Amelia Saltsman returns traditional cuisine to its local, sustainable and biblical roots

September 3, 2015

As Amelia Saltsman recalls the intense, candied flavor of her pan-roasted tzimmes, she closes her eyes, rolls back her head and moans, “Oh, Loooord.”

“I don’t know where I got that expression,” the cookbook author and chef adds, a little embarrassed by her outburst. Food, it seems, brings out the religious in her. Cooking is her holy experience.

It is midday in mid-August and Saltsman is preparing a lunch from her new cookbook, “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” (Sterling Epicure).

[For a sampling of Amelia Saltsman's recipes, click here]

The book, her second, is her most personal work, drawing upon generations of family recipes and stories and her passion for seasonal, farmers market ingredients. It is also her most ambitious. In it, she ponders the question, “What is Jewish food?” She found the answer in a surprising place.

“The Bible,” she says, lifting a long, slender blade to the tender white flesh of an eggplant. “I studied it as history, as literature, having nothing to do with religion or prayer. And I found it’s just a delicious chain of human experience and storytelling.” 

Saltsman was delighted to discover in the Torah that so many of the contemporary food values she treasures are actually quite old. “ ‘Know your farmer?’ ‘Know where your food comes from?’ Know what feeds us, what motivates us, and all of the gleaning projects, all these community gardens? They’re all in Deuteronomy! In the Book of Ruth! I mean, it’s just everywhere. And we don’t connect the dots.”

On the menu today is gvetch (rhymes with kvetch), a Romanian ratatouille passed down to Saltsman by her Aunt Sarah. “Pure Romanian comfort food,” Saltsman declares of the family recipe. “Sweet, savory, earthy.” The dish combines vine-ripened tomatoes, eggplants, onions, peppers and zucchini, deeply roasted in the oven until browned. When it comes to flavor, Saltsman likes to keep it simple. “I believe that if you have olive oil and great salt, you’re done,” she says. At serving time, Saltsman will update this dish by stuffing it into pita, and garnishing it with pickles, Italian parsley and chili sauce. Two days after that, she’ll add basil, puree it, and serve the remainder over pasta. She’s so proud of its versatility, she even sends me a photo of what she’s done.

Saltsman’s kitchen is her temple, wooden high-ceilinged and luminous. Light streams in from the wall of windows that invite her Rustic Canyon backyard into the house, creating the feel of a country home in the middle of a forest. Like her surroundings, Saltsman has a natural, understated poise. A petite 5 feet 2 inches, she has soft features, a peachy complexion and a distinguished crown of silvery-gray locks.

Her workstation is arranged with charming precision: Ingredients are all set out, bursting with ripeness and color; little dishes filled with spices, salts, garnish and grated citrus rind cover her ample island; and a bouquet of wildflowers towers over the sink. Saltsman stands at the far end of the island, dressed in a blue, button-down blouse and an apron. 

She asks for help peeling unripe dates. Our first course is a light summer salad, which combines the deep green of arugula with bright, golden Barhi dates, slivers of tawny apricots and nectarines. “We eat with our eyes, right?” she says, emphasizing food’s prettiness. “And I want pleasure.” 

For flavor, she’ll mix orange zest, the slightly sour succulent purslane and a touch of tart sumac she brought back from Habshoush, her favorite spice market in Israel. Saltsman isn’t big on gloppy dressings. “I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves,” she says. Her philosophy is to compose dishes made of “counterpoints and contrasts.” For dessert, she’s prepared poppy seed shortbread cookies with silan and tahini ice cream sundaes.

For Saltsman, these are more than traditional Jewish recipes; they are the foods and flavors of memory, reflecting her multicultural background. Saltsman’s mother was born in Romania; her father, in Basra, Iraq. The two immigrated to Palestine with their families in the 1930s and later met in the Israeli army. In 1950, they sailed on the Queen Mary to the United States and eventually found their way to California, where Amelia grew up.

