Life’s a Feast! Incredible blog post with photos on Quiches, Kugels and Couscous

Wednesday, December 1, 2010





When I was contacted about receiving a copy of Joan Nathan’s newest cookbook, I was very excited! I recently inherited my brother’s copy of The New American Cooking and had fallen in love with this amazing cookbook, so I was anxious to read and cook from another of Ms. Nathan’s books. And when I saw the title Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous (My Search for Jewish Cooking in France) I just had to laugh. I immediately wrote an e-mail to Ms. Nathan’s PR person exclaiming, “This newest cookbook is the perfect fit for me and my blog – I grew up with the kugel and married the quiche and the couscous!” I knew that this book fit right in with the multi-cultural aspect of my blog…. And how! And what a fabulous early Hanukkah gift!

Growing up in a fairly small, middle-America town where everything and everyone revolved around the Space Center like satellites around a very important planet, I wasn’t surrounded by a large, multi-faceted Jewish community. We were a small, tight-knit and rather homogeneous group. We were all descendents of Russian Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants and what was cooked and baked in our parents’ kitchens and placed on the table before us was all the same, what we thought of and defined as “Jewish” food: chicken soup with matzoh balls or kneidlach dumplings, kishkes and kasha varnishkes, cabbage soup and potato latkes. Mmmm. We knew that the traditional dishes that graced our weekday, holiday and Sabbath evening tables were different than our non-Jewish friends’ meals – while they ate bacon on Sunday mornings we were enjoying bagels and nova lox, while they were eating apple pie we, were eating apple noodle kugel. Gefilte fish, blintzes and Challah were foreign to them yet everyday fare for us, and although we knew it was special to our own culture, we never, beyond that, gave it a second thought. It just was.

And then I moved to France. Over the years I have discovered just how diverse Jewish cuisine is, as diverse as her people: we have dined on the traditional Friday night saffron-infused couscous on Shabbat at our friends’ home and I learned to cook sunny tagine sweetened with prunes and apricots or tangy with olives and preserved lemons. While I grew up on carrot kugel and tzimmes, I am now enjoying carrots marinated in a sweet and spicy olive oil glaze. We were handed down an Old World cuisine, earthy, heavy and warm meant to build up, pad and sustain bodies, protect against the frigid Eastern European cold, a cuisine born of the hard, dense, often ice-incrusted dirt: potatoes, cabbage, beets, onions and chicken were the mainstays of this hearty menu. Even trips to New York to visit family meant potato knishes, huge hot pastrami on rye sandwiches and chopped chicken liver all served up with huge, briny dill pickles. I had known little if anything about this other culture of the Sephardic Jews, one from a land not of cold and grey, but one of sunshine and fertile land. Her colorful culinary heritage is filled to overflowing with violet eggplants, golden orange pumpkin and carrots, deep green zucchini and bright yellow lemons. Dishes are spiced with saffron, cinnamon and coriander, drizzled with honey and flavored with dried fruits and nuts. The same blessings are recited, the same rituals are performed, but this was a Jewish cuisine that was completely new to me!

As our Jewish friends of North African descent have shared their history and the traditions unique to their own culture, I have also learned the fascinating and often turbulent story of French Jews who originate from both Northern and Eastern Europe, stories of ghettos and concentration camps, resistance and rebirth. Stories of war-torn families and les Justes, those non-Jews who risked their own fate in order to help hide and transport the Jews of France to safety during WWII. Yet through thick and thin, they have succeeded in holding onto their gastronomic heritage. I’ve broken bread with these Jewish friends over tables laden with foods from every French Jewish culture from the couscous to the chopped liver, from the Challah to the fish choucroute, schnitzel and kugelhopf. As I sometimes sit in wonderment and think about how unreal it is to be in a country that once deported Jews, refused their admittance to public schools, chased whomsoever could into hiding, I celebrate the survival of and the coming together, the unifying of these somewhat disparate cultures and traditions into one that has succeeded in melding so well into French society, inspiring and allowing herself to be inspired by this separate and unique culinary culture. This is Joan Nathan’s story through both her eloquent words and her mouth-watering, tantalizing, intriguing recipes.

Joan Nathan recounts her fascinating travels through Jewish France and so much of it touches a chord inside of me, parallels my own cultural and culinary voyage through this, my adopted country. Each time I pick up and read a bit more of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous (My Search for Jewish Cooking in France), I learn just a little bit more, am intrigued and tempted by one or two more recipes, some I am familiar with and some that I, thanks to her, am just now discovering. Once I cooked and baked my first recipes from this book, I knew that one single blog post would not do. As I have discovered these cultures, these culinary treasures one by one, so I have decided to approach the cookbook. For this first post, I selected three recipes, a salad, a main and a bread, starting with my own Eastern European roots: Chicken with Cinnamon and Apples, a recipe from Metz, France redolent of cinnamon and sweet with apples for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (at which time we eat apples dipped in honey for the promise of a round, sweet year), a French Potato Salad with Shallots and Parsley and a Parisian Pletzl, soft, individual disc-shaped breads topped with chopped onions and poppy seeds.

Joan Nathan’s newest book did not let me down. Her stories are fascinating, her recipes as diverse as they are delicious, a wonderful voyage both historical and culinary through this most gastronomic of countries, France. This book, for both Jews and non-Jews alike, is a treasure trove of fabulous recipes and the perfect gift for Hanukkah and Christmas.

