Forty years ago, Joyce Goldstein and her then husband stayed briefly in Perugia, Italy, with a Jewish family by the name of 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,'' Goldstein writes in Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (Chronicle Books). As Goldstein watched the family and their rabbi, who came to hold services and to butcher chickens according to kosher laws on the Coen balcony, her life changed. She knew little about these Sephardic Jews and nothing about her own religion, in spite of having been raised in New York City's Crown Heights, surrounded by Jews. And she became fascinated with the cooking of the household. It was distinctly Italian and similar to her own family's table only because everything was cooked too long.
``The overcooking did seem familiarly Jewish,'' she writes in Cucina Ebraica. In the Coen household, she endured weak chicken broth, dry meat, and limp vegetables.
By the time she moved to Rome, she had already decided to pursue the study of Jewish cooking. The Jewish community in Rome is one of the oldest in the West. The cuisine has survived centuries of turmoil, changing with travelers and immigrants who brought their own interpretations.
Among these were prisoners captured after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century of the modern era; Ashkenazic Jews who migrated from central Europe in the 14th century; and Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were among those expelled in 1492 by the Inquisition.
Spaniards brought the foods of the New World: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and corn. Arab traders brought pine nuts, raisins, rice, eggplant, and artichokes, and an affinity for sweet-and-sour foods.
Once home, Goldstein settled in San Francisco, turned to food as a profession, and became one of the pioneers of modern American cooking. She also painted, which she had done at Smith College and at the Yale School of Art and Architecture.
Goldstein began collecting Italian books and recipes. Her research intensified every spring, when she threw an Italian Passover Seder at her San Francisco restaurant, Square One. (The restaurant, which specialized in Mediterranean food, closed two years ago, after 12 years in business.)
Tracing the cuisine of Italian Jews took digging, since much of it came down through the generations by the oral tradition. ``Recipes were committed to memory and passed on within the family, from mother to daughter,'' she writes. ``I discovered that most Italian dishes for fennel and eggplant were originally cooked only by Jews, both these vegetables having been shunned by other Italians when they were first introduced on the markets.''
She found dishes she associated with Ashkenazic Jews: a stew of yellow squash and meat, for example, that reminded her of tsimmis, the slow-cooked beef, sweet potato, and carrot mixture. There were small balls of fish with cinnamon and cloves that resembled gefilte fish. She read about a chopped liver pate and about grigole (gribines), which is the fat of goose, duck, or chicken rendered into cracklings.
When she was collecting dishes for Cucina Ebraica, she noticed ``a sense of thriftiness.'' And there was something else that bothered her a little: Many recipes produced bland food. ``Authenticity is important,'' she writes, ``but I want a recipe only if it produces delicious food.'' So she added herbs and spices, used more seasoning, shortened some cooking times, and left others long; many vegetables may not have the crunchiness modern cooks strive for. She thinks of this as contributing to the homespun nature of the cuisine. ``Italian Jewish food sings of family,'' she writes; ``it tastes like home should taste.'' Here are some recipes:
These recipes are adapted from Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, by Joyce Goldstein (Chronicle Books).
By Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven from The Boston Globe