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A Conversation with Chef Jeffrey Nathan: Plus Recipes for Shavuot

This article is reprinted with permission of the JTA.

NEW YORK, May 13 (JTA)--"It started with a mistake," says chef Jeffrey Nathan, explaining how he created his Smoked Salmon Cheesecake recipe. "I added salt instead of sugar to a cheesecake batter."

Instead of dumping it into the trash, he turned the traditional Shavuot dessert into a savory appetizer.

"Actually, the inspiration came from Emeril Lagasse," he says, referring to the Food Network chef. "I saw him preparing something similar with crayfish and sausage--very treif, unkosher, foods. Whenever I see unkosher dishes, I look at them and figure out what ingredients can be substituted to make them kosher."

Influenced by everything from Latin American to Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, Nathan tweaks Jewish recipes, often turning them inside out. But he always presents sophisticated, flavorful fare that is visually appealing.

Since 1998, Nathan has been the host chef of public television's New Jewish Cuisine, the only national kosher gourmet cooking series.

His first cookbook, Adventures in Jewish Cooking, is a collection of exciting kosher recipes that reflect his playful approach to flavor combinations that yield seriously delicious results.

Nathan is also the chef at Abigael's on Broadway, an upscale kosher restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

So how did a Jewish boy from Queens change the course of kosher cuisine?

"Believe me, I was the perfect example of a guy who thought that Jewish cooking meant a pastrami sandwich on rye or a bagel with a schmear," Nathan says in his book. "In our household when I grew up, Jewish cooking was personified by my family's recipes for matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage, and blintzes."

Since then Nathan has traveled a long way, but in some sense, he's come full circle.

"My professional career began as a dishwasher at Villa Russo, an Italian restaurant," Nathan says. "There, despite the piles of dirty pots and pans, I discovered a passion for cooking."

He joined the U.S. Navy as a cook, and Uncle Sam paid for his first round of travel, an opportunity he used to try exotic seasonings and collect recipes. Becoming the personal chef to the captain and officers, he shopped at local markets in different ports of call.

He began experimenting with upscale recipes. After four years at sea, he enrolled in the CIA--the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Nathan earned his mettle, or rather his skill with cast-iron pots, in the kitchens of famed Manhattan restaurants, such as Luchow's, The Company and New Deal. In 1996, after two decades in the business, he bought Abigael's. Most people thought he'd lost his mind.

"I was already an established chef with a reputation," Nathan says. "My friends asked me: At this stage of your career, why go into kosher foods?" But while they were thinking of brisket and borscht, he was thinking of introducing Jewish cooking to contemporary cuisine.

"I didn't want to serve the same old dishes that everyone expected, but an updated fresh version of kosher cooking. At Abigael's, I began to put some Sephardic dishes on the menu, exposing many of my clients to this spicy, exciting cuisine for the first time."

His concept was to use a light touch to develop elegant dishes. He explored culinary delights from the entire Jewish Diaspora. Breaking stereotypes, he revolutionized the menu at Abigael's, which now features a palate of colorful foods from Italy to the Pacific Rim, from Japanese sushi, to French and Vietnamese cuisine.

"Nuanced is how I describe my cooking," Nathan says. "I don't like something that is just sweet or spicy. I like foods that are opposites. Both crunchy and creamy, like Creme Brulee."

Although Creme Brulee, like Tarte Tatin and Tiramisu, came of age since Nathan's youth, all three desserts are excellent choices on Shavuot, an often overlooked but significant holiday on the Jewish calendar known for its dairy connection.

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Historians speculate that they abstained from meat at this pivotal moment in history. Some pious Jews compare the purity of the Torah to the whiteness of milk.

"When I was growing up, I liked Shavuot because we consumed dairy like crazy," Nathan says. "It was a morning holiday, full of brunch foods."

Like many Ashkenazi Jews, the Nathans ate the standard kugels and cheesecakes.

