Author interview with Amelia Saltsman

Amelia SaltsmanSince the publication of her first book, The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, Amelia Saltsman's fans have turned to her for fresh, intuitive, seasonal cooking. She is regularly sought out for her expertise by such national publications as Vegetarian Times, Bon Appetit, The Jewish Journal, and Cooking Light magazine. She has just released her second cookbook, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the book - US only, and check out our Cookbook Calendar of Events for book tour dates.) Saltsman sat down with EYB to answer questions about her latest book:

Jewish cooking varies a lot depending on the regional origins in the Jewish diaspora e.g. Ashkenazi is very different to Sephardi.  Can you explain the main cuisines within Jewish cooking for our members who are not familiar with it? 

Ashkenazi food of Europe and Eastern Europe evolved in a Christian milieu, where pork, beef, and butter were important foods, along with cold-weather grains and cereals like buckwheat. The term, Sephardic, is used describe all other Jews, even though it more specifically refers to people of the Iberian peninsula. Sephardic cooking evolved in primarily Arab regions where olive oil and hot-weather crops were abundant. This is a huge generalization, of course, because each country or micro-region developed its own food traditions within the practice of Judaism. What I wanted to do is open up the diversity of culinary experience, so you'll find flavors and dishes that are Italian, French, Iberian, North African, and more in  The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen

Your book focuses on seasonal cooking.  How much is traditional Jewish cooking already linked to the seasonal availability of produce?

If we get to the heart of the matter, very linked. Most holidays have agricultural, therefore seasonal, beginnings, which are reflected in our traditional foods. Rosh Hashanah comes with a cornucopia of seasonal foods to symbolize wishes and blessings for a good, sweet year. Pomegranates, apples, quince, dates, early root vegetables, and winter squashes are all showing up in markets and all figure prominently in traditional holiday foods. The new year custom of eating a "first fruit" to mark the holiday comes at a perfect time of year--the beginning of the autumn harvest season. This is really about noticing what's been hiding in plain sight--seasonality + tradition.

Traditional Jewish cooking is quite rich and starchy. What traditional recipes did you lighten up in your book?

I would disagree with that statement! Although sadly, this is how many people think about Jewish food. I'm here to change the basic premise! Good cooks have always made delicious food, certainly true when I think of my grandmothers' elegant touch in their kitchens. That said, how we want to eat has certainly changed over the generations for most cooking, Jewish or not. There are many recipes in the book that are true to the spirit of a traditional dish, but reflect how we eat today. My Roasted carrot and sweet potato tzimmes is a perfect example. Carrots, sweet potatoes, dried fruit, citrus zest, and fresh orange juice--tossed in a large pan and shoved in the oven. No flour, meat, sugar, or long stewing to mask the great ingredients. And easier to make, and lighter to eat. 

There are many traditional dishes served on the high holidays such as latkes, tzimmes, etc.  Have you included modernized versions of these dishes? 

In some cases, as with the tzimmes, yes. With others, like Pure and simple brisket or My mother's chicken soup, I've given readers what I consider excellent classics that match our modern sensibilities. My Best potato latkes are crisp, not greasy, and my other latke recipes are rediscovered dishes--like the ones made from summer squash--or innovative, like those with parsnips, or butternut squash and sweet potato.

Does your book follow kosher rules of not mixing meat and dairy? 

Yes. I simply left those combinations out of the mix. I leave it to readers to mix and match recipes to build a meal according to their philosophy. I also chose not to include pork or shellfish, but I don't think anyone will miss their absence, and certainly there are many dishes that can be adapted to include them if desired. 

What is your own family's culinary history?

Very diverse! I'm the daughter of an Iraqi father and Romanian mother who were raised in Israel and met in the Israeli army. They emigrated to California where I was born and raised. To say my food history is eclectic would be putting it mildly!

There has been a growing interest in Israeli cooking with the huge success of Ottolenghi's books, especially Jerusalem. Which of your recipes reflect Isreali spices and ingredients?

I'm grateful to Yotam Ottolenghi for bringing attention to some of my favorite flavors. Israeli food is very diverse, since it is a true melting pot of cultures, Jewish and not. So, too many recipes to mention here! But I will say this, that if you've cooked from my first book, the Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, or enjoyed any I've written for magazines or my blog, you've already cooked Israeli food! It's much more than hummus and falafel, you know. 

If you were putting together a dinner party from the book, what would be your dishes you would cook?

That would depend on the season!

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