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Preserving a Jewish Culinary Tradition

Pickling goes far beyond the barrel of half-sours

Leah Koenig
July 19, 2017
Photo: Leigh Olson
Preserved cherries from Emily Paster's book.Photo: Leigh Olson
Photo: Leigh Olson
Preserved cherries from Emily Paster's book.Photo: Leigh Olson

Emily Paster’s obsession with food preservation began the same way it did for many others: as an attempt to make her summer hauls from the farmer’s market last. She started simply with pickles and a couple of jams. But before long, she caught the bug and began filling her pantry with fruit butters, chutneys, and countless batches of pickled vegetables.

Over time, her culinary hobby transformed into a source of connection to her family’s Jewish heritage. “I put up jar after jar of kosher dill pickles and pickled green tomatoes,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, The Joys of Jewish Preserving, out this month. “I canned applesauce in September and October that we used top our Hanukkah latkes in December. And I hoarded jars of apricot jam to fill hamantaschen come Purim.”

Paster’s cookbook builds upon this theme, offering 75 recipes that explore the integral role that food preservation has played in Jewish home cooking throughout history. Like most cultures around the globe, Jews preserved food out of necessity. In Eastern Europe, putting up crocks of pickles and sauerkraut during the short summer months was a way to ensure access to fruits and vegetables (and the much-needed nutrients they supplied) during the winter. And in warmer climates—places that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews typically hail from—preservation helped foods last before the advent of refrigeration and ultimately became an integral part of the mezze table.

Emily Paster. (Photo: Doug McGoldrick)
Emily Paster. (Photo: Doug McGoldrick)

The Joys of Jewish Preserving makes space for preserves from across the Jewish cultural spectrum. There are recipes for Polish-style pickled beets, raspberry syrup that was served as a healing tonic in the shtetls of Europe, and sour-cherry preserves, which Russian Jews use to sweeten their tea. She also includes Syrian pickled cauliflower, Moroccan preserved lemons, and membrillo—the sweet quince paste that many Sephardic Jews serve around Rosh Hashanah.

Because pickling and preserving is inherently seasonal, the book makes ample connections to the Jewish calendar’s cycle of holidays. In one recipe headnote, Paster writes, “In the past, Ashkenazi Jews made a syrupy preserve known as eingemacht out of their etrogs following Sukkot.” The preserve was stored and then served months later, along with tea, on Tu B’Shevat. Because commercial etrogs (citrons) grown for Sukkot are not intended for culinary use, and therefore often laden with pesticides, Paster’s eingemacht recipe substitutes lemons.

Another recipe for rose-petal syrup notes: “In the Sephardic world, rose-flavored dishes are traditional for Shavuot, which is known as the Feast of Roses because of the custom of decorating the synagogue with rose petals for the holiday.” Paster recommends drizzling the blush-colored syrup over Middle Eastern semolina cake—a recipe that appears in a later section of dishes that pair well with all those pickled and preserved foods.

Paster’s cookbook feels refreshingly novel, shining the spotlight on a side of Jewish cuisine that is often overlooked or reduced to the bowl of half sours served at the delicatessen. It is also tied up to a larger historical tradition of Jewish pickling in America. “Pickling is a big part of Eastern European culinary tradition as a whole,” said Jeff Yoskowitz, co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto, which includes multiple recipes for jams, pickles, syrups, and the fermented tonic called kvass. “But Jews were instrumental in transporting the tradition to America.” Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was filled with Jewish pushcart peddlers selling pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, whole apples, cabbage, beets, fish, and other fermented delights.

Meanwhile, The Joys of Jewish Preserving is part of a more recent surge in food preservation interest across the country. The mid-to-late aughts witnessed a mini artisanal-pickle boom, as a slew of new companies began producing small-batch versions of kosher dills as well as cutting-edge recipes like pickled grapes and pickled okra with smoked paprika. A convergence of factors—Michael Pollan’s watershed local-foods treatise, Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the 2008 recession among them—contributed to the increased attention on foods that skewed traditional and thrifty.

Many of these companies, like Brooklyn Brine, McClure’s Pickles, The Real Dill, McVicker, Brassica and Brine, and Rick’s Picks, among others, continue to thrive. So does Adamah, the Jewish educational farm that began selling its pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and string beans, as well as fruit and hot-pepper jams in 2007.

In more recent years, the pace of new pickle companies seems to have slowed down, though people’s passion for fermented and other preserved products has not waned. It has merely shifted focus. “What I’m seeing now is the influence of Sandor Katz everywhere I go,” Yoskowitz said, speaking of the self-proclaimed “fermentation revivalist,” who has become the country’s patron saint of pickling.

Sandor Katz at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival. (Wikipedia)
Sandor Katz at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival. (Wikipedia)

Katz’s books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation can be found on the shelves of anyone who has even the most cursory interest in food preservation. “Instead of people starting new business ventures, they are just making things at home themselves,” Yoskowitz said. “It is kind of amazing how this Jewish man who grew up in New York City has helped to inoculate a whole new generation of home picklers around the country.”

This DIY trend bodes well for books like Paster’s (and Yoskowitz’s, too), which focus on empowering people to bring Jewish-inflected preserving traditions into their kitchens. “Canning is more dependent on reliable recipes than other types of cooking because you want to ensure you’re working with safe levels of acidity,” Paster said. Still, she said, it is a very accessible method of food preparation. “I tell people, if you can roast a chicken safely, you can make pickles.” Those who feel a bit wary about sterilizing jars and water baths will find a wide variety of quick pickles that can be refrigerated instead of canned.

Pickling is an ancient tradition, but with summer’s endless variety of fruits and vegetables on deck, there is always room for inspiration. “Canners are always looking for new recipes and flavor profiles,” said Paster. The Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern-inflected flavors Paster incorporates through the book—like her apple, honey, and rosewater jam, or Indian-Jewish pickled eggplant—are sure to intrigue picklers and preservers, Jewish and otherwise, to try something new.


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