Joan Nathan on her perception of herself as pesto, and how butter makes a babka better.
If you ask Joan Nathan to name just one of her favorite Jewish foods, she'll tell you at least four. Spend just five minutes listening to her poetically muse about the menu for her upcoming Shabbat dinner, and you'll quickly see how Nathan is more than a talented food writer and cook, she's an inventor and an innovator. Nathan is one of the most recognizable and respected names in Jewish cooking, having written 10 cookbooks and hosted two seasons of "Jewish Cooking in America," a PBS show based on her award-winning cookbook of the same title (season 2 is due out on DVD this summer). Though she's busy giving lectures and performing cooking demonstrations, writing articles for Tablet Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, and working on her 11th cookbook, Nathan made time to chat with me about her fondness for making challah from scratch and the key to being a truly great food writer.
Emma Goss: Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
Joan Nathan: It depends. Very often I will make a tuna salad for lunch, but sometimes I really like yogurt-covered almonds or doing omelets with goat cheese. When I’m at my house on Martha’s Vineyard I love to go to the garden and eat sautéed Swiss chard and kale with scrambled eggs. That’s always delicious. Of course I used to eat peanut butter, but I don’t anymore. My kids do. Whenever I eat peanut butter it reminds me of my childhood.
EG: Speaking of childhood, how else do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
JN: [Now] I would never buy bread. I make my bread. I never buy challah anymore. It seems to me that it takes just as long to go to the store and buy challah as it does to make it. It is ten times better when you make it.
EG: What principles guide your eating or cooking?
I try to eat local ingredients as much as I can. I also try to eat seasonally. I’m very conscious of the Jewish cycle of the year and what foods I’ll eat and when. That’s really important to me. And I also like to know where my food is coming from. Sometimes it can be organic, but more importantly it has to be from somewhere that I trust.
EG: Which food writer most speaks to you?
JN: There are three: Marcella Hazan, Julia Child, and Paula Wolfert. Paula Wolfert and Julia were not natives to the area but they learned food like a good reporter learns. They weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. They learned what people are doing and they went into their kitchens. I believe as a food writer that there is no substitute for taking that subway or train or car or plane to get into that kitchen and watch all the people. That’s why I respect all of these women. Basically, a really good food writer is someone who is taking a culture and preserving it. That’s what I feel like I’ve been trying to do my whole life, and I learned it from these women.
EG: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
JN: Always set a table before you eat because you eat with your eyes as well your mouth. Whether it be the table or the way I present my chicken tonight, I’ll make sure I have some parsley or cilantro to make it look really good. I want to make it pretty.That’s one thing that always helps. The other thing that I do is I always have preserved lemon in my refrigerator. I can always dress or taste up or down food with a preserved lemon.
EG: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
JN: Exercising [at the gym] in front of a TV, [while] watching the Food Network. On the one hand everyone is seriously exercising and then they’re also totally intrigued by food. I don’t get that.
EG: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
JN: I love to go out for breakfast with friends, [but] I'll go out to diners and we’ll order way too much. And you just can't eat it all. I was told you’ve got to eat everything, that’s what I grew up with.
EG: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
JN: There are a few. I love babka if it’s made with butter and has good bittersweet chocolate in it. I love a good sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. I love challah. I like a good pastrami sandwich. I like a lot of Jewish food.
EG: If your personality could be characterized by a food, which one would it be and why?
JN: Spaghetti because I have my strands out multi-tasking and digging up Jewish food info the world over. I am tossed in pesto because green is my favorite color, I love my garden and its basil in the summer, and I consider this the ultimate comfort dish.