I can boil down what I think of Joan Nathan’s newest cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous,” due on shelves October 26, into one short paragraph (probably the only time this will happen):
I love France. I love French foods. I love Jews. I love cookbooks. I love Joan Nathan. She has combined all these things I love into a beautiful compendium that anyone who also loves these things should own.
For those of you looking for more than a brief paragraph, I’m happy to elaborate. Firstly, for anyone who is a food aficionado (or who just likes to eat), the recipe names alone should get you going: Quick Goat Cheese Bread with Mint and Apricots; Moroccan Haroset Truffles with Dates, Almonds, and Apples; Papetons d’Aubergines (Eggplant Gratin); Beignets de Carnaval (Purim doughnuts).
Secondly, once you collect yourself and finish gushing over the table of contents, you can move on to realizing how simple most of them are to make. Although French food is known for, even revered for, its fussiness, many French Jews lived in the south of France where the food is homier and without ostentation, so most of the recipes don’t reflect Parisian haute cuisine sensibilities. Because these recipes rely on fresh, seasonal ingredients, it usually doesn’t require the kind of labor some of the more classical French cuisine demands. You’ll just be grateful that you don’t have to take a day off of work to make them.
Each recipe comes with a story, either from Nathan’s personal life and her travels, or about the person who shared the recipe – which can prove particularly interesting because many of these recipes have been around for centuries. When I saw Nathan speak at the 2009 Hazon Food Conference, she spoke to this specifically: we are losing recipes and foods because they aren’t being shared for whatever reason – children losing interest in their heritage, fear of religious oppression, assimilation – and documenting them and their stories is one way we can make sure we don’t lose them forever.
I also love the intermezzos throughout the book, in which she tells the story of certain foods, practices, and people, like “Kosher Meat in France,” “Pain Azyme (Unleavened Bread), or Matzo, in France,” and “Fois Gras and Its History.” These snapshots paint a broad picture of life in France across the last century or so, not only giving the recipes context, but also the cookbook itself and French Jewry in general.
So, if you, like me, love France, French food, cookbooks, or anything Jewish, this is probably a book you want to buy. I know I would if I hadn’t gotten this free review copy.
Save the date for Cookbooks in Conversation: Joan Nathan interviewed by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of “The Splendid Table.” October 19th as part of the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair. Click here for more info.