In the first part of our conversation with Joan Nathan, we drove around the hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, (via speakerphone) of this award-winning cookbook writer and authority on all things Jewish cuisine, as she explained who loves matzo in France (apparently everybody), how to get around the lardon problem and the secret to a great brisket.
In the second part, Nathan, having found a parking place, moves on to why the French have so much better wine at their Chanukah parties, how chopped liver was born and why her name might sound so familiar to Top Chef fans. And check back later today for a seasonally appropriate recipe from her informative new cookbook, Quiches, Kugels, and Cous Cous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.
Squid Ink: I imagine that at Chanukah parties in France you will always be served a glass of delicious wine — something that is often not the case here in the States.
Joan Nathan: You'll have FABULOUS wine. The kosher wine in France is different from America — and it has been forever. Since the 16th century, there's a grand rabbi of Bordeaux and he's in charge of over-seeing wine to make it kosher. In America, there are kosher wineries. There's Manischewitz, there's good kosher wines.
SI: Manischewitz wine is good?
JN: I mean, sort of good. You know what I'm saying? It's not so in France. There's no kosher wineries. You go to this wonderful gentile wine merchant who has a chateau and say to your kosher négociant — your negotiator – “I've heard that your wine is good. I'd like to do a kosher run of a thousand bottles of wine. We guarantee that we will buy all of your bottles.” Kosher wine-makers are in charge of the process and must respect the Sabbath laws and the laws of holidays, too. So, in other words, the wine is fermenting and you can't do anything to it. Sometimes you're supposed to stir it, right? What they do is take artificial ice — cubes that don't melt — and cool it to slow down the fermentation. All over France, they do a kosher run. The Rothschilds do it. I think Château Clarke. All the three-star restaurants do it. It's very interesting for them.
SI: There are so many types of latkes that are featured in your book — ones made with salt cod, ones made with mashed potatoes, Gretchenes latkes or latkes made with buckwheat flour, onions and no potatoes at all…
JN: …And I didn't even pursue the New Age French latkes which I am sure there are equally as many in America! Different vegetables in them, tiny ones with goat cheese. I used to call it “Newish Jewish.” I'm a little bit more interested in the traditional right now. I'm fascinated by the buckwheat latke, which is what they ate [before potatoes came from the old world to the new]. What's so interesting is that the chef who does the brandade latke, Daniel Rose, happens to be American Jewish but has one of the hottest restaurants in Paris, Spring. He thought he was inventing a new recipe, you know? Then these Turkish Jews said to me, “That's just like what my mother made in Turkey.” Turkish Jews came to Paris in the last century.
SI: Where do Jews in France weigh in on something as classically Gallic as foie gras?
JN: I haven't done enough research, but I think I've figured it out. Throughout history, I seen mentions about the force-feeding of geese, rabbis starting with Rashi saying, “The Jews will be punished for their treatment of geese.” Of course, people in the goose business didn't want to listen to that. The Jews in the Alsace and south of France — where geese were supposed to be the best — were always force-feeding geese. These weren't rich people and they used the quills for pens and the feathers for pillows and they knew foie gras would fetch a pretty penny. They needed the goose fat because they couldn't use lard. When they wanted to have something like a pate, they'd take a liver, sear it, then put eggs in it to make it lighter and goose fat which was sort of like the butter. That's how chopped liver was born! Jews have always been adapters.
SI: So what is a traditional Chanukah dessert anyway?
JN: The doughnuts in the book would be perfect for Chanukah. There's a North African one and a doughnut like the ones at Café Du Monde in New Orleans — the same shape where you take a knife and cut it in a rectangle. What I like is an apple cake. The recipe I have for Gateau de Hannouka is a delicious cake.
SI: Just how much weight did you gain while researching Quiches, Kugels and Couscous?
JN: The funny thing is you don't gain so much weight in France. They're much more civilized about the way they eat. You never eat in between meals. You never take a second helping.
SI: Never? Never ever?
JN: I remember once I did when I was eating a lamb dish called Rohmertopf.
SI: Note to those who haven't yet read Quiches, Kugels and Cous Cous: that's an awesome-sounding lamb stew long-cooked with potatoes, zucchini and tomatoes. What happened when you reached for more?
JN: The wife of a cousin of mine looked at me like, [in a voice filled with horror] “You're not supposed to take SECONDS.”
SI: There is a generation of young foodies who hear your name and instantly think of you as the woman whose life was saved by Top Chef host, Tom Colicchio at one of the Art.Food.Hope. galas in Washington, D.C. on the eve of President Obama's inauguration.
JN: That's probably true!
SI: Can you walk us through the rescue mission?
JN: [In January of 2009] I had this party. Alice Waters was doing a series of fund-raising dinners and all these chefs were in town. I mean, it was an AMAZING party. It was at my house. We figured there would be about sixty people and three hundred people showed up. People like Rachel Maddow came with Nancy Silverton, Bob Woodward brought Carl Bernstein — who is a distant cousin of mine. Ruth Reichl was there. Daniel Boulud. Lidia Bastianich. I hadn't eaten all evening. I was talking to somebody and I guess I took too big of a bite of chicken and suddenly I choked. Then Tom came over and gave me the Heimlich and it popped right out. [laughs] I got more publicity out of that! [laughs] All of the sudden it turned up on my Wikipedia page.
SI: According to ancient proverb doesn't that mean you and Tom Colicchio are responsible for each other for the rest of time?
JN: Tom and I realized that we're bonded for life. Whenever we see each other, we always sort of just look at each other and laugh.
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