Food is the social glue of her family. “Everybody cooks, and everybody’s partners cook,” she says of her three grown children, ages 33, 37 and 41. “My gene was very strong.” The only partner it didn’t rub off on is hers. “My husband is the greatest storyteller and an amazing poet,” she says of her husband’s creative capacities, though he is a lawyer by trade. Her oldest daughter, Jessica, is a private chef and caterer, and Saltsman says her granddaughter is a “super-taster” with a sophisticated palate unlike anything she’s seen.

In her new book, Saltsman’s recipes come with family stories or a little bit of history. In a section on Shabbat, she recounts how her 94-year-old grandmother, Rachel, “dropped miniature, meat-filled kubbe into a simmering okra stew” during the final few hours of her life. Even after Rachel’s family discovered her lifeless body in her Bat Yam apartment in Israel, they honored her by partaking in her final Shabbes meal: chicken soup with egg drop noodles, kubbe bamia (dumplings and okra), loubia (green beans with beef), white rice and cabbage. In homage to Saltsman’s other, Romanian grandmother, Mina, she tells how Mina kept a live carp swimming in the family bathtub before killing, gutting and filleting it, preserving the skin so it could later house her meaty stuffing, and presenting the head to that evening’s guest of honor.

“The aromas and flavors of food are extremely powerful. I can still remember things that I tasted and smelled when I was a tiny child.” — Amelia Saltsman

No wonder Saltsman chose to devote her life to food. The depth and detail of her food memories suggest more than just a love of eating. What shows up on your table, she says, “reveals who you are. Here is my grandmother, here is my aunt, here is me …

“The aromas and flavors of food are extremely powerful,” she says. “I can still remember things that I tasted and smelled when I was a tiny child. I remember my mother’s first attempt in the United States to bake sugar cookies. It was an aroma that I loved.”

In her world, recipes are not simply meals — they’re family heirlooms. And cooking them conjures nothing less than life itself. 

While writing her book, Saltsman discovered that food memory can also serve as a historical map. “Jewish food is really simply a global patchwork of regional cuisines defined by the fact that Jews have been wandering for thousands of years,” she says.

“The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” is Saltsman’s counterpoint to Jewish deli food, a genre that, at least in America, has usurped the term “Jewish food.” “When people think ‘Jewish food,’ they think ‘chicken soup,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘not relevant.’ And I’m like ‘no, no, no and no,’ ” she says, raising her soft voice. Instead, Saltsman insists upon broadening the cuisine by linking a diversity of Jewish regional styles that reflect Jewish migration patterns over time.

She includes recipes from the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, drawing on Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Israeli and Persian traditions. There are several sections on lesser-known rituals, such as the Maimouna feast, a North African tradition that takes place at the end of Pesach, and for which it is customary to return to leavened foods symbolic of spring themes like birth and fertility. For this occasion, Saltsman offers her Cheese and Honey Filo Pie. She also explains the Middle Eastern “mezze table” — “a mix of sours, spreads, salads, cheeses, cured or salted fish or meats and flatbreads,” and offers a smorgasbord of fresh options to try, including pickled green tomatoes, salt-grilled chickpeas in their pods, Israeli eggplant caviar wraps and grilled figs with pomegranate molasses and aged sheep’s milk cheese.

The cookbook’s exotic names and beautiful pictures may initially appear overwhelming for some home cooks, but Saltsman wants this book to be accessible. To make shopping and preparation easier, she organized it according to six two-month “micro-seasons” that focus on specific ingredients and the Jewish holiday calendar. There are also several indexes, organized by food, by course, and even kosher category. 

“Everybody has a natural pantry, an inner lexicon,” she says, suggesting home cooks should draw more upon their own instincts. “I think very fleetingly about what makes a good salad, depending on what’s in the house, what time of year it is — do I want something bitter or spicy? It’s second nature to me. I want home cooks to think like this, too, to understand how our food works when we’re cooking. We don’t think of food as interactive or alive. But it’s talking to us! If we listen, cooking is so much easier, even if you’re throwing something together in two seconds.”

