California Meets Mediterranean in Wide-reaching New Jewish Cookbook

Cookbook author and Chez Panisse chef Joyce Goldstein draws on decades of experience in her encyclopedic volume, 'The New Mediterranean Jewish Table.'

Muhammara dip.
Leigh Beisch

In 1984, Joyce Goldstein opened her award winning Mediterranean restaurant Square One in San Francisco. 

“People would call to make a reservation, and they would ask, ‘What kind of food do you serve?’ and we would say Mediterranean, and there would be dead silence,” Goldstein told me by phone this week. 

Square One’s menu included dishes from all over the Mediterranean, from Morocco and Tunisia through Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy and France, and all the way to Iran. But at the time, American restaurant-goers hardly knew what Mediterranean food was, and were not even sure which countries were on the Mediterranean. 

“Today you go into a restaurant and you can have couscous and fish with charmoula [a Moroccan herb and spice marinade] and romesco sauce [Spanish pepper and almond sauce], but in 1984, nobody knew what it was,” said Goldstein.

Joyce Goldstein.
Margaretta Mitchell

It was a long process of educating her chefs, diners and the readers of her many books, but by now, it seems the American reader is fully ready for Goldstein’s latest book, “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home” (University of California Press), which comes out April 12. The encyclopedic book binds together more than 400 of Goldstein’s favorite recipes, the ones she goes back to time and again, from the Sephardi, Maghrebi and Mizrahi Jewish cuisines. 

Goldstein is an avid chronicler of the Jewish Sephardi and Maghrebi kitchens, and has already published three books based on her research into these culinary traditions: “Cucina Ebraica” (Chronicle Books, 1998) about Italian Jewish cuisine; “Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean” (Chronicle Books, 2000), and “Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the southern Mediterranean” (Chronicle Books, 2002).

But over time, Goldstein realized that she had omitted Mizrahi Jews - Jews from the Middle East, she said by phone. “It’s such a delicious food,” she said. And so Goldstein delved into the wonders of Mizrahi cooking and came up with more than 200 recipes that are now an integral part of her new book.

Goldstein says she was attracted to Mediterranean cuisine after traveling and living in the region starting in the late 1950s. 

“When I first had that food I thought, this is where I want to eat for the rest of my life,” she recalled. “The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, the beautiful herbs, you don’t get all that in the Ashkenazi cuisine. The Ashkenazi cuisine is all potatoes and root vegetables, and it doesn’t depend on seasonality. The Mediterranean diet is tied to nature and to geography.”

The similarities between Mediterranean and Californian cooking did not escape Goldstein, a California resident who was chef at Cafe at Alice Waters' legendary restaurant Chez Panisse before opening her own restaurant. She also founded the California Street Cooking School. 

Fish with golden sauce.
Leigh Beisch

California could be a Mediterranean country,” she explained. “We grow the same fruit and vegetables, so it’s natural for me to continue and cook the Mediterranean diet,” she said.

Researching her new book, Goldstein discovered that the Spanish Jews who immigrated to Turkey after the 1492 expulsion maintained a cuisine similar to what they ate in Spain, while those who moved to Greece, for example, did not. 

She is fascinated by the way Jewish food traveled through countries and time. Spanish and Portuguese Jews, for example, forced to leave their homeland and establish a new life in Greece and Turkey, found new herbs like dill and mint, and discovered different uses for eggplant.

“You’re being influenced by what is being served around you,” Goldstein said.

That is also the reason she decided to include Iranian recipes in her book, even though the country is not on the Mediterranean. 

“Iran was the mothership for a lot of food,” Goldstein said. “The quince and the fig came from Iran to Southern Europe. [Also the way they prepared their stews, the khoresh, influenced the way others cooked in the rest of the Mediterranean. Then there’s their abundance use of herbs. The Persians had a very distinctive cuisine that made a strong imprint.”

The Arab influence of the area was also significant. “They brought to Spain the rice, sugar cane, citrus fruit, spinach and eggplant, which changed the way the entire Mediterranean ate,” she said.

Joyce Goldstein prepping ingredients.
Courtesy

“Old World food in a New World kitchen,” is the motto Goldstein chose to define her cuisine. She  seeks to translate the traditional recipes to fit the modern palate and way of life. One important adjustment is the adapting of time-consuming recipes, passed down through generations of housewives who had the time cook breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Goldstein's recipes, on the other hand, incorporate modern techniques that suite the current way of life. She also tweaked seasonings, adding a squeeze of lemon here, doubling the cinnamon there.

