Without a doubt, the Jewish book of the season that will both expand your vision of Jewish cooking and make you want to cook is Joyce Goldstein's "Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen" (Chronicle Books, $29.95).
Leaving behind the daily pressures of running her San Francisco restaurant, Square One, which she closed in 1996, gave Goldstein the time to more fully research Italian Jewish cuisine, a subject that has obsessed her since 1959. That was the year she and her former husband went to live and study art and architecture in Italy for two years. One of the first places in which they spent time was the Umbrian town of Perugia. The following passage from Goldstein's introduction to "Cucina Ebraica" describes the series of occurrences that led, nearly 40 years later, to her newest book.
The Fulbright committee, probably not by coincidence, billeted us with an Italian Jewish family named Coen. . . . World War II had so decimated the Italian Jewish population of the region that the synagogue was now located in a room in the Coen home. I had to pass through it every day on my way to the bathroom. Once a week, the rabbi came from Florence to perform services and special holiday ceremonies. On his visits, he would take over the balcony where he would proceed to kill chickens according to kosher law.
Being in the home-cum-synagogue put me in touch with my Jewishness in a way I hadn't known before. Both my parents were born in Russia and came to the United States as children. They made conscious efforts to bury the past. I was raised to be an American and, even more specifically, a New Yorker. Our family was not at all religious. We rarely attended temple except for an occasional bar mitzvah or wedding. . . . Like most New Yorkers, the Jewish cuisine I was exposed to was Ashkenazic. Being in an Italian Jewish home about to learn about Italian Jewish food, from people who had lived through Nazi persecution and the war and had survived, filled me with a sense of wonder and anticipation. It made me humble, grateful and anxious to make an emotional connection. . . .
At some point during the day I would spend time with [sisters] Livia, , and Albertina, , watching them prepare what I thought was going to be special Italian Jewish food. Albertina fancied herself to be quite a cook. Livia . . . was her reluctant assistant. Alas, they were terrible cooks. Every day for lunch we had plain boiled spaghetti with watery tomato sauce. Occasionally, Albertina would present her "capolavoro," her culinary masterpiece, insalata russa, with cold, overcooked vegetables bound in an oily mayonnaise. At night we ate a weak chicken broth with pastina, a little dry meat and a few overcooked vegetables. The overcooking did seem familiarly Jewish, but the flavors were definitely Italian. My first attempt to discover the good food of the Italian Jews hit a snag in Perugia.
Goldstein eventually did find good Italian Jewish food. Her book is a compilation of her favorite recipes collected in good part from books published in Italy as well as from photocopied recipe cards from family collections and ideas from conversations with restaurant chefs in Italy. Goldstein imposes her good taste on these disparate original sources in a way that makes the selection seem inevitable, as if the recipes came from one cook instead of hundreds. And she uses her chef's judgment to fill in missing ingredients and methods, as well as to update the recipes for "modern" tastes. On this subject, at least, she is the perfect culinary gatekeeper.
Goldstein suggests several holiday menus in her book, including three for Rosh Hashana. The following recipes, however, we think give a better sense of the wonderful food to be found in "Cucina Ebraica"--and they make a terrific holiday dairy menu.
CROSTINI WITH CHEESES AND HAZELNUTS
1/4 pound mascarpone cheese
1/4 pound Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and coarsely chopped
12 slices coarse country bread, toasted or grilled
Combine mascarpone and Gorgonzola in food processor. Add nuts and pulse briefly. Do not over-process or texture will be ruined. Spread on bread and serve.
6 servings. Each serving:
375 calories; 726 mg sodium; 37 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.;
The artichoke flavor of this soup intensifies as it sits, so it's best to prepare it a few hours or even a day ahead of time and reheat to serve.
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and diced, or 1/2 cup white rice
3 cups vegetable broth plus more if needed
Milk or heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Chopped, peeled, toasted hazelnuts or pine nuts, optional
Chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint, optional