A popular face on cooking shows as well as a sought after voice in food publications, Amelia Saltsman has taken a journey through her family history and culinary traditions to create this compilation of recipes in The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen.
Saltsman writes, “I am not religious, yet I have long believed that how I shop for food and cook it are opportunities for mindfulness. Today, when we talk about where our food comes from, we’re usually referring to matters of food safety and justice, sustainability and support for small local farms. But the concept can take us farther back, putting food’s ancient past into modern context. The twists and turns of my own food history have driven my search for deeper connections in food that give substance to a melting-pot life. For me, this wellspring of story has long been the farmers’ market; its people, ingredients, and seasons are what inspired my first book, The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook. It’s a logical step, a quick hop really, to the next level of meaning in food in The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen.”
Saltsman’s hardcover cookbook is filled with over 150 recipes, gorgeous food photos, and explanations of Jewish traditions and holidays, as well as snippets of her family history. Although it isn’t a textbook on how to cook Kosher, serious Jewish cooks will not find the recipes contradictory to their guidelines.
The Jewish Food Calendar
Saltsman writes, “The Jewish cooking calendar is a great template for today’s eating habits. Even if you don’t know the names of all the holidays, a year’s worth of Jewish food bears a striking resemblance to any market-driven cook’s seasonal road map. When you divide the year into six two-month microseasons, you can readily see how the foods in each mesh meaningfully with the holidays that occur during that time. For example, in March and April, lush herbs and green shoots are at the heart of the Passover observance and perfect for updating classics like matzah brei and kigelach and for turning an ordinary Seder plate into an exciting taste sensation.”
“The six two-month recipe chapters begin with September and October, the start of the Jewish year and the fall harvest, and each chapter contains information about the holidays and ingredients that occur during that period. The recipes in each chapter flow from starters, salads, and soups to side dishes, mains, and desserts. At the back of the book, you will find all the recipes listed by category.”
The beginning of The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen contains a valuable section entitled Ingredient Essentials. There are brief explanations that help the reader master the use of unique ingredients. For example:
Labneh: Lightly salted and drained cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk yogurt that thickens to a spreadable “yogurt cheese”. Byblos is a good brand.
Orange Blossom Water: Distilled from bitter-orange blossoms, this fragrant liquid lends a heady citrus note to desserts. Al Wadi and Cortas are reliable large manufacturers; Mymoune is a good specialty brand. Avoid products made with alcohol as they can add a medicinal flavor. Fresh orange zest is a good substitute.
Another helpful section early in the book is entitled Seven Basic Recipes. These foundational recipes are referred to often, so these pages will see plenty of use as you cook through the rest of the book: Sephardic rice, tahini, lemon sauces, lightly pickled cabbage, labneh, Ashkenazic schmaltz, and gribenes.
I baked Aunt Sarah’s Honey and Apple Cake on page 77. The directions were easy to follow, and the outcome was quite tasty. The reviews from around my table were positive, but the consensus was that the recipe wasn’t any better than others already proven and filed in my recipe box. The description in the prelude to the recipes reads, “This cake, delicately spiced, tender, and moist with grated apples, is the perfect homage to two of the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, honey and apples, which represent wishes for a good and sweet year.”
I also prepared Simcha’s Rice with Almonds and Raisins on page 188 introduced with these words, “Make this Yemenite rice whenever you want to add contrasting sweetness and crunch to your main course. This recipe comes from cook and housekeeper Simcha Pinhas, who works for my cousin Milka Laks, a retired pianist who played for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.” True to its description, this rice side dish was delightful in taste and texture.
Next on my list of recipes to try is Roasted Carrot and Sweet Potato Tzimmes on page 47. “Tzimmes is an eastern European stew of carrots and/or sweet potatoes and prunes. In Yiddish, the word tzimmes means “a big fuss” probably because of all the work required to make the old-style dish.” Amelia Saltsman has simplified the recipe into an intriguing combination of oranges, lemons, carrots, sweet potatoes, shallots, dried prunes, and seasonings. The accompanying photograph has my mouth watering.
In a cookbook that isn’t divided into traditional sections, the index is valuable. In addition to the comprehensive index, Saltsman offers a listing of Recipes by Course, Recipes by Kosher Category, a Resource Guide, and The Wandering Holidays of the Jewish Calendar.
The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen is a book written to be read not just perused. It is a book that belongs in the kitchen of Jewish cooks interested in creating tasty dishes that utilize fresh, wholesome ingredients. It belongs in the kitchen library of families who wish to explore their Jewish ancestry and traditions; by reading it cover to cover, they’ll gain a wealth of information that will make them better cooks, more understanding of their heritage, and better able to pass along traditions to their children. — by Lisa George, RFT Cookbook Editor, Latigo Ranch, Kremmling, Colorado; Photo by Hannah George, Latigo Ranch