But now that he is the maven of nouvelle Jewish cuisine, what would chef Nathan suggest serving this Shavuot?

Besides his Smoked Salmon Cheesecake, which is not only sensational when spread on crackers or black bread, but also makes a splash on a buffet table, Nathan mentions other enticing recipes.

"My kids love their dad's version of Tex-Mex mac and cheese," he says explaining that his son, 15, and daughter, 12, adore this Spicy Macaroni Kugel with Three Peppers. They help him prepare it by chopping and cooking ingredients. It's a wonderful way to bring the whole family together.

Like so many great culinary discoveries, this dish also started as a misstep. `

"I made it too spicy at first," he says. "I like to play around with peppers. But if your family is chili challenged, you can leave out the jalapeno and still have one terrific dish."

His Beet, Pear and Fennel Salad is an elegant and colorful addition to the menu. Its pungent sweet and sour orange vinaigrette cuts the richness of dairy.

"I prefer not to boil the beets because baking intensifies their sweetness," Nathan says. "When you boil beets, the flavor leaches out. You throw away the color with their amazing taste."

Of course, Nathan's signature dish, the one that keeps customers flocking to Abigael's, is his Chocolate Mousse Flowerpots, which he developed in a lighthearted way.

He went to Home Depot to buy a friend a housewarming gift. He selected a clay pot. Bringing it home, he filled the pot with chocolate mousse and covered it with chopped cookies that looked like "dirt." He poked a couple of flowers into his creation.

"While everyone else came with housewarming gifts, I placed the flowerpot on the center of the table."

The host and guests had no clue what was really inside. We had dinner and after it was over, I spooned some of the flowerpot contents onto my plate and started eating it.

Everyone looked confused and distressed. "Did he have too much to drink?" they whispered. But once he told them the centerpiece was a dessert, the chocolate mousse was a big hit.

Today people who are kosher follow food trends like everyone else. They want the same culinary experiences that other Americans enjoy. They want access to Mexican, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Italian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Thanks to Jeffrey Nathan, there's no reason why they can't have the best of both worlds.

"When I bought Abigael's, people told me that brisket and matzo ball soup are so yesterday," he says. "But I decided that kosher food doesn't have to be so stereotyped. It can be anything as long as it conforms to the laws of kashrut."

"My exploration of modern Jewish cooking was the beginning of a new chapter in my development as a chef--and as a person. Over the years, I admit that I had jumped around a bit, getting recognition as a wild game chef, and even as an Italian cook. But Abigael's was my bashert--it's where I was destined to find myself. As I honed the recipes for Abigael's menu, I realized that I had come home, both spiritually and professionally."

In the same way that the Children of Israel received the Torah from God, Shavuot is a time to look forward and back, to honor tradition but, like Jeffrey Nathan, also to shake things up a bit.

SMOKED SALMON CHEESECAKE

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
3 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp. seasoned dried breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/3 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
11/2 lbs. cream cheese, at room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature
8 oz. sliced smoked salmon, chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup shredded havarti cheese
1/3 cup heavy cream

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350. Generously brush an 8-inch springform pan with melted butter. Wrap the bottom of the pan in a double thickness of aluminum foil.
2. In a small bowl, mix the Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Pour into the pan, and tilt to coat the pan halfway up the sides. Pat the crumbs in the bottom of the pan into an even, thin layer.
3. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the red and green bell peppers. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in the salt and pepper. Cool completely.
4. Beat the cream cheese in a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-low speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the vegetables. With the mixer running, add the eggs, one at a time, just until blended, scraping the bowl as needed. Add the smoked salmon, dill, havarti, and heavy cream, and mix just until blended. Spread evenly in the springform pan. Place the pan in a large roasting pan. Slide the rack halfway out of the oven. Pour enough water in the roasting pan to come halfway up the side of the springform pan. Slide the rack back into the oven carefully.
5. Bake until the edges are puffed and golden but the center still seems slightly unset, about 11/2 hours. Run a knife around the edge of the cheesecake to release it from the sides of the pan. Cool completely on a wire rack.
6. Remove the sides of the pan. Wrap the cheesecake tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.
7. Cut into thin slices and serve on plates.

