Joan Nathan’s New Book Ties Biblical Cooking to the World of Today

Haaretz's food columnist cooks lunch with the doyenne of Jewish cooking, and discusses food history and Jewish tradition

Azerbaijani kukusa with Swiss chard and herbs.
Azerbaijani kukusa with Swiss chard and herbs. Joan Nathan/Random House

I’m reading the ingredients list of Azerbaijani kukusa from Joan Nathan’s new cookbook as we sit in her kitchen, gathering ingredients to cook our lunch on a sunny spring day.

Nathan looks through her large fridge. The egg dish calls for Swiss chard, cilantro and dill, but she proposes adding zucchini, kale and some Parmesan instead. Sounds delicious. Nathan, who tests each recipe several times before publishing to ensure her readers get a foolproof version, is not afraid of having some fun with culinary improvisations.

“A good recipe will turn you loose and set you free,” Nathan says, quoting her favorite motto.

Nathan’s new cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World” (Knopf, 2017), is her 11th book. It offers a delightful collection of recipes from around the Jewish Diaspora, sprinkled with a fascinating medley of historical facts, personal stories and biblical quotes about dishes that date back millennia.

It’s a beautiful book with appetizing recipes, many of them – to my delight – from the Iraq-Iran region, dating from Babylonian times through today. T’beet, the Iraqi overnight Shabbat stew of chicken stuffed and covered in rice, is one of them. Fessenjan, Iranian chicken in walnut and pomegranate, is another example. My Ashkenazi-Canadian husband was excited to find a recipe for Shtritzlach, Toronto blueberry buns, which he remembers being served at his grandmother’s house. A friend was happy when he recognized a Romanian cornmeal ricotta pudding called malai from his childhood.

The kukusa we were cooking is similar to the more familiar Persian kuku – a term referring to a family of dishes. These are egg frittatas mixed with herbs or vegetables and served in slices, like a casserole. Joan traced the dish to its origins in the Babylonian days, after which it moved through the south of France with Iraqi rabbis and their families, to Azerbaijan, and from there to Brooklyn. It’s a light dish with a heavy history, and it’s perfect for an easy Passover lunch, or on any other day of the year.

We also prepared a Persian cucumber and radish salad with Hungarian paprika that Nathan remembers having at her grandmother’s house, with a few variations – such as using the Persian cucumbers that are now widely available around the United States.

“I don’t think there are any authentic recipes; recipes are always changing and Jewish food is always changing,” said Nathan, as she mixed the salad.

Joan Nathan. "Recipes are always changing and Jewish food is always changing."
by Random House

What makes a dish Jewish, I asked. Nathan – after decades of testing, writing and documenting Jewish cuisine – was ready with the answer. “To me, there are three components that make a dish Jewish,” she said. “One is the dietary laws. Second is the idea of merchants, looking for new ingredients. Third, being kicked out and adjusting to new ingredients and dishes, while keeping the dietary laws. You bring with you the concept of family, of the table, of jokes, of music and food.

“As opposed to Italian and French cuisines that come from the earth, Jewish food does not come from one earth,” she added. “It travels and comes from many places, always changing.”

Talking about her family’s roots and her mother, who very recently passed away, Nathan spoke of the Jewish lifecycle traditions. “I didn’t realize how comforting the concept of shivah was, and the food – especially your mejadera,” she tells me, referring to a dish of bulgur and lentils that is served on shivahs and mourning occasions, like Tisha B’Av. “Also going to Kaddish, the music and the repetitiveness, singing over and over again. It was very comforting.”

From the few recipes I’ve tried from the new book, I can already recommend bazargan – a bulgur and tamarind dip with toasted pine nuts, walnuts and pistachio; caponata siciliana, with eggplant, tomatoes, olives and pine nuts; spinach and feta burekas, done the Israeli way with puff pastry; and easy and delicious gravlax with dill and mustard dressing that my family devoured. All the recipes have deep roots in the past, but all were adapted by Nathan to fit modern kitchens and ingredients.

The cover of Joan Nathan's cookbook "King Solomon's Table."
by Random House

“We all think what it was like in the past. Well, the past wasn’t so great,” she said, half-joking. “We have better bakers now, we have better equipment – it’s just that processed food has gotten in the way.”

