Joan Nathan is truly the mother of Jewish cooking. She’s written 10 cookbooks on the subject, including the venerable tome Jewish Cooking in America, and her latest Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. So when I started thinking about the food and guides we wanted to feature on BGSK for Hanukkah, her name naturally came to mind.
I was lucky to be able to chat with Joan and ask her all our Hanukkah cooking, entertaining, and gifting queries. We talked about her favorite edible presents and how to get your home to not smell like latkes for days. She also shared with us the best holiday dishes from her new book, which in my opinion will make your cookbook shelf complete.
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From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Phoebe Lapine: What was the first cookbook you owned?
Joan Nathan: Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. And I still have it!
P.L. First job out of college?
J.N. I was a telephone girl in the NBC newsroom in New York. I was in charge of mail. But I liked it.
P.L. When did you know you wanted to write a cookbook dedicated to Jewish cooking in America, and why?
J.N. This is what I tell my kids: I just started doing what I wanted to do. (As I’m talking to you, I’m grabbing challah out of the freezer to bake and bring to someone’s house, so bear with me!)
P.L. Oh wow! Don’t burn yourself. Speaking of challah…For those of us who are less well-versed in Jewish holiday cooking traditions, when we think of Hanukkah, we think latkes. What are some of the unsung heroes of the Hanukkah table?
J.N. Well, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with potato pancakes. I love them and so does everyone else in my family. So that’s what I make!
P.L. Are there any other Hanukkah dishes that you’re known for?
J.N. My brisket. Those two dishes are just foolproof. I think everyone can make good brisket and good potato pancakes. They are both inexpensive and easy.
P.L. Do you have any tricks for getting your apartment or home to not smell like potato pancakes for days after you’ve made them?
J.N. Most people in small apartments are working during the day. So what I do, is I try to make them a day or two in advance—even a week in advance!—and freeze them on cookie sheets on parchment paper, covered in plastic wrap. Then when it’s time for the party, I just quickly stick them in the oven to defrost and crisp them up. There is nothing worse than making potato pancakes when you have guests in the other room. Everyone keeps coming in for more—they’ll just pick them right out of the frying pan if you’re not careful. This way, you can do them at your own pace. As for the smell, I like it!
P.L. Do you have a go-to edible gift for this time of year?
J.N. Pecans, either candied or salted. Or preserved lemons in jars.
P.L. Presents in my family can get a little sad around day 5 or so of Hanukkah. Do you have any “stocking stuffer” equivalents for giving on the middle night of the holiday?
J.N. One thing that’s nice to do is to give a donation. A book is another one. We’re not huge on gifts in my family. The kids don’t really expect lots gifts now that they aren’t little anymore.
P.L. Well, I’m interviewing them next, so we’ll see about that!
J.N. Oh no!
P.L. You just published your 10th cookbook: Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. What inspired you to choose France as the setting for your research?
J.N. I lived in France years ago, when I was younger. I went to Israel a lot later, so I wrote my first cookbook on Israel. I didn’t go back to France for a long time, but when I did, I realized that that’s really where I became interested in food, and also, that the Jewish population in France is the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States—and nobody had written anything about it! So I decided that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I did.
P.L. We hear Parisian kitchens are just as small as ours. Do have a dish from the book that’s especially great when you’re low on space?
J.N. There is a great apple cake that is good for Hanukkah. Or a chicken with fennel that’s really delicious and easy. It’s a nice winter dish.
P.L. Is there an equivalent dessert to the buche de noel for Jews in France?
J.N. Not really! They all probably buy buche de noel.
P.L. Your kids are around our readers’ age. What’s one golden piece of Jewish mother advice, cooking or otherwise?
J.N. Of course! I have huge pieces of advice. First of all: learn to cook. And learn to clean up. Those are the two things. If you learn to do that, there is nothing better for a mother—or a future mother-in-law!
P.L. Anything else our readers should know about you, Jewish cooking, or holiday entertaining?
J.N. I just think it’s really important to keep those holiday traditions alive, and to have fun with it. Because it’s the way you carry on a civilization—by passing on what you’ve learned from your parents, and things that were part of your childhood. So many of those traditions happen around meals. I really believe that the more a family cooks together, the more you’ll stay together. And the more memories you’ll have. So I encourage cooking and cleaning together. It can really be a lot of fun.