With the Jewish High Holidays just around the corner, I am feeling nostalgic about my cooking journey. I had never really considered a career in food until I immersed myself in traditional Jewish cuisine. Now, 2 ½ years after starting my blog, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else with my life. The aroma of matzo ball soup simmering on the stovetop, the kneading of the challah, the scent of freshly baked sweet noodle kugel fresh from the oven… these food traditions have become an integral part of my spirit.
When I began learning about Jewish cuisine, I sought help from friends and family members—and, of course, from cookbooks written by the iconic voices of Jewish cooking today. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I thought it would be fun to do a series of interviews with the cooks and scholars who have inspired me on my culinary journey. I was curious to learn where they’d started—what their childhoods were like, the kinds of foods they grew up with, and the holiday traditions they still celebrate each year.
Joan Nathan. Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar
My first interview was with Joan Nathan, a trailblazer in the world of American Jewish cooking. Joan and I first met about 6 months ago here in Los Angeles; she was here for a speaking engagement about her new cookbook, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous. I was immediately impressed by her kindness; she was gracious and inquisitive. We became fast friends. A couple of weeks ago I called her to chat about Rosh Hashanah, her holiday memories, and her favorite recipes. The interview is below.
After the interview, you’ll find one of Joan’s classic recipes from her Jewish Holiday Cookbook – Honey Orange Chicken.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where I am right this very minute visiting my 99 year-old mom.
Did your mom have an influence on your cooking growing up?
Actually, my aunt had a bigger influence. She came over from Germany in 1936. My father’s family is German Jewish from way back, but I suspect they were originally Sephardic Jews. My mother is Polish and Hungarian. Growing up on Fridays, we would go to my aunt’s house for lunch, and my grandparents lived with her. There would be all kinds of German-Jewish delicacies that we would eat, like these wonderful butter cookies, and salamis, and that dark bread… it all seemed so exotic to me.
Did your aunt’s cooking help to inspire your career path?
You know, if you told me when I was 13 years old that I would be a cookbook writer, let alone a Jewish cookbook writer, I would have told you that you were totally nuts. Growing up in Providence, I always liked going to foreign restaurants with my father… there are a lot of Italian restaurants, and he made me study French, so I learned about French food… that’s how I started becoming interested. Then, when I got older, a boyfriend told me… he’d been in the Peace Corps, in several different places… that the best country in the world he’d ever visited was Israel. And I thought, “Oh! Israel!” So I went to Israel when I was 28 years old, just to see what it was all about. And I was blown away by the different kinds of Jewish food. I ate with people, I learned what they were doing, and really learned a lot about Sephardic Jewish cuisine. I wrote my first cookbook as a lark. I never, ever thought it would be more than a lark. Then it sold 25,000 copies, which back then was a lot of books– since then I’ve sold hundreds of thousands, of course.
Joan’s latest cookbook – Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous
What was it about the Sephardic Israeli food that drew you to it?
It tasted good, it didn’t use a lot of meat so it was healthier… I just thought it was exotic and wonderful. There was a restaurant in Jerusalem (it’s no longer there) called Cohen’s, and they had stuffed vegetables—all kinds of Sephardic stuffed vegetables—and it was so delicious. It was just so different.
What was Rosh Hashanah like in your home—what kind of traditional family dishes did you grow up eating?
Probably my favorite recipe growing up was the plum tart—a special German-Jewish recipe, which we served instead of an apple dessert. It’s called Zwetschgenkuchen (recipe can be found in Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook). I make it every Rosh Hashanah. I also grew up eating a brisket (recipe appears in Jewish Cooking in America)—it’s savory, with lots of wine in it, almost like a stew. Those are two I grew up eating for the holidays.
Here’s a kind of silly question that I like to ask people… and I recognize that this is a difficult question to answer, for a food lover such as yourself…what’s your favorite food?
Oh wow. I don’t know. Off the top of my head, I love almonds… and I like lemon a lot—preserved lemon, lemon curd. But if I had to pick just one, I would say a perfect raspberry is my favorite food.
After talking with Joan, I thumbed through the Rosh Hashanah section of her Jewish Holiday Cookbook and found a recipe I just had to try: Honey Orange Chicken. Of this recipe, Joan says:
“Everyone has a favorite holiday chicken recipe. This one, with a happy combination of honey, orange, and fresh ginger, is mine—a perfect beginning for a sweet New Year.”
I made the recipe as written, with a minor adjustment to cooking time. My husband likes his chicken skin quite brown and crispy, so I upped the cooking temperature and added some time for browning. I also needed more breadcrumbs than the recipe calls for, but it might be because I used panko crumbs instead of regular. I garnished the chicken with some fresh orange wedges for visual appeal. I can imagine it on a platter in the center of a holiday table, glistening with honey, on a bed of greens and jewel-colored orange wedges to decorate. It would make a wonderful addition to a Rosh Hashanah menu.
Thank you Joan, for sharing your food journey and holiday memories with us!
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- 2 large eggs
- 2 tsp water
- 1 cup breadcrumbs or matzo meal (I used 1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 6 lbs chicken pieces (or 2 fryers, cut up)
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tbsp freshly grated ginger, or 3/4 tsp ground ginger, or to taste
- Fresh orange wedges for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the eggs with 2 tsp of water in a bowl. In another bowl, mix the breadcrumbs or matzo meal with the salt and pepper. Dip the chicken in the egg mixture, then in the breadcrumb mixture to coat.
- Heat oil in a heavy skillet and brown the chicken on all sides. Drain on paper towels.
- Whisk together hot water, orange juice, honey and ginger in a bowl.
- Place the chicken in a lightly greased roasting pan or a large casserole. Cover the chicken evenly with the honey orange liquid.Cover the dish with foil and let it roast in the oven for 45 minutes, basting occasionally. Uncover the dish after 45 minutes and increase oven temperature to 425 degrees F. Let the chicken continue to roast for 10-20 minutes longer, basting every few minutes, till the skin is browned to your liking.
- Serve on a platter garnished with fresh orange wedges, if desired. Joan recommends serving with rice and a tossed green salad.