For her book King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Alfred A. Knopf 2017; $35), Joan Nathan, the multiple James Beard award winner, followed in the footsteps of Jewish traders as they circumvented the globe centuries and even millenniums ago. As they traveled, they brought the food cultures from the lands they’d visited before and adapted new ones but keeping close to their dietary laws, traditions and homelands.
Nathan, who has written almost a dozen cookbooks, recounts the culinary history and geography of these early travelers in her sumptuous new book featuring over 170 recipes.
It begins at the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala where Nathan spies an inscription indicating Jewish traders might have crossed the Indian Ocean from Judea to India during the reign of King Solomon. Already a world traveler, Nathan next made her way to Chendamangalam, a hamlet 20 miles north of Kochi surrounded by a lush landscape of mango, coconut and cinnamon trees and pepper and cardamom vines.
“As I walked toward the bank of the nearby Periyar River, which flows into the Arabian Sea, I imagined ancient Hebrew adventurers and traders arriving on the shores and marveling at the lushness of the terrain,” writes Nathan in the introduction of her book.
And so we too are seduced by her journey into exotic lands, looking at how foods and ingredients have crisscrossed the globe originating far from where we first might have thought.
We chat about Malai, a Romanian cornmeal ricotta breakfast pudding that she features in her book and I tell her how I learned to make a polenta-like dish from my Romanian grandmother.
“Oh mamaliga,” she says, like everyone knows about mamaliga. But then what would you expect from a woman whose book contains five recipes for haroset, a thick sauce or paste typically made of chopped fruits and nuts. It, like so many recipes, has morphed, bouncing back and forth between countries and continents, each time being tweaked just a little and Nathan includes a version from Brazil, Persia, Ferrara and, of all places, Maine.
Asked what recipes she’d recommend for those just starting using her cookbook, Nathan suggests Yemenite Chicken Soup with Dill, Cilantro and Parsley (“a really old recipe,” she says noting that historic records dating back to 12th century the healing power of chicken broth). She also suggests Malai, the Romania dish and Roman Ricotta Cheese Crostata with Cherries or Chocolate, a cheesecake recipe dating back to Imperial Rome in the 1st century. She also included a recipe from her friend, her friend Injy Farat-Lew, an Egyptian-Jew who grew up in Cairo and Paris, for a flourless chocolate cake and one for hard boiled eggs traditionally served ruing Passover on the Seder plate but can be used as a side for any meal.
“This recipe for long-cooked eggs with spinach came from the island of Corfu, Greece to Ancona, Italy, a seaport on the Adriatic coast,” writes Nathan, who first taste the dish in Rome, in the introduction to this recipe which also exemplifies the convoluted origins of food.
As she traveled (Nathan says her quest took her to approximately 30 countries over a six-year time span), the scope of her book changed. But it was all part of her culinary journey and one she continues to take.
Huevos Haminados con Spinaci
(Long-Cooked Hard-Boiled Eggs with Spinach)
Yield: 12 servings
12 large eggs, preferably fresh from a farmers’ market
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups red onion (about 1 large), peeled and chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds spinach, fresh or frozen (thawed and drained if frozen)
Put the eggs in a cooking pot and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Then add the olive oil, onions, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Cool and remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Tap the eggs gently against the counter and peel under cold running water, keeping them as whole as possible.
Return the peeled eggs to the pot with the seasoned water and simmer very slowly uncovered for at least 2 hours, or until the water is almost evaporated and the onions almost dissolved. The eggs will become dark and creamy as the cooking water evaporates and they absorb all the flavoring.
Remove the eggs carefully to a bowl, rubbing into the cooking liquid any of the cream that forms on the outside. Heat the remaining cooking liquid over medium heat, bring to a simmer, and add the spinach. Cook the spinach until most of the liquid is reduced, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, about 30 minutes, or until the spinach is creamy and well cooked. Serve a dollop of spinach with a hard-boiled egg on top as the first part of the Seder meal or as a first course of any meat.
Flourless Chocolate Cake
8 ounces good bittersweet chocolate
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or coconut oil
6 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
Raspberries and blueberries for topping
Whipped cream or ice cream (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-or 10-inch spring-form pan with spray, or a little of the butter or coconut oil.
Melt the chocolate and the butter or coconut oil in a double-boiler or in a microwave for a little more than a minute. Let cool.
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer using the whip attachment, beat the egg whites with 1/2 cup of the sugar and the salt until soft peaks form. In a separate bowl, whip the yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and vanilla. Using a spatula, slowly stir in the chocolate in the egg yolk mixture. Then carefully fold in the egg whites. Don’t overmix or it will deflate.
Bake for 28 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is fully set around the edges. You want it to be slightly gooey in the center.
Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely, and dust with cocoa.
Serve topped with berries and, if you like, with whipped cream or ice cream.
Yields 8 to 10 servings
Above recipes courtesy of Joan Nathan “King Solomon’s Table.”
Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Focus, The Herald Palladium, P.O. Box 128, St. Joseph, MI 49085.