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Joan Nathan Joan Nathan Goes Multi-Ethnic

Go into almost any Jewish cooking in America and your liable to find one or more of Joan Nathan's nine cookbooks-Jewish Cooking in America (which won the prestigious James Beard Award and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award), The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, The Jewish Holiday Baker, The Foods of Israel Today, among others. What distinguish her books, are the fascinating stories that accompany the recipes, making her books a good read, not to mention a great resource for preparing a good feed.

In her newest book, she strikes out from the Jewish world into the larger world of multi-cultural America that has taken shape over the last 40 years. The New American Cooking-280 Recipes Full of Delectable New Flavors From Around the World as Well as Fresh Ways With Old Favorites (Knopf, $35) is filled, like her previous books, with delightful insights about food origins and the people behind the food. Crisscrossing the country, she talks to a fascinating cast of characters including organic farmers, artisan bread bakers, cheese makers, new wave chefs and food entrepreneurs.

The collection of recipes she gathers will inspire many of us to venture into new culinary territory. Here are a few delicious examples: Small World Coffee's Ginger Scones with Cardamom; Santa Fe Huevos Rancheros; Cambodian Lettuce Wraps With Noodles and Fresh Herbs; Cambodian Chicken Soup, seasoned with Thai basil, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves; A Single Pebble's Szechwan Red Oil Vegetarian Dumplings; Pad Thai; Haitian Vegetable Stew with Chayote, Eggplant, Cabbage and Spinach; Eggplant with Yogurt, Tahini, Chickpeas, Pomegranates and Toasted Pita; Salmon En Croute with Spinach and Goat Cheese; and Mango Cheesecake.

We caught up with Joan during her recent national book tour.

Q. You've made a name for yourself writing about Jewish food in America and Israel. Why this departure?
A: Well, I felt that I've done pretty much everything I want to do with American Jewish food. I've made a statement. While there are articles about Jewish food I'd like to do, there are no more books I want to write. I just became interested in the idea of innovators in American food, so I started writing this book. While it's certainly a cookbook, it's also sort of a sociological book. I learned so much about the acceptance of diversity in America that has come about especially over the last 30 or 40 years.

Since Jewish food is certainly part of that diversity, I've included a really good brisket recipe, the challah that I make, and my mother's chicken soup which she learned to swirl with escarole from an Italian restaurant in Providence.

And Jews have played a large part in the story of American food. If you look at my book it's loaded with Jewish people. There's Laurence Gottlieb, the great-grandson of the Russian immigrants who founded Gottlieb's Bakery, a 100-year-old Savannah, Ga., institution that closed in 1994. He and his brothers opened Gottleib's restaurant and Dessert Bar a few years ago. There's also Michelle Bernstein, the talented young chef at Azul Restaurant in Miami, who often cooks with her Argentinean mother; Frieda Caplan, an importer of exotic fruits and vegetables, who helped to introduce the kiwi in America, and George Berkowitz, founder of Legal Sea Foods.

Q: You call this in your introduction one of the most exciting periods in American food. What excites you the most?
A: I have these three main subjects in bookthe growth of multi-ethnicity; the rise in organics and the rise of the chefs. I see them all sort of coming together in the food. Just think about it30 or 40 years ago who was eating fresh garlic or goat cheese or pomegranates or cilantro or lemongrass? Ethnic communities might have been eating certain things, but not the mainstream. When I was a kid you had garlic salt and seasoning salt. You never put fresh garlic on anything.

In the 1960s, we opened up as a nation to "the other." The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave black Americans the right to vote, also enhanced the dignity of black culture and cuisine in the eyes of Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated rigid immigration quotas and as a result there was a large influx of new immigrants, many from Latin America and from countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Afghanistan and Lebanon. All brought new foods and new flavors. Also, Americans started traveling abroad and they liked the new tastes they encountered.

Q: When many baby boomers were growing up, let's face it, there just wasn't that much variety in the foods we ate...
A: When we were kids it was chicken on Friday night. I don't know about your family, but when I was growing up you didn't go out to eat. Maybe we went out Sunday night and sometimes Thursday, because the maid was off. There weren't that many places to go. There were Chinese restaurants in every town. We went to a place called Cooks for hamburgers. Food was more expensive in those days. People ate more at home. You didn't go out. We didn't have the options that we have today. So, our kids are much more international. They have sushi and all kinds of pizza.

Q: So things have definitely changed from the days when people only made four or five American dishes for their families?
A: Absolutely. They make fajitas, they make Moroccan chicken. And they are experimenting with Jewish food too. A lot of what I've learned about the Jewish community is true of other communities. I like to think that my Jewish Holiday Kitchen was the first to expand people's perception about Jewish cuisine. When I went to Israel in 1970 there were Moroccan salads and stuffed vegetables and I just loved it. When I came back and my cookbook came out, I realized that there were some other books starting to come out, including Claudia Roden's, that were expanding Jewish food possibilities.

Today, look at how many Italian, Moroccan, Indian and other international cookbooks there are, not to mention the Food Network, that everyone can watch and get ideas from.

