Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah: The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen

With the High Holidays beginning Sunday at sundown with Erev Rosh Hashanah, I was delighted to receive a new and unique Jewish cookbook by Amelia Saltsman. Her first cookbook, The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, is a classic. So, I rightly anticipated that she would bring literally a fresh approach to The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen ($33.95/Sterling Epicure). Saltsman comes to this subject with an edge up that most Jewish families don't have. She embodies the Jewish diaspora with both an Ashkenazi and Sephardic background, being the daughter of a Romanian mother and Iraqi father and raised in Los Angeles. This gives the book much more range than most traditional Jewish cookbooks. Add to this Saltsman's clear passion for seasonal, ingredient-driven food and you have a wealth of recipes that have the familiarity of tradition but fit in with a modern sensibility about food.

Now some of the recipes can legitimately be questioned as being traditionally Jewish. What is Jewish about an Autumn Slaw with Beets, Carrots, and Kohlrabi? Or Curried Roasted Cauliflower? Or Green Fava Bean and English Pea "Hummus"? Saltsman takes this on in the beginning of the book with a brief chapter, What is Jewish Food? She refuses to be limited to a definition that strictly identifies it as the religious dietary laws of kashrut. You know the old joke about three Jews and five opinions? Well, that's how I--and I assume Saltsman--feels about Jewish food. With so many Jews on the move for so many centuries spanning the world, Jews have adapted their culinary traditions to where they find themselves. Just because I am tied to the traditions of Eastern Europe and feel a connection to foods like gefilte fish, noodle kugel, and brisket doesn't mean that Jews who lived in Spain, Italy, or Iraq have that sentiment. The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen opens up the possibilities of other types of ingredients and their preparation, adding these new concepts to whatever we originally came to the table with. So, that Curried Roasted Cauliflower? Saltzman's headnote explains that cauliflower lends itself to multiple Jewish Diaspora flavor profiles, in this case Indian. And while my touchpoint for Chanukah may be potato latkes, Saltsman's Iraqi family would be delighted with Zengoula with Lemon Syrup: Iraqi Funnel Cakes. Both celebrate the miracle of the oil that is the essence of Chanukah.

Then there's the crucial word "seasonal" in the title. A food writer who is passionate about farmers' markets is going to follow the seasons. And since Jewish holidays are scattered throughout the year, it's easy to divide a book into mini seasons. Saltsman does it with six, two-month chapters that really capture what is growing around the time of each holiday. She starts, of course, with the Jewish New Year--Rosh Hashanah--and recipes for September and October. The very first recipe is a Tunisian Lemon Rind Salad, which I made. As she says, it can be a substitute for traditional preserved lemons. The addition of garlic and spicy harissa paste adds a punch to the salad that pure preserved lemons don't have. You can use this as a condiment with chicken or fish. I will also add it to vegetables to make a sauce for pasta.

While most of these recipes aren't specifically associated with a particular Jewish holiday and can be enjoyed anytime in the season, Saltsman does create holiday menus with the recipes. Yes, there's chicken soup and brisket and a honey cake for Rosh Hashanah. And, of course, tzimmes. Most of these recipes are beautifully illustrated with photography--and wonderful storytelling by Saltsman. You'll turn to this book again and again for inspiration for a weeknight meal or to freshen a traditional holiday table.

Roasted Carrot And Sweet Potato Tzimmes
From The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen by Amelia Saltsman

Makes 8 to 10 servings

Tzimmes is an eastern European stew of carrots and/or sweet potatoes and prunes traditionally cooked with beef flanken, often sweetened with brown or white sugar, and sometimes thickened with flour. In Yiddish, the word tzimmes means “a big fuss,” probably because of all the work required to make the old-style dish. This version couldn’t be easier: Skip the meat, sugar, and flour and instead roast carrots, sweet potatoes, and dried Santa Rosa–type plums (or common dried prunes) in fresh orange juice until they are tender, browned, glazed with citrus, and deliciously infused with orange. Tzimmes is a great companion to brisket or chicken and is also a good accompaniment to farro or quinoa for a pareve/vegan main course. It can easily be made a day ahead and reheated and is often served in the fall for Rosh Hashanah and in the spring for Passover. It is also a lovely addition to any festive meal during these times of the year. Both seasons yield sweet carrots, especially in the spring. In the fall, use new-season white- or orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

6 to 8 oranges
1 lemon
2 pounds (900 g) carrots
3 pounds (1.4 kg) sweet potatoes
1 pound (450 g) shallots (about 8 large)
½ to ¾ pound (225 to 340 g) dried plums or pitted prunes (vary the amount depending on how sweet and fruity you want the dish)
3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground white or black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Using a swivel-blade vegetable peeler, remove the zest in large strips from 2 of the oranges and the lemon. Be sure to press down only hard enough to capture the colored part of the skin, not the bitter white pith. Juice enough oranges to yield 2½ cups (600 ml) juice. Reserve the lemon for another use.

Peel the carrots and cut them crosswise into 2-inch (5-cm) chunks or lengthwise into 2-inch (5-cm) chunks (if carrots are very fat, first halve them lengthwise). Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into large bite-size chunks. Peel and quarter the shallots lengthwise. Use kitchen scissors to snip the dried fruits in half.

Use a roasting pan large enough to hold all the vegetables in more or less a single layer. Place carrots, sweet potatoes, shallots, dried fruit, and lemon and orange zests in the pan. Toss with enough olive oil to coat evenly, season with salt and pepper, and pour the juice over all. Roast the vegetables, turning them once or twice during cooking, until they are tender and are browned in places and most of the juice is absorbed, about 1¼ hours. If you want a saucier finished dish, add another ½ to 1 cup (120 to 240 ml) juice during the last 20 minutes of cooking. The juice should thicken slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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