Joan Nathan on Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous

​South Florida certainly has its share of Jews--it has been estimated the tri-county area of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach is home to about 10 percent of American Jews--so we wanted to share some culinary inspiration, especially in the wake of our bacon and pork belly craze. Thankfully, author Joan Nathan's book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, came out just in time. Nathan is not only the author of numerous cookbooks, but also served as host of a nationally syndicated PBS television series and once consulted for Royal Caribbean, helping them improve their kosher offerings. She is also a James Beard Award and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award winner so you can trust she knows her borscht from her brisket. Meet her at the Miami Book Fair when she lectures Saturday at 3 p.m.

New Times: How do you define Jewish cuisine?

Joan Nathan: Jewish cuisine, as far as I'm concerned, can be any kind of cuisine, but it is thinking about the dietary laws that were in the book of Leviticus. So no shellfish, no pork, no mixing milk and meat. Even if you're not a religious Jew it's in the back of your head.

But it's specific to a few countries?

Jewish food has been regionalized. They're always been adapters, using the food of the land. It was the first global cuisine.

How do you differentiate between American, French and Israeli Jewish cuisine?

I think American Jewish cuisine is primarily Eastern European with the patina of American products. Israeli cuisine comes from the land of Israel. Arabs say, 'You're stealing our cuisine!' But we're really not. Hummous and falafel, those are biblical ingredients. Jewish food in Israel is dairy at breakfast, dairy at dinner, and meat at lunch. In France, French-Alsatian would be considered French food, then there's French- French-Romanian, French-Russian, French-North African, Portuguese Merchant food... so it depends on not only where you live in France but where your family is from. Jewish food from France goes back 2,000 years. France has the third largest Jewish community in the world.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered writing this book?

Getting into people's homes. And then doing research.

How do you know when to stop?

I would've gone on, but there's a point when I'm writing books that I think the stories are getting repetitious and I have enough good recipes.

Did the book change from the original concept you pitched to the publishers?

We all realized that it was much richer than we ever thought it would be because of the stories. It's a story about wonderful food and a history of the people expelled. Stories from the Holocaust and people who had to flee.

Don't forget 83,000 Jews in France were put in camps or sent away. The Jews were scouted down in France. What's astonishing is that the Jews want to come back to France.

How did the recipes survive through that?

Through people. And don't forget, recipes are an attachment to family in every civilization.

Do you have a favorite recipe?

I love all the recipes. If I didn't like a recipe in the book I wouldn't put it in. There's a tomato salad called salad d'olives that I adore. And I love the Moroccan challah. I make that every Friday night.

Any of them you like less than the others?

I'm not wild about anchovies, but one of my favorite recipes in the book is a savory anchovy olive babka.

Now that you dug all these up, do you find yourself actually making them at home?

I use the recipes all the time. Some of my favorites are the chicken with apples, and there's an apple cake that's really good...there's a goose recipe that's delicious. The onion quiche, I love and there's cassolita, it's sweet with squash and onion...

This may sound like a stupid question, but since not all Jews keep kosher I guess it's fair to ask--are all the recipes kosher?

It's 100 percent kosher. The Jewish recipes people gave me were kosher, though they might not themselves keep kosher. Even though they're not all kosher in France, they might not eat pork. But they might eat shellfish.

I was surprised to see foie gras in a recipe or two, though I guess it's considered kosher.

It's a by-product of goose fat. And goose fat people needed because they didn't use lard.

Why do you think we haven't seen many of these recipes in America?

I think Jews don't talk about it that much. Because of their history in France it's much more hidden. So it's very hard to penetrate their communities. I have a lot of relatives in France so I was able to do it.

Check back tomorrow for her Moroccan chicken with olives and preserved lemons recipe.