Q: So it's not just what you are handed on recipe card from your mother. The whole world is open to you...
A: Those recipe cards are becoming scarcer and scarcer, unfortunately. Life was simpler, but it was also narrower.

Q. Is Jewish food in danger of losing its core?
A: Absolutely. I think everything is. It's really important and I stress it when I speak around the country: the memories your kids are going to have are created by you and by the traditions that you have in your home. And if your tradition is just carry-out food, your kids are going to have nothing. Recipes are more than just food. They are connected to a whole way of life. The stories that are connected to family recipes are really important.

Q: How long were you working on the book?
A: About 5 years. It takes a long time for me to write a book because I try to integrate ideas. For example, I wanted a good chocolate chip cookie recipe, but I really wanted to interview Wally Amos aka Famous Amos. He said he just used a regular chocolate chip recipe, so I needed to get another recipe. I wanted to weave it all together, so I used the interview with him and Anne Amernick's cookie recipe and techniques.

I couldn't travel all the time because of having family at home, but. I would take notes when I traveled and put them into my files for chapters. When I started writing I would cut and paste and try to weave things together. I had about one-third more recipes and people than I put in the book.

Q: That must have been very hard to pick and choose?
A: My editor did it. I felt bad because some people really wanted to be in. There was an initial cutting by me and then she cut more.

Q: How did you find the subjects you interviewed?
A: As I'd tell people what I was doing, they'd give me ideas and I would put it in my files under parts of the country. Sometimes I would go to a place and I'd give myself extra time and I would sort of fall into people. My editor told me that you don't have to travel very far. Sometimes interesting people are right in your own neighborhood. So a lot of them are from Washington. Washington is a microcosm of the United States, of the world really. People would tell me about people. I even heard about one person, a very interesting guy, from my dentist.

I did not use the Internet for this book. I used it to check facts and that sort of thing. I thought about using the Internet to tell people what I was doing, but thought that in a way it was like cheating. I'd rather just find out through other people.

Q: What are some of the most memorable things that happened when you were doing your research?
A: Some of the adventures were memorable. One of the people I interviewed was a man named Ed Scott in Mississippi. He was the first black person in the catfish industry. I went to see him. He was a very lovely dignified man. He'd had a lot of success. He'd dredged his own pools and had all these catfish. Then the white catfish farmers saw his success and got jealous and wouldn't sell him the fingerlings. So his business was cut off. Listening to him I learned the story of civil rights. I always say that culture and history is really part of food. Another time, I went up to northern Minnesota with a friend, to where the Ojibwa Indians raised wild rice and we went out in canoes to harvest it. In Tucson, Janos Wilder, a chef and proponent of the so-called Southwestern cuisine, and his wife Rebecca, took me to native restaurants so I could learn about the sources of inspiration for his upscale restaurant.

Q: What trends do you see coming down the pike?
A: More organics, definitely. More thinking seriously about what you are cooking and what ingredients you are using. I got a Caesar Salad with grilled chicken the other day and I thought, "How was this chicken raised?" I think that people are excited by food. Look at the growth of farmers' markets, more than 3,000 today compared to 300 ten years ago.

Q: What recipes in your book would you recommend for a festive Chanukah meal?
A: I have the perfect menu for you: My sister-in-law Shelley Nathan's fabulous fruited brisket; Fricassee Giraumon, a spicy squash dish from the island of Mauritius, and potato pancakes. There's a potato pancake recipe from Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel in New York. Everybody made potato pancakes, not only Jews. They make a great one in France, called crique, which is the one Daniel makes. Then for desert, the Apple-Apricot Crostata, from the Luzzattos, an old Venetian Jewish family.

Brisket with Apricots and Apples

I tried this fruited brisket at my sister-in-law Shelley Nathan's house in Berkeley, Calif. Shelley adds more fruit, and I add more onion, but either way, it's a winner.

2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
One 56 pound brisket
Salt and pepper to taste
2 apples, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 cup dried apricots, halved
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup dried plums, pitted
12 cups apple juice
12 cups canned beef or chicken broth

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Brown the onions, garlic and ginger in the oil until the onions are golden. Then scatter the mixture in a roasting pan.
3. Season the brisket with salt and pepper and gently lay it on top of the onions. Add the apples, apricots, dried cranberries, dried plums and enough apple juice and beef or chicken broth to almost cover the brisket. Cover the roasting pan with a lid or aluminum foil and cook for 3 hours, basting occasionally.
4. Remove the brisket, cool and refrigerate overnight.
5. Just before serving, reheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the brisket is still cold, skim off any fat that has accumulated on top of the juices, and slice off the excess fat from the meat. Slice the meat against the grain, place in a baking dish with the reserved juices, cover, and reheat for about a half hour. Remove brisket to a platter, surrounded by the fruits and the sauce. Serve with potato pancakes or noodles. Serves 810.

Editor's Note: You'll find the recipe for Apple-Apricot Crostata in "What's Cooking with Sheilah."