quirk of the graphics and layout designer?) the photographs really reflect this imbalance. There’s a lot more to see of the people Nathan met than of the food itself. When there are food photos to look at (and actually, this happens with some of the ones of people and life-in-France as well), they’re generally small, about 2-3 inches across, and awkwardly laid out in the spaces left over from the recipes rather than given enough room to look good and show the subjects to advantage.

It could well be that the photos in the book were Nathan’s own snapshots, taken ad hoc in the kitchens of the people she visited. But given today’s standard of food photography, particularly for cookbooks where you might need to show technique, I have to say the way the photos are presented doesn’t really do them justice, and it serves mostly to de-emphasize the food in relation to the personal anecdotes.

So–after this much kvetching about it, what I really mean to say is that I had a hard time focusing in on the recipes themselves and thinking what’s new, what don’t I already know about, what sounds like I’d want to try it? And–a question Nathan herself grapples with at several points–is this food more French or more Jewish in origin?

A lot of the food is obviously one or the other, or at least you start out thinking so. The Jewish classics, gefilte fish and kugel and stuffed cabbage, to say nothing of cholent, are obviously not French in origin–although… you can certainly find close-enough variations on them in the guise of quenelles, gratins or clafoutis, and choux farci and cassoulet…

The quiches are clearly non-Jewish dishes adapted for kashrut. Take out the meat and substitute butter or oil for the lard in the pastry, or use kosher meat and vegetable oil or kosher schmaltz and leave out the dairy, and you’ve basically got it. Right? Although…egg-and-greens dishes are staunch Jewish travelers from Baghdad and Syria to Italy to Israel to Spain and France and as far across North Africa as possible. And the northern European enclaves spawned my father’s, and apparently also Itzhak Perlman’s, favorite classic, the  salami omelet. Put a crust under it and it could be the Jewish Quiche Lorraine.

Bouillabaise–take out the shellfish, and there’s a nice authentic version just like that in the book. No problem. Only it comes in two forms–one Marseillaise, a bourride, and another similar fish soup (only without fennel), a m’hama, from Morocco. Both are served with a garlicky rouille, the Moroccan one a little spiced up with harissa.

The Provençal dishes are the most curious–a lot of them are vegetarian and quasi-Moroccan in origin, all those tians and ratatouille, and a lot are based on fish rather than meat. Mostly, a lot have Spanish and Portuguese roots and the suggestion–often more than a suggestion–that they might well have come across into France when Jews from those countries were fleeing the Inquisition and settling in Carpentras and other towns of the Vaucluse.

And then there is challah. I would have thought challah was an Ashkenazi-origin egg bread, but there are about five different versions in Nathan’s book, including a Tunisian round and a Moroccan twist, both of which use egg-rich and feathery doughs very similar if not identical to the Ashkenazi classic. The differences are in the shaping and even there, things get similar especially around the High Holidays. And challah, no matter which community it comes from, is a bit more important to Jews as the ceremonial fine-quality bread for Shabbat than brioche is to the French, who usually eat brioche as buns for breakfast or a snack.

And on the other other hand, apparently French Women Who Supposedly Don’t Get Fat head straight for the matzah factory whenever they’re on a régime so they can eat pain azyme on the theory that if it’s thin, they will be too.

So the obvious thing to conclude, and I think Nathan does, is that a lot of these foods have traveled pretty far and wide before coming to rest in either the “French” or “Jewish” classifications, and a lot of borrowing is still going on. Keeps things hopping.

As for trying things out, there’s a lot to choose from. Most of the friends and colleagues who blurbed the back of the book are excited by the North African dishes. I’m more excited by the Provençal and Alsatian dishes, because my grandparents fled the shtetls in childhood and grew up in America not really wanting to cook the Ashkenazi classics more than they could help. That went double for my mother, with the exception of a pretty decent stuffed flanken for my 10th birthday and chicken soup for Pesach.

Some of the Alsatian dishes like “gemarrti supp” (mushroom and leek, thickened with semolina) are lighter than I’d have expected–maybe a lighter take on the classic mushroom and barley soup from the Russian and Polish communities. Other Ashkenazi classics like gefilte fish don’t really appeal to me, even fresh made, though Nathan cites one version where the leftover gefilte fish get the stuffed cabbage treatment with sweet/sour tomato sauce and an hour of baking, the works. I’d be surprised if that’s good, but she swears it is. Luckily it’s far enough past Pesach that I don’t have to think about it.

A few things I do want to try:

Grilled Cod with Raïto Sauce–Raïto is a Provençal tomato, caper and olive sauce for fish on Friday night. It’s made with wine, onion and garlic, thyme, rosemary, parsley and tarragon, and interestingly for me at least, includes a roux of olive oil and flour, and sometimes fennel, anchovy, walnuts or almonds are stirred in. Roots– Sicilian? Spanish? either might be possible post-Inquisition.

Pear and prune kugel–Hard to believe I’ve never actually made a kugel of any kind in all these years. I’ve eaten a lot of them at shul from childhood on, and a few were really good, but I’ve never done it for myself because even one square is pretty hefty. Do I want a whole pan sitting in the fridge? Maybe a small one, though. Or maybe just try a clafoutis (on the more-French side of things) and skip the noodles.

Gemarrti Supp–The mushroom leek soup from Alsace (already mentioned). And the bourride and m’hama, though obviously not all at once and probably on a smaller scale.

 Raïto Sauce for Grilled Cod or Tuna

adapted from Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous

Nathan says this recipe covers 3 lbs of grilled fish. I note that it takes about an hour and a half to make the sauce and wonder, first, whether all the water and boiling down she specifies is really necessary and second, whether it couldn’t be done at least as well in a microwave or maybe a frying pan.

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • 2 onions peeled and chopped
  •  4 T olive oil
  • 1 T flour
  • 5 ripe fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 2 c fruity red wine such as Côte de Provence
  • 2 c water
  • A bouquet garni: 3 branches each thyme, rosemary, parsley and tarragon tied together with 2 whole cloves in a cheesecloth packet
  • salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/3 c  black picholine olives pitted and halved
  • 1 T capers, drained

Nathan’s directions:

Sauté the garlic and onions in the olive oil in a heavy soup pot until the onions are transparent. Whisk in the flour until brown and smooth. Add the tomatoes, wine, and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then add the bouquet garni and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer slowly uncovered for about an hour until the sauce is reduced by half. Remove the herb bundle, purée the tomatoes and onion and return to the pot. Add the olives and capers, adjust the seasonings and serve over grilled fish or over pasta.

My guessed version, though I’m a little concerned the wine and herbs might be too much and make it a little bitter if you’re not simmering them down in a lot of water:

Forget peeling the tomatoes. Wash and chop them fine or chop them with the onions in a blender or food processor. Nuke the tomatoes and onions 3-4 minutes loosely covered in a pyrex bowl if you think you need to before cooking them (I’m not sure myself, but it sometimes helps concentrate the tomato flavor quickly). Heat the olive oil in a big nonstick frying pan, sauté the tomatoes and onions a minute or so until they start smelling fragrant, add the garlic and wine and herb bundle, and boil down until you get nearly-dry, jammy consistency. Add enough water to bring up to sauce-thickness, take out the herb bundle, blend only if you think the sauce is too chunky. Add pitted picholine, kalamata, Moroccan oil-cured, or whatever reasonable Greek-style black olives you can find. Capers optional in my view.

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