The book ranges from clearly exotic (though increasingly common) ingredients such as freekeh — fire-roasted green wheat — to familiar but freshened-up takes on matzah ball soup and charoset, to entirely new inventions such as Herb Salad with Feta, Halvah and Green Almonds. She also likes to dress up old favorites with seasonal ingredients and regional spices (see Roasted Carrot and Sweet Potato Tzimmes; Golden Borscht With Buttermilk and Ginger; and Green Fava Bean and English Pea “Hummus”). 

Saltsman is a seasonal fanatic. Her first book, “The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook,” was a love letter to the market and its farmers, filled with simple recipes that reflect an ingredient’s harvest season. So Saltsman had even more fun discovering, through her research, the cause-and-effect relationship between seasonal ingredients and the Jewish calendar.

“It’s no coincidence that it is customary to eat dairy on Shavuot,” she says, referring to the time of year when cows graze among young, spring grasses, and milk is plentiful and sweet. Neither is it arbitrary, she adds, that the Rosh Hashanah meal is filled with first-of-the-season fall crops such as apples, quinces, pomegranates and dates. In a section on Pesach, “a story told through food,” she even postulates that “the holiday may be a fusion of nomadic shepherds’ thanksgiving for good flocks and, later, farmers’ preparation for the spring harvest, which may have included clearing out any fermented grains, a forerunner of the practice of removing all leavened foods from the home.”

Seasonality, she was delighted to discover, is the connecting fiber of the Jewish calendar. And it informs what’s on our holiday tables more than some of us realize. 

Her seasonally based Jewish cookbook makes the old new again. But it also has enabled Saltsman to excavate the ancient from the cutting edge in today’s food culture. It came as a surprise to her that so many of the values she admires and sees reflected in local farmers markets have their roots in biblical practice: tithing (leaving part of the land for tzedakah); shemitah (letting fields lie fallow every seven years for healthy regeneration); the notion of land stewardship and responsibility; all the ecological concerns for land cultivation and preservation; and of course, respect for the source of food itself really dazzled Saltsman. 

“Isn’t that marvelous,” she exclaims as we sit down to eat. “I mean — Isn’t. That. Marvelous!” 

As we layer the bottom of our gvetch pitas with slices of hard-boiled egg, Saltsman starts to go deep. Mealtime is the perfect time to talk — really talk — about the Jewish practice of blessing food. A daughter of secular Israelis, Saltsman has never been very observant, but she said she always took the holidays seriously as an opportunity for “being.” She says she now thinks about Shabbat in a new way, since it acknowledges, “the creator of the fruit of the vine … who brings forth bread from the earth,” two spiritual ideas that really resonated with her. She says her favorite local farmers don’t pretend to create the food they grow, explaining, “Any good farmer who grows wheat will tell you, ‘This is how you harness the sun.’ ”

At the end of our meal, I ask Saltsman if her revelations while writing her book made her feel more Jewish. What was it like to discover that her life path, her deepest passions and her entire food philosophy are contained within her ancestral tradition? Was it a coincidence she became a sustainable food advocate? Is it possible she chose this path out of deeply rooted Jewish values? Or, perhaps, did the experience of writing this book illuminate for her how deeply Jewish her instincts were to begin with?

The whole experience, she says, “was pretty delicious.”

A few days later, Saltsman emailed a more considered answer. “For me,” she wrote, “the definition of religion or spirituality is an awareness of something greater than ourselves, a time to pause, think about context, feel gratitude … all the things our harried lives and routines strip away. I propose [that] how we procure our food is an opportunity for mindfulness, a gateway to tikkun olam and tzadakah as exemplified by the issues of food justice, stewardship, family well-being, and so on. Does that enrich my sense of what it means to be Jewish? Absolutely. 

“People who say, ‘Oh, you know, this whole farmers’ market thing is like such a new thing,’ I think, ‘You just can’t get more ancient.’ ”

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