AMHERST - Joan Nathan uses a pastry cutter to chop roasted eggplant in a wooden bowl as she prepares a salad. Her measurements are not exact. And though she has published hundreds of recipes, her attitude in the kitchen is casual.
“To taste,’’ she says, drizzling the eggplant with olive oil. “It’s to feel. That’s what I’m going to say from now on in recipes.’’
Nathan is a public television star and cookbook author whose specialty is Jewish food from around the world. A few weeks before Hanukkah, she is visiting the National Yiddish Book Center here for a day of cooking and kibitzing with an intimate crowd, over recipes from her latest book, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.’’ The center’s kitchen is perfumed with the sweet scent of freshly baked anise challah. Earlier, Nathan taught participants how to make the handsome loaves, their crusts golden and gilded with egg glaze. The multigenerational group includes pairs of mothers and daughters who gather around to soak up the culinary wisdom of this globe-trotting maven.
The day is divided into a cooking class, lunch, and a question session, but Nathan encourages a relaxed, conversational atmosphere that turns the event into one long klatch. Though she is the same age as many attendees - she has three adult children - she functions as the group’s collective Jewish mother. She knows Jewish history, she knows the recipes by heart, and she wants to hear their stories, too. But most of all, she wants them to eat.
Nathan, wearing a black top, tri-colored earrings, and a chunky, bright-red necklace, demonstrates three recipes: one-hour challah, eggplant caviar, and lemony, garlicky roasted red pepper salad. “I find eggplant to be one of the most interesting vegetables,’’ she says. “First of all that it wandered, starting in Asia.’’ Nathan scoops the tender flesh of the eggplant for the caviar, which takes its name from the vegetable’s many seeds, and splashes it with lemon juice. Between dishes she sips coffee and shares her techniques for gravlax and drying tomatoes.
Nathan scoured France for the recipes in this book, which came out last year and is her 10th volume. At one point she asked a cab driver if she could come over to sample his wife’s couscous de poisson. That night. (His wife declined.) Instructions for the challah come from a Moroccan-born baker living in Bordeaux. “A lot of people don’t give out recipes because they want their children to keep coming back,’’ she tells the crowd. She became interested in the bread when she learned that it rises for only 10 minutes and takes just about an hour to prepare. It is chewy and moist with more than a hint of anise and a pleasant sweetness.
The National Yiddish Book Center is located at Hampshire College and maintains a collection of 1 million volumes, all in Yiddish. Food is a theme here. One exhibit features a mock eatery dubbed Moishe Pipik’s Restaurant, where visitors practice ordering from Yiddish menus. A 1930 book printed by the kosher food giant Manischewitz is displayed in the room where Nathan and company are having lunch and is open to a page on waffles. Above it, a well-worn and slightly splotched notecard, clearly a family heirloom, shows a handwritten recipe for sour cream coffee cake.
During the Q&A session, a participant asks Nathan where to find a recipe for a poppy seed cake someone in the family used to make. It sounds familiar to Nathan, who has a recipe for a similar confection in one of her books. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a Jewish cooking group on Facebook.
Many Jewish dishes are revered with a sanctity typically reserved for holy texts, but Nathan reminds us that the nature of Jewish cuisine changed frequently throughout history and continues to morph. As Jews traveled, they adopted new techniques and ingredients. Some of the best-known foods, such as potato latkes, are relatively new. “Jews are adapters,’’ she says often, a mantra that applies both to their history and to her own whims in the kitchen.
“I think you should really make up your traditions.’’
Aaron Kagan can be reached at email@example.com.