Acclaimed author explores rich French-Jewish food heritage

Joan Nathan

by Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

It is easy to understand why Joan Nathan, the grande dame of Jewish cooking, is the winner of three James Beard awards. Along with her splendid recipes, Nathan’s books include life stories from the heritage cooks she meets, historical perspectives on local food and culture, and even some fascinating biblical references. Her books are as much fun to read as they are to cook from. Her latest, “Quiches, Kugels & Couscous- My Search for Jewish Cooking in France,” is no exception.

Nathan visited France as a child and spent her junior year abroad there during college. Back then, the Jewish population seemed more discreet and kept to themselves. But things have changed. She notes that these day the Jews of France, many of whom immigrated over the centuries from Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, have become more outspoken about their Jewish identity and their roots.

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“Keep in mind,” Nathan said, “it was not uncommon for Jewish children in France to learn of their Jewish heritage much later in life. I now see more of a Jewish presence, both religious and secular. There are clumps of Jewish communities all over the city of Paris. There are 30 Naourie stores (kosher markets) in Paris alone. The French consider matzoh their diet bread, and many French wineries now have a kosher run of wine.”

It is this rich French-Jewish food heritage that Nathan so adeptly explores in her new book. She found that many of the dishes she tasted were adaptations of traditional French recipes in keeping with the laws of kashrus. The perfect example of this is the French classic, Quiche Lorraine, the recipe for which Nathan introduces as follows in her book:

“The ever-popular lardon-laced quiche Lorraine is off limits for Jews who eschew pork. In an effort to adapt the regional specialty to fit their dietary limitations, the Jews of Alsace and Lorraine created this onion tart, which I find delicious. I learned how to make it from the great chef Andre Soltner, who, before he came to America, worked for a kosher caterer in his native Alsace. Trust me, you won’t miss the bacon.”

Nathan clearly enjoys the research behind this book.

“Most of us go to our mother’s homes for Jewish food,” she said, “so that it’s rare that we go, for example, to other people’s seders. But I get to be a Peeping Tom in other people’s kitchens and just love those experiences. I hear all the wonderful family stories and get to eat great food.”

Many of the recipes included in the book were given to Nathan in rough-draft form or told to her through interviews. Therefore, she was adamant about testing them all.

“I test a bunch of recipes at a time,” Nathan said, “and I work hard to perfect them. I usually invite friends over to my house to help eat everything.”

Oh, how I would love to be one of Joan Nathan’s dinner guests. Just skimming through the book the first time made my mouth water. And her passion and enthusiasm for this book and its recipes were evident when we spoke. She has written a definitive anthology of Jewish cooking in France. Better yet, her book brims with historical and biblical references and heart-warming stories from the guardians of this rich heritage. I can’t wait to don my apron and begin cooking through “Quiches, Kugels & Couscous.”

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

Joan Nathan

WHO: Author of “Quiches, Kugels & Couscous- My Search for Jewish Cooking in France”

WHEN: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9


Joan Nathan’s Quiche a l’Oignon


2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

5 tablespoons vegetable shortening

Pinch of salt

Dried beans for weighting the crust


2 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 pound (about 4 small) onions, peeled, and thinly sliced into rings

2 teaspoons sugar

Salt to taste

3 large eggs

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Freshly ground pepper to taste

A handful of chives

To make the crust, put the flour, butter vegetable shortening, and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, and pulse until crumbly. Gradually add 2 tablespoons cold water, pulsing until the dough forms a ball. Remove, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 10- inches in diameter. Gently lay it in an ungreased 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing the dough into the sides and trimming off any excess dough. Cover the dough closely with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

To make the filling, heat the butter in a frying pan. Add the onions, sugar, and salt to taste, and sauté over low heat, covered, for about 30 minutes, or until the onions are golden and soft. Set aside to cool

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Fill the foil-lined crust with enough dried beans to cover the bottom. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees, and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove the foil and the beans.

Put the eggs, cream, nutmeg, and salt and pepper in a mixing bowl, and beat them together until blended. Fold in the onions, then transfer the filling to the pie crust and scatter the chives on top. Return it to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes, or until the center is set and custardlike. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: You can substitute prepared puff pastry for the crust.