Faith Kramer is the author of the new book 52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen. She is a food writer and recipe developer, and is a columnist for j., the Jewish News of Northern California. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Q: What inspired you to create this cookbook, and what kind of research did you do to come up with all the recipes?
A: To me Jewish food isn't static, it's adaptive, and it’s always changing. It's a shared food history. As Jews traveled through the world, they shared the food customs they had and adapted to new ones shared by others.
My take on Jewish food continues this creativity and roots it in my taste for international food with Jewish ingredients, customs, traditions, and cooking techniques. I like big flavors and vibrant tastes and I think these recipes reflect that.
I mix Middle Eastern with Eastern European in my Pomegranate Molasses Brisket (my sons' favorite). I use falafel as a crust and bake it for an herb and feta pizza. I drizzle Lebanese garlic sauce, Yemeni hot sauce, North African chili sauce, and Iraqi-Israeli fermented mango sauce on grilled corn.
I travel a lot and bring those flavors to my food, for example when I schmear a Cambodian-inspired lemongrass-ginger marinade on flanken (a traditional Ashkenazi cut of short ribs) and grill them.
I read a lot and am inspired by what I read of the food ways of Jews around the world and look for ways to incorporate what I have read into dishes I want to eat, such as my Layered Chicken and Vegetable Plov (a rice dish).
I also shop at produce stores and see what is fresh and seasonal and poke around international stores and try new-to-me ingredients and learn how I can use ingredients with a connection to Jewish food ways such as silan (date syrup), berbere (Ethiopian spice mix), and more.
The recipes were developed over the last 10-15 years, but some of them have roots that go much further back (see my Stuffed Cabbage Meatloaf which adapts two of my grandmother's specialties).
Others are much newer and were developed within the last year or two (such as Bundt Cake with Black and White Glazes (inspired by my love of the famous black and white cookie).
I am very lucky to write a cooking column for the j, Northern California's Jewish News (https://www.jweekly.com/author/faith-kramer/ ) twice a month, which means I am always researching holiday foods and customs as well as different Jewish cultures, ingredients, and techniques.
For example, researching Jewish Valentine's Day (Tu b'Av) inspired me to cook with roses and ended up with the creation of the rose-water scented Flourless Chocolate Berry Cake.
(The book has more 100 recipes for starters, main courses, side dishes, desserts, and fundamentals, and includes some of the standards as well -- roast chicken, challah, latkes, hummus, and more. Each of the 52 primary recipes features a menu pulling everything together for a Friday night dinner.)
Q: You write, "Food, in Judaism, is often treated as a symbol of blessings, wishes, or thankfulness." Can you say more about that?
A: So much of Judaism is celebrated in the home and centers around food. Over time the food we eat at Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and other holidays has become intimately connected with not just the celebration but the meaning behind the celebration. Matzah at Passover is certainly one of the best known examples.
The foods and their meanings vary and reflect the time and place (certain foods are symbolic in certain Jewish cultures and not others), language (some foods are symbolic because they sound like words in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or other Jewish languages, such as leeks at Rosh Hashanah since the Hebrew word for the vegetable is similar to the word for cut -- meaning those with bad intentions toward us will have their wishes cut or thwarted), appearance (for example, carrots at Rosh Hashanah because they are said to resemble gold and a wish for prosperity), some because they are mentioned in the Torah or elsewhere.
When we eat these foods with intention, we also are using them as a sort of prayer or message, which deepens the meaning of a ritual meal or holiday celebration.
These foods and meanings change over time and the Jewish experience. For example, latkes, fried potato pancakes, are seen as a typical Ashkenazi Chanukah food -- tied into the miracle of oil.
But potatoes were not prevalent in Eastern and Central Europe until perhaps the 17th or 18th century. Before that, pancakes made out of rye or buckwheat or shredded turnip cooked in chicken fat (schmaltz) were used, with Italian Jews favoring cheese pancakes and olive oil.
52 Shabbats offers essays and insights into some of these topics and the different Jewish communities that exist or once existed around the world. I also try to put the food traditions in context with the celebration of Shabbat Friday night dinner, holidays, and the Jewish calendar.
Q: Do you have any particular favorites among the recipes you included?
A: The recipes in the book are ones I make often for family and friends. It's tough to pick a favorite because I'm usually into whatever is on the stove or in the oven at the moment, but my recent go-to is Layered Chicken and Rice Plov, a rice dish with robust tastes and a dramatic presentation.
Other favorites, depending on the season or holiday, include the Pomegranate Molasses Brisket, Spicy Beef Tzimmes (especially when it is the basis for Friday Night Tamales), White Bean Stuffed Peppers with Garlic Sauce, Mostly Make-Ahead Shakshouka, Matzah Ball and Pozole Chicken Soup, Spice-Trade Fish Stew, the Charred Eggplant Dip (I make it pretty much every week) and the Chanukah-inspired Challah Fritters with Sweet Tahini Sauce.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?
A: I enjoy sharing Friday night Shabbat dinner with friends and family and wanted to share my love for this tradition. I hope the book inspires others to celebrate this holiday that comes every week and develop a Shabbat dinner practice that works for them.
The recipes and menus are not just for Friday night dinner, of course. They work for other nights and there are suggestions for Jewish holidays as well. (The book includes some basic how-to-celebrate Shabbat choreography for those who are new to the tradition.)
The other big take away would be that Jewish food is not static; it’s not just what your grandma cooked or what you eat at the deli or falafel shop. It’s multi-flavored and diverse and always adapting. Adapting and using traditions, ingredients, and techniques can reflect customs and history but still reflect modern tastes.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am beginning to work on a cookbook focused on Jewish flavors for easy and fast prep for weeknight dinners. I’m just starting to think about recipe development for this one.
I am launching a new website at www.faithkramer.com, which will feature book, food, and Shabbat and holiday information. The site should be live by the end of November. You will also be able to find links to my twice-a-month newspaper cooking column with recipes for the j, the Jewish news of Northern California, and to my personal blog, Blog Appetit.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I like to say this book was inspired by my grandmother, who was a terrible cook but instilled a love of Shabbat in me, and my mother, who was a great cook and who taught me how to be fearless in the kitchen, but it was also inspired by the generations and generations of Jewish cooks before me whose creativity, adaptability, and sense of tradition preserved the taste of Judaism.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb