It was such a natural transition. Food writer and cooking teacher Amelia Saltsman has long been an ardent champion of local family farms and farmers’ markets—her best-selling cookbook “The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook” (Blenheim Press, $22.95) is as much an homage to the farmers, their histories, and their commitment to excellence as it is a collection of fuss-less, artful recipes—and now she brings her expertise and abiding respect for the food they grow to her newest cookbook, “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” (Sterling Epicure, $29.95).
“When I’m cooking, I really want to intensify the flavors that these farmers have worked so hard to produce,” she told me. “It’s a very mindful approach. I respect what the farmers have done and let the ingredients talk to me. There’s a very spiritual side to it that I didn’t consciously think about until doing this book.
“I may not be a very religious, observant Jew, but my cooking is filtered through my heritage. The ancient Hebrews were among the world’s early sustainable farmers. Our ancient observances are derived from agriculture, celebrating the bountiful season’s crops. What are we about if not about that? I was cooking Jewish anyway without even realizing it. We all cook and choose ingredients based on our history in some way. I clearly cook inspired by my roots.”
The daughter of a Romanian mother and Iraqi father who met in Israel and immigrated to Los Angeles where she was born, Saltsman draws on her rather eclectic heritage, offering 150 seasonal, satisfying recipes from her Iraqi grandmother’s kitchri (slow-cooked red lentils and rice with garlic puree) to an updated take on her Romanian family’s borscht (this version with buttermilk and fresh ginger).
She takes a fresh approach to traditional recipes while staying true to the ideas behind them. “Who didn’t grow up with stuffed vegetables, whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardic, whether it was stuffed eggplant or stuffed cabbage?” she observed. “Stuffed squash is traditionally stewed for a long period of time and very saucy. The way I cook, I roast the squash to caramelize the flavors and preserve its integrity and color. I don’t want to mask or drown it or slap something on it to update it. I want it to resonate in a 21st century way.”
And because she is a veritable walking encyclopedia of all things grown, Saltsman’s Jewish cookbook is filled with interesting tidbits and factoids that deepen your understanding of the ingredients and our traditions. Did you know that the etrog (citron) was being used as a symbol of Sukkot by the time of the Maccabees and that after the fall of the Roman Empire it was primarily grown by Jews?
Inspired by the Jewish calendar, Saltsman organizes the recipes into six micro-seasons.
“Two-month increments make it so much easier to understand when things are at their peak,” she explained. “The holidays fit into those times. Traditional holiday foods, even from the bible, are reflected in what you are likely to see in the market at that time.”
The September and October chapter celebrates the autumn harvest and the transition from summer to fall. For the last days of Sukkot (the holiday ends October 4) we feast traditionally on stuffed foods, symbolizing abundance. “Choose shiny, firm, small-to-medium squash for this dish,” she advises.
You won’t find artificial ingredients in “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen. “My food philosophy, plain and simple,” Saltsman said, “is use well-raised, whole, real foods.”
Meat-and Rice-Stuffed Summer Squash
Small eggplants are also delicious prepared this way.
8-12 medium-size round summer squash (6-8 ounces each)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef or lamb
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound meaty sauce tomatoes, such as Roma, peeled and chopped
2 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian basil or Italian parsley leaves
2 teaspoons ras el hanout (North African spice mixture)
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Cut stem end off each squash and reserve. Using paring knife and small pointed spoon, scoop out flesh from each squash, leaving shell 1/4-inch thick. Finely chop scooped-out flesh and reserve. Brush squash cases and caps, inside and out, with olive oil and season with salt. Place cut side down on sheet pan without crowding Roast until just tender and cut edges are browned, 15-18 minutes. Turn squash cut-side up to cool. Reduce temperature to 375°F.
- Place large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown meat with salt and pepper, 5-7 minutes. Transfer meat to bowl. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pan and return to medium heat. Add onion and a little salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook 1 minute. Stir in chopped squash and half the tomatoes; cook, stirring often, until squash is tender and vegetable juices have thickened, 5-10 minutes. Return meat to pan, add rice, basil and ras el hanout. Mix well. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Oil heavy, shallow baking pan. Scatter remaining chopped tomato over bottom of pan. Fill each squash, mounding to extend above case. Place filled squashes, cut side up and close together in pan; top with caps. Bake until very tender, exposed filling browned in places, and tomatoes on bottom of pan have melted into a small amount of thick sauce, 25-30 minutes. Serve warm.
European Plum Meringue torte
About 12 servings
Use late summer firm Italian plums. Substitute pears or apples later in the year.
1 1/2 pounds (10-25 ripe European-type plums, pitted and chopped (3-4 cups)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
1/3 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
Reserved egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced almonds
- Filling: In wide pot or skillet cook plums, sugar, butter and lemon juice over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and adjusting heat to prevent burning, until glossy, thick and reduced in half, 10-15 minutes. Scrape onto plate or sheet pan, spreading to cool rapidly.2.
- Cake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bottom and sides of 10-inch springform pan.
- Sift flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
- Using electric mixer fitted with paddle on medium speed, beat butter until creamy and light in color. Beat in sugar. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition; beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with yogurt, beginning and ending with flour until completely blended. Batter will be stiff.
- Spread batter in prepared pan. Bake until pale golden and toothpick inserted into center comes out barely clean, about 18 minutes. Remove from oven; place pan on wire rack. Adjust oven rack to upper third; raise temperature to 375°F.
- Meringue: With whisk attachment beat egg whites on low speed until foamy. On high speed, gradually add sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
- Assembly: Spread plum filling over top of cake in pan. Spoon meringue in large dollops over filling, spread and swirl to cover. Sprinkle almonds evenly over meringue. Bake until meringue is golden and almonds are lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
- Cool completely on wire rack. Run thin-bladed knife or spatula around edge of pan to loosen sides; unlatch and remove pan ring. Slide onto serving platter. Cut into wedges to serve.
Source: “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” by Amelia Saltsman
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.