The book is filled with wonderful, mouthwatering recipes, most of them short and easy to follow. They include lamb stew with quince; Persian stew with eggplant, tomatoes and grapes; braised artichokes, fava and lettuce; Lebanese Spinach pastries; roasted cauliflower with walnuts; and much more. To my delight, there are dozens of eggplant recipes as well as plenty of kosher for Passover dishes.

Maybe the true meaning Goldstein’s motto, Old World Food in a New World kitchen, lies in the combination of Californian and Mediterranean cuisines. Two traditions of cooks preparing for their families food that is always naturally seasonal, local and full of flavor, simply by relying on the best produce nature has to offer.

Goldstein recommended the following two recipes for Passover.

Chicken with Apricots and Tomatoes (Djah Mish Mish) 

From “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table” by Joyce Goldstein (University of California Press, April 2016)

I have seen variations of this recipe in Indian and Syrian cookbooks, even though apricots originated in Iran. The addition of tomatoes makes this an interesting mix of Old World and New World ingredients. The apricot and tomato sauce is sweet, tart, and aromatic, and adds a lively tang to simple Cornish hens or chicken. Some Syrian cooks add tamarind to the sauce to heighten the tart-sweet balance. Although I often serve this dish at Passover as part of the Seder meal, I need no special holiday to cook this all year long, as it’s a family favorite. Serve with rice, bulgur, or freekeh pilaf and with sautéed spinach.

Serves six.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons rendered chicken fat or olive oil, plus more oil if browning the hens 
4 cups chopped yellow onions (about 3 medium) 
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1 teaspoon ground cloves 
3 cups drained diced canned tomatoes (with juices reserved, optional) 
3 1/2 cups dried apricots, soaked in warm water to cover (will expand to about 5 cups after soaking)
2 cups chicken broth, water, or a combination of apricot soaking liquid, tomato juices, and water, or as needed 
1/3 cup packed brown sugar 
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
6 Cornish hens or poussins, each 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, or 12 chicken thighs 

Directions

Warm the chicken fat in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the cinnamon and the cloves and cook for about 3 minutes longer. Add about 1/2 cup of the reserved tomato juices, stir well, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain the apricots, reserving the liquid. Purée half of the soaked apricots in a food processor and coarsely chop the remainder.

Add the puréed apricots, diced tomatoes, and 1 cup of the broth to the onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the chopped apricots, the brown sugar, and the remaining 1 cup broth and simmer for 5 minutes. You should have a medium-thick sauce; add more liquid if needed. Season with salt and pepper and then set aside until serving. (This sauce can be made up to a day in advance, covered, and refrigerated. Reheat just before using.)

This dish can be finished two different ways. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees Celsius). Place the Cornish hens on a rack in a roasting pan. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and the remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Roast until the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool until they can be handled, cut into quarters, and warm the quarters in the apricot sauce on stove top and serve hot. 

Alternately, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Cut the whole birds into quarters, sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and the remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and brown the pieces on all sides in oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Spoon half of the sauce into a large baking dish, arrange the poultry pieces on top in a single layer, and spoon the remaining sauce over the pieces. Bake until tender, about 30 minutes, and then serve hot.

Passover Hazelnut Sponge Cake (Pan di Spagna alle Nocciole)

From “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table” by Joyce Goldstein (University of California Press, April 2016)

A family favorite, this light, flourless Italian Passover cake is fragrant with sweet toasted hazelnuts — a specialty of the Piedmont region — and with subtle hints of citrus. 

Serves ten to twelve.

Ingredients

10 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange (3 to 4 tablespoons juice)
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon (2 to 3 tablespoons juice)
1 1/2 cups finely ground toasted and peeled hazelnuts 
6 tablespoons matzo cake meal, sifted
2 tablespoons potato starch
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Have ready a 10-inch tube pan.

In a bowl, combine the egg yolks, one 1/2 cup of sugar, and the citrus zests and juices. Using an electric mixer, beat on high speed until the mixture is thick and pale and holds a slowly dissolving ribbon for 3 seconds when the beaters are lifted.

In a second bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. On medium-high speed, gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the egg mixture just until combined, then fold in the hazelnuts, the matzo cake meal, potato starch, salt, and vanilla. 

Pour the batter into the tube pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Invert the cake still in the pan onto a wire rack and let cool completely. To serve, lift off the pan and transfer the cake to a serving plate. Cut into slices and serve.