Ask anyone in the food world, and they’ll tell you: James Beard award-winner Joan Nathan is the authority on Jewish cooking.
Her latest is “King Solomon’s Table,” a colorful exploration of Jewish cooking from around the world. (Chez Panisse chef and food activist Alice Waters wrote the foreword.) The book weaves the Jews’ nomadic history from ancient Babylonia to modern Hong Kong, Brazil, Spain and more with recipes that span the globe, coupled with coffee-table-book-worthy photos by Gabriela Herman.
Nathan considers this exhaustive compendium of more than 170 recipes the pinnacle of her career.
“This is my whole lifetime of learning about food, learning from people and my own background of cooking and traveling,” she says.
Many of the recipes were tested on friends during her weekly Shabbat dinners, especially during summers on Martha’s Vineyard.
”I test them out with a group of people who come to my house. I trust my own taste on things, but I have one friend who is very tough on me. She’s someone with a good palate,” Nathan says with a laugh.
Nathan is also a mom, and her adult children grew up helping her in the kitchen.
“The more you involve your kids in cooking, the more they take a role in it,” she says. “You need to let them cook; let them own it.” During Passover, she’d let her children make salad or dessert. Sometimes they’d roll challah dough after school.
“When they’d start to fight, I’d say, ‘OK, let’s work on challah!” she recalls with a chuckle. “It was great!”
Other times, they’d set the table, and Nathan would try to hold her tongue.
“Whatever they’re doing, let them try it,” she says.
There are several kid-friendly recipes in the book, she says.
She recommends scourtins, or buttery olive biscuits sprinkled with sea salt, a dish native to southern France. There’s also schokoladenwurst, or chocolate “sausage” with ground almonds and marzipan, a Sabbath dish she discovered while visiting a German family living in El Salvador. The traditional recipe specifies to make three cylinders of cookies: one to eat immediately, and two to freeze the next time you have a craving.
I’m most curious about the fideos tostados, a Mediterranean toasted pasta in cinnamon-spiked tomato sauce that looks like something you’d eat with your hands straight from the fridge at 2 a.m.
The recipes are easy enough to follow with older kids and teenagers, and the stories behind each dish, sprinkled with anecdotes from her travels and historical tidbits, are worth sharing with them, too.
“I hope readers get some good recipes, but also get a sense of the wandering of Jewish people and Jewish food,” Nathan says.