In the Kitchen with Amelia Saltsman

September 11, 2015

Author of The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen talks about the importance of knowing what's in season and how to buy it, and cooking traditional Jewish recipes with a farm-to-table perspective.

Amelia Saltsman is the daughter of a Romanian mother and an Iraqi father who met in the Israeli army and immigrated to Los Angeles where she was born and raised. Her cooking reflects her eclectic background, with the diverse flavors and cultural touchstones that have made her first cookbook, The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, a beloved classic. She is a frequent guest on KCRW’s “Good Food with Evan Kleiman” and a longtime advocate for small family farms and farmers’ markets. We talked to Amelia about her new cookbook, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen, and the important ways in which sustainable practices, great tasting food, and culinary traditions go hand in hand.

What is the main focus of your cooking?
Flavorful, simple, seasonal dishes from the freshest, well-grown ingredients I can find. 

Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus?
I believe that naturally flavorful ingredients produce the most healthful meals. Look for flavor first and good nutritional principles will follow as “added value.” Delicious ingredients require less fuss and fewer add-ins (like sugar!) to prepare a tasty meal. To showcase such quality, ingredient-driven recipes are often naturally gluten- and dairy-free. When you cook with fresh, whole foods, you don’t have to worry about hidden ingredients you’re trying to avoid. And, when you buy foods grown for flavor first, you’ll be getting sustainably raised foods at their seasonal peak and at the best price. 

What is your relationship with local farmers?
I’ve been shopping at my local farmers’ market for over thirty years. I’ve watched farmers’ kids grow up and take over the business of growing flavorful, healthful foods. I’m endlessly inspired by farmers’ passion for excellence. I’ve learned so much from them – about food and perseverance – and try to show that respect and gratitude for their efforts in my cooking. And after thirty years of meeting weekly, many farmers have become good friends.   

Are you incorporating locally grown foods into your dishes? How?
Yes! I shop at my local farmers’ market for almost everything – fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, eggs, grains, and fish from local fisherman.

What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to eating seasonally? And how are you addressing them?
It boils down to a few universal concerns: how to know what’s in season and how to buy it; that eating seasonally will be too expensive or time-consuming; that people won’t have access to all the foods they like (no citrus in Boston or tomatoes in January, for instance); how to shop seasonally at the supermarket; and how to make today’s desire for seasonal, lighter cooking sync with traditional family recipes and comfort foods. I address these concerns through all my work – my recipes and cookbooks (The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen and The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook), advocacy work at local and state levels, and leading farmers’ market tours and cooking classes.

What has been the greatest challenge in recreating traditional Jewish recipes from a fresh, farm-to-table perspective?
In one sense, it didn’t present a challenge, since I always cook ‘farm-to-table.’ Most traditional recipes begin with whole fresh foods supplemented by shelf-stable items like legumes and cereal grains, which I try to source from small producers whenever possible. The same is true for flavorings and spices; I look for those from small producers and read ingredient labels, selecting brands without a lot of additives. At the supermarket, I shop the perimeter of the store, where the whole foods live. The main task is to become aware of the natural connections between “tradition” and “farm-to-table”: the autumn “first fruits” of the Jewish New Year or the spring herbs of Passover are perfect examples. That’s why I wrote The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen!

How important is sustainability?
Incredibly. Sustainable practices are meant to ensure plentiful, healthy food and soil for future generations. One of the things I loved exploring when writing The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen are the many lessons in the Bible that reflect today’s efforts in crop rotation, permaculture, food justice, and being stewards of the land. It was one of those delicious aha moments.

What steps do you take toward conservation in your meal planning?
I buy and cook in “longevity layers” – I use foods in order of perishability to minimize waste. And I definitely try to conserve my time and money by buying in season, when crops are at their most plentiful, least expensive, and require the least work; and by cooking dishes that can be “repurposed” into other tasty meals later in the week.