Let's Eat

Seasonal eating: Reach for the festival road map

Amelia Saltsman says the Jewish cooking calendar provides a perfect guide for modern eating trends


Seasonal eating has been a big trend in recent years. Every chef, cookery writer and food journalist worth their (smoked) salt advocates it, although according to Amelia Saltsman - author of The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen - we've been doing it for centuries.

"The very up-to-date issues in sustainability are integrated into the ancient lessons. Back then, everything was geared to the seasons and local techniques and local foods, so to come back to that focus is meaningful both for today and looking backwards," says Saltsman.

To her the Jewish cooking calendar is a perfect template for today's eating habits.

"Even if you don't know the names of all the holidays, a year's worth of Jewish food bears a striking resemblance to any market-driven cooks' seasonal road map."

Saltsman cites next month's festival of Tu Bishvat - where it makes sense to eat dried fruits in the months of the year when fresh versions would have been impossible to find; and Shavuot - originally celebrated after spring calving when milk is especially plentiful - as just two examples.

Chapters are divided into six, two-month "micro-seasons" - as she terms them. May to June - home to Shavuot - includes recipes for cheese and honey filo pie, cheese blintz soufflé and baked pasta with spinach, ricotta and brown butter. Dishes with an eye on tradition but often with a modern twist - like the blintz souffle.

Californian Saltsman has herself long been a supporter of eating seasonally, and using locally produced ingredients. Her first book - The Santa Monica Farmers' Market, which she self-published in 2007 - focuses on cooking with locally produced foods, which are, by definition, seasonal.

Saltsman's view is that the pressures of daily life are now so overwhelming that many of us overlook the most obvious things like cooking a meal each night.

"I try to empower people to cook and eat simply and seasonally and advocate for local, seasonal small family farms and the ability to direct sell."

On the Jewish side, Saltsman's recipes pull together the melting pot we increasingly recognise as Jewish food. No longer just constrained to Ashkenazi food for the northern European diaspora, but now a mash-up of the eastern European food of the Ashkenazim, the range of colourful Sephardi menus and the Middle Eastern melting pot of modern Israeli cuisine.

She is the human embodiment: her Romanian mother and Iraqi father met in the Israeli army. After marrying they left to study in the United States. Her childhood menu had all sorts of influences.

"My food memories were eclectic. We were alone in the diaspora and free to pick and choose."

Her mother had not learned to cook before she left, and so started her home cooking repertoire from scratch. Many dishes were, as Saltsman describes them, recreated from memory.

"My father didn't cook. He made just one dish. It was something his mum used to make that he loved so much he had to try to recreate it. It was a fried pastry with many folds that we named 'Waky Flaky', as you had to get up really early to make it and it was very flaky. He would mix milk and flour to get the dough then fold and turn it to get it layered. We ate them with maple syrup. When Grandma came she made Kahi - it's real name - and it turned out the true recipe had a centre of salty cheese and a sugar syrup. She was way head of the salty sweet trend," she laughs.

Her father - now 95 - hasn't made the dish for 35 years, but a cheese and honey filo pie recipe in the book pays homage to this delicious if labour intensive dish.

As well as recreating the past, her family discovered new flavours in their adopted homeland.

"We tapped into local treats we found in the 1950s like American apple pie."

Only when she was 10 did she encounter the authentic food of her family.

"We went to Israel for the first time since we had left; I met my grandparents and tasted the food of my heritage. I have vivid memories of my Romanian Grandma Mina cooking. She was an exceptional cook - very French but with a Slavic influence and a gutsy Balkan feel. Her food had an amazing zesty quality."

Her Israeli grandmother cooked another range of flavours: "So different they were like night and day."

Saltsman herself helped in the kitchen as a small child. "By 10 I was baking from a Betty Crocker cook book." The elder of two girls, by the age of 12, she would cook dinner and babysit for her sister while their mother was out studying two nights a week. "I loved cooking from the beginning."

This love of food saw her make it her career, working in a gourmet cook shop in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s running a cookery school attached to the shop.

By the 1990s she started writing about food, and by the time her four children left for college, she was developing a writing career - working for top US food magazines like Bon Appetit and Cooking Light.

Inspiration for the book came when she saw the level of interest in Jewish recipes she was posting on social media. A tzimmes recipe made with carrot, sweet potato and fresh orange juice was viewed by thousands and her green garlic matzah brei went viral.

"In that instant when technology and tradition collided, it dawned on me that many cooks are seeking the kind of Jewish cooking I do: modern, seasonal, ingredient-driven, lighter and brighter, relaxed rather than formal and reflective of the many flavours of the Jewish diaspora."

See the related links box for recipes from The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen by Amelia Saltsman, Sterling Epicure - an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co

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