(I want to send the recipe for Parisian Pletzl to Susan of Wild Yeast for her weekly Yeastspotting event!

For all of my European readers, don’t forget to enter the drawing for a fabulous box of luxury chocolates from Hotel Chocolat. Just leave a comment after my last post!

Don’t miss two wonderful holiday recipes I have on Huffington Post: perfect Butter Cookies to cut out in any Hanukkah or Christmas shape you like, including how to build a stunning Christmas Cookie Tree and a spectacular, festive Chestnut and Chocolate layer cake.

A great big THANKS to Lael for making this happen! Happy Hanukkah!)

ROSH HASHANAH CHICKEN with Cinnamon and Apples from Metz
4 to 6 servings

Stunning! We all fell in love with this dish. The chicken was tender and juicy and infused with a tangy sweet flavor of the wine and apples and the fruit, as always, was perfect with the chicken. The leftovers were reheated the following day and it was just as delicious, if not even better. Easy to make, this dish will be a regular on my table.

One 3 ½ - 4 pound (2 kgs) roasting chicken or the equivalent in selected pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 onion, trimmed, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 cup (250ml) chicken broth *
1 1/3 cups (330 ml) white wine *
3 or 4 apples, cored and cut horizontally into 4 slices (I used Reines-des-Reinettes but pippins or Fuji apples are also good)
2 Tbs sugar

* As I realized a bit too late, my baking pan was not large enough so this amount of liquid was too much and my chicken swam. Although the chicken cooked perfectly and the texture and flavor of the meat was stunningly outstanding, I think the next time I will just fill up the roasting pan with enough of the liquid to allow the top third of the chicken pieces to remain above the level of the liquid which should let the skin crisp up.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper as well as ½ teaspoon of the ground cinnamon. Place the pieces snuggly in a large roasting pan with the chunks of onion. Pour the chicken broth and wine over the chicken pieces (see *note above) and roast in the preheated oven for 45 minutes.

After the chicken has cooked for the initial 45 minutes, place the apple slices around the chicken pieces, pushing them under the liquid as well as you can. Sprinkle the chicken with the remaining ground cinnamon and the sugar and return the roasting pan to the oven to roast for an additional 45 minutes or until the apples are very soft and the chicken is cooked through.

FRENCH POTATO SALAD with Shallots and Parsley

When I tasted the sauce, a cross between a vinaigrette and a mayonnaise, I thought it tasted awfully tart and strong, but on potatoes it was fantastic, perfectly balanced with the mellow flesh of the vegetable and delicious. Again, this was a winner in everyone’s book and one salad I will make over and over again.

2 pounds (1 kg) potatoes **
Salt to taste
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 egg yolk (I used the yolk of a large egg)
¼ cup (60 ml) red wine vinegar
½ cup (125 ml) vegetable or olive oil
Freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

** I used tiny ratte fingerling potatoes and ended up cooking just slightly more than half a kilo as the entire recipe would have been too much for us. I only made the mistake of serving them whole rather than slicing them in half so the sauce could soak into the potatoes.

Wash the potatoes under running water and remove any dirt stuck to the skin. Peel larger potatoes but you can leave the peel on the tiny fingerling potatoes if you like. Cut the potatoes in half or quarters, depending on the size of the potato, and place in a pot of water. Bring the water to the boil, add salt to taste, and cook until firm but tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.

Toss the potatoes and the chopped shallots together in a serving bowl.

Using a food processor fitted with a steel blade (or an emulsion blender), blend the egg yolk and the vinegar. With the motor running, slowly stream in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Fold the dressing into the warm potatoes, sprinkle with parsley and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 12 Individual Onion Flatbreads

A French version of what I grew up calling a Bialy (short for Bialystoker tsibele pletzl, a flat onion bread from the Polish city of Bialystok), this is much less saltier than the ones I eat in the US. The onions on this, Florence Finkelsztajn’s of the famed delicatessen on Rue des Rosiers in Paris, version add a faintly sweet hint to a wonderfully fragrant, soft bread, perfect for mopping up the sauce on your plate or pairing with cheese. A perfect bread.

1 scant Tbs active dry yeast
4 Tbs sugar
4 to 5 cups (500 to 625 g) flour, more as needed for kneading
2 large eggs
¼ cup (62 ml) plus 2 Tbs vegetable oil
2 tsps salt
2 to 3 cups diced onion (as much as you like)
¼ cup poppy seeds

Pour 1 cup (250 ml) lukewarm water into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the yeast and the sugar until dissolved. Add 4 cups (about 500 g) flour, the eggs, ¼ cup (62 ml) of the vegetable oil and the salt. Mix well and knead for 10 minutes, until smooth, adding more flour if necessary. Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, turning the dough to coat lightly with the oil, cover and let rise for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and grease or line (with parchment paper) 2 baking sheets.

Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and form into balls. Roll or flatten each ball out into a flat round 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Put the rounds on the cookie sheets and press down the center to leave about a slightly higher inch-wide edge all around. Brush the dough with cold water and sprinkle about ¼ cup of diced onion in each indentation. Brush the edges of the rounds with vegetable oil and sprinkle generously with poppy seeds. Let sit for 15 minutes uncovered.

Bake for 20 minutes until risen around the edges and a deep golden brown. If you like, you can slip the pletzlach under the broiler for just a minute to brown the onions. Serve warm or lukewarm.