Azerbaijani Kukusa with Swiss Chard and Herbs

Recipe from “King Solomon’s Table,” by Joan Nathan. Copyright 2017 by Random House. All rights reserved.

“I thought it fitting to start the book with this easy and delicious herb-infused frittata, a living vestige of an early dish from ancient Persia and Babylonia. It shows not only the wanderings of the Jewish people, but also their good taste.

“During the early Middle Ages, when Babylon was the rabbinic center that sent rabbis, with their families and family recipes, to the south of France, a common dish used by cooks of the region was kuku, an egg dish served warm or at room temperature. Found in southern French Jewish cookbooks today, the dish has wandered down to Morocco and back again to France, where it is served cold as an appetizer at weddings and other happy events and warm for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

“This particular kuku morphed into kukusa (pronounced “kyu-kyusa”) on the Silk Road, and serves as a perfect example of a wandering comfort food. This recipe is from Stanley Yunayev, the father of the chef at Chateau de Capitaine (a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn), who comes from the city of Quba, where in one neighborhood called Red Village the population has been almost entirely Jewish for more than 1,500 years. The first Azerbaijani Jews, so the story goes, were mostly mountain people, coming from Babylon sometime between 500 and 700 C.E., or maybe even earlier. No one seems to know. Thought to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, the Azerbaijanis are some of the last Jews to migrate to New York.”

From “King Solomon’s Table”

Yields 6 to 8 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large sweet onions, sliced very thin

About ½ cup clipped chives

3 scallions, diced

About 8 ounces (226 grams) fresh Swiss chard or spinach, trimmed of stems and chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped

½ bunch dill, snipped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

8 to 10 large eggs

Handful of arugula or other bitter greens or herbs

½ cup (50 grams) walnuts, coarsely ground

* Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick pan set over medium heat. Add the onions, chives, and scallions, and saute until golden, about 15 to 20 minutes.

* When the onion mixture is golden, add the Swiss chard or spinach, garlic, cilantro, dill, salt and pepper to taste, and turmeric, and cook for about 10 minutes over low heat, until any liquid released from the spinach and herbs is evaporated.

* Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl, then carefully incorporate the eggs into the vegetables and herbs in the frying pan, using a rubber spoon to smooth the surface. Cook covered, over low heat, for about 10 minutes, or until the eggs are set. The color should be deep green, almost black. Uncover and bring to the table in the frying pan with a handful of arugula on top and sprinkle with the walnuts. You can also serve this cut up at room temperature as an appetizer or snack.

In Azerbaijan, the many variations of this dish include vegetables ranging from asparagus to eggplant to squash. In the summer, try experimenting with the bounty of fresh herbs that are available near you. I have made this dish with kale, bok choy, lovage, fennel fronds and arugula, and served it sprinkled with feta as well as the nuts. Just keep the ratios about the same, and you’re sure to have a delicious dish.

Persian Cucumber and Radish Salad with Hungarian Paprika

Recipe from “King Solomon’s Table,” by Joan Nathan. Copyright 2017 by Random House. All rights reserved.

“The court clerk, cantor, and schoolmaster Solomon, son of the judge Elijah, jotted this shopping note on the reverse side of a letter of his, which was returned to him:

‘Cucumber, faqqus (cucumber), parsley, apples, bread, mul[ukhiya?] a chicken, asparagus. Pocket money for the wife. Expended on Friday.’

“Thirteenth-century shopping list found in the Cairo Genizah, from S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 1967.”

– “King Solomon’s Table”

Yields 6 to 8 servings

1/3 cup (80 milliliters) flavorful, light vinegar, such as white wine or white balsamic vinegar (or an infused vinegar such as tarragon, lemon, etc.)

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 large shallot or the white part of 2 scallions, peeled and diced

6 tiny Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline)

4 radishes, thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline)

Persian cucumbers – as old as the Bible but relatively new to Western markets – do not need to be peeled, stay crunchily crisp, and taste the way cucumbers should! The seeds for them came from Iran, but like many products affected by politics, they crisscrossed first through Israel and Turkey, then to California and other places around the globe. Try them in this dish.

* In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sugar, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the diced shallot or scallions, then set aside until almost ready to serve. Adjust the sugar to your taste.

* About 15 minutes before serving, put the cucumbers and radishes in a serving bowl, then toss with the vinegar mixture and sprinkle with more paprika.