SPICY MACARONI AND CHEESE KUGEL WITH THREE PEPPERS

12 oz. medium egg noodles
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk, heated
1 cup shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. sweet or hot Hungarian paprika
1/4 tsp. ground hot red (cayenne) pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Topping:
1 cup crushed corn flakes
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350. Lightly butter a 13x9-inch baking pan.
2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the noodles and cook just until barely cooked, about 6 minutes. Drain well.
3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, red and green bell peppers, and jalapeno. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 6 minutes.
4. Melt the butter in the empty noodle pot over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, reduce the heat to low, and let the mixture bubble without browning for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce loses any raw flour taste, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the cheddar, monterey jack, and mozzarella, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the chile powder, paprika, and cayenne, and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the noodles. Spread evenly in the baking dish.
5. To make the topping, mix the corn flakes and parmesan cheese in a small bowl. Stir in the melted butter. Distribute evenly over the top of the noodles.
6. Bake until the topping is crispy and the kugel is bubbling around the edges, about 30 minutes. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.

BEET, PEAR, AND FENNEL SALAD WITH ORANGE VINAIGRETTE

Orange Vinaigrette

Grated zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
21/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. honey
11/2 tsp. cider vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. chopped fresh mint
2 tsp. chopped fresh basil
1/4 tsp. ground fennel seeds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Salad

6 medium beets, scrubbed but unpeeled
1 medium fennel bulb
8 oz. arugula, trimmed well, washed, dried, and torn into bite-sized pieces
3 ripe medium Anjou pears, unpeeled, cored, and thinly sliced
3 oz. feta cheese crumbled

1. To make the vinaigrette, combine the orange zest and juice, lime juice, honey, and vinegar in a blender. With the machine running, gradually add the oil and blend until thickened. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the mint, basil, and fennel seeds. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400. Pierce each beet a few times with a fork, and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until the beets are tender, about 11/4 hours. When the beets are cool, peel them. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
3. When ready to serve, cut the fennel in half lengthwise, then cut out the hard core. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, cut the fennel crosswise into paper-thin slices. In a large bowl, toss the fennel and arugula with a few tablespoons of the vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper. In a medium bowl, toss the pears with a couple of tablespoons of the vinaigrette and season lightly.
4. Slice the beets 1/4 inch thick. Arrange a beet on each of 6 plates, in a wide circle. Heap portions of arugula mixture in the center, and top with the pears, then the feta cheese. Drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette and serve.

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE FLOWERPOTS

8 oz. semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
11/2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. dark rum
10 chocolate "sandwich"' cookies with vanilla filling, such as Oreos

Equipment

6 (3-inch) terra-cotta flowerpots, washed in soapy water, rinsed, and air dried. (Pots should be glazed inside with no hole in the bottom.)
6 stemmed silk flowers

1. Melt the chocolate, oil, and cocoa together in the top part of a double boiler over hot, not simmering, water. Remove from the heat and let stand until cool, but still pourable.
2. Whip the cream, vanilla, and rum in a chilled large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer. Stir a large spoonful of the whipped cream into the chocolate to loosen it, then fold this mixture into the remaining cream until evenly colored. Spoon into the flowerpots, smoothing the tops.
3. With the machine running, drop the cookies through the feed tube of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process to form crumbs. Apply a thick layer of the crumbs on top of each chocolate mousse to resemble dirt. Cover each pot loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the mousse is chilled, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.
4. To serve, stick a flower into each mousse. Let stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, then serve.

 

 

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term for that which is not kosher (in accordance with Jewish dietary law). Common treif foods include shellfish and pig products (ham, bacon, etc.). Also, food or meals that combine dairy and meat products are treif.
Linda Morel

Linda Morel is a freelance writer based in New York.

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