There’s no such thing as a quick run to the Santa Monica Farmers Market with Amelia Saltsman.
On a recent visit I took with Saltsman, the farm-to-table cooking expert couldn’t take a few steps without exchanging hellos or getting involved in an extended conversation. “Is it juicy? Is it tender?” she asked Mark Carpenter of Coastal Farms when selecting zucchini, before getting an update about what Carpenter expects from the coming weeks of his squash crop from Santa Paula. Stopping by third-generation almond farmer Nate Siemens’ farm stand to ask a question led to serious talk about the current drought and California hydro-politics.
A slim, elegantly gray-haired mother of three and grandmother of two, Saltsman is a maven of the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market, one of the nation’s finest—where the city’s most prominent chefs take the time to shop, socialize, and gossip. She holds a special place within this ecosystem of food, commerce, and community. She’s also a well-respected author. The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook, published in 2007, remains a consistent local seller. In 2013, she released the companion e-book. With The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition appearing on bookshelves this month, Saltsman has finally gotten around to focusing on a topic, Jewish cooking, that she’s wanted to explore for many years.
With a foreword by author and influential chef Deborah Madison, a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, the book of Saltsman’s 150 original recipes makes an intriguing contribution to recent efforts to update Jewish food in concept and execution. The narrative touches on various aspects of Jewish life, interwoven with Saltsman’s own family history, spanning centuries and continents. She shares the complex connections she’s traced throughout her multifaceted career as a market shopper, chef, educator, activist, food stylist, writer, and storyteller.
“Farmers are connected in a deeper, more ancient way” to all aspects of food production and consumption, Saltsman told me. Plus, “everything was seasonal until the 20th century.” The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen became an ideal vehicle for her to understand how her heritage and food passions dovetail.
This attention to the seasonal fits beautifully with Saltsman’s well-known sensibility, skill, and talent. “It’s a very California, West Coast viewpoint, which I value enormously,” said the Berkeley-based prolific cookbook author, pastry chef, and instructor Alice Medrich, Saltsman’s friend and colleague. “She’s a great cook. I’ve never ever eaten anything at her house that wasn’t simply satisfying and delicious. She has a great palate.”
Back at the market, where Saltsman regularly leads guided tours, that day‘s haul was relatively light because of her “shopping in layers” method. She was already well-supplied on the base of items that have a longer shelf life, such as carrots and potatoes, so this trip she was stocking up on perishables and proteins. The variety wasn’t always so abundant at the market, now more than 30 years old, which as Saltsman noted, “started with two tables” before becoming a destination for L.A.’s fresh-food evangelists, from amateur home cooks to celebrity chefs.
Meandering around the stalls, the Pacific in view, Saltsman—whose daughter, I should note, I have known since middle school—pointed out how “you see several stories” at each grower’s station. Chickpeas, in this case those grown at the Jimenez Family Farm in the Santa Ynez Valley, are an ancient legume that are also known to benefit soil quality, Saltsman explained. (Her book has a recipe for salt-grilled fresh chickpeas.) Other farmers sell the flowers they grow in their fields to keep away undesirable pests and welcome useful insects.
Walking through “the village square” of this affluent and progressive seaside city in which she’s has lived for several decades, Saltsman sees parallels to other places. “When we were in Israel, we saw farms cheek by jowl,” Saltsman recalled, separated by vines or other subtle—and utilitarian—territorial markers. The variety was staggering, much like how at her home-base market, Wong Farms from the Salton Sea sells mangoes alongside vendors peddling fresh herbs and peak-season summer tomatoes.
Pointing out a stand with particularly beautiful eggplants, “You end up finding different farmers who grow the best of something,” Saltsman stated. The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen is filled with ingredients she sourced from the market, as well as on-site images photographer Staci Valentine captured from Saltsman’s favorite Southern California farms. The cover features pomegranates Laura Ramirez selected from her J.J.’s Lone Daughter Ranch, while a close-up glamour shot of almond blossoms was taken at Siemens’ Fat Uncle Farms in Wasco.
“When I look at the book, I see my relationships with the farmers,” Saltsman said. “We wanted to anchor it in nature, the market, and the table, so you connect through the seasons.”
The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen is also deeply personal. Saltsman includes items such as her family’s hannukiah, a tablecloth her grandmother embroidered, and the candlesticks her husband’s great-grandmother tossed in the wagon at the last minute before leaving her home village to come to America. “The touchstones,” as Saltsman said, of her own Jewish life.
“I am the Jewish diaspora,” said Saltsman, the child of immigrants from Israel who originally came from Romania and Iraq. So, her book includes a recipe for “Mom’s sort-of-Ashkenazic” charoset and Safta Rachel’s Iraqi charoset.
Saltsman was born just months after her parents landed in Los Angeles to pursue their educations and without any friends or relatives to root them in Southern California. Her family eventually moved from a multiethnic East Hollywood neighborhood to suburban Burbank in the San Fernando Valley, where her Iraqi-born father, who had attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship, based his aerospace engineering business. Her mother became an artist and literature scholar.
From what she can recall of her first trip to Israel with her mother when she was 10, the food stands out. “I still can taste what the rolls tasted like,” she said. “The taste of the butter. The taste of the ice cream.” Back at home in L.A., her mother had learned to cook only when she had her own family, and the results were what Saltsman described as “a mish-mosh of food of memory” merged with American convenience. Nonetheless, in her secular, unaffiliated household, the lessons about food took hold. Saltsman’s mother’s chicken soup recipe made it into the book.
The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen gave Saltsman a different and compelling framework in which to write about the territory she already knew so well. She structured the book’s six chapters into paired months, since “as a student of seasonality” she came to understand that the concept of four main growing seasons is flawed. Through the process of working on the book, which included a research trip to Israel, she saw how the shifting Jewish holiday calendar actually syncs up with these two-month increments. “The way she connects the six seasons [is] brilliant,” Medrich said. “That’s what the food seasons really are.”
“Alex took to selling like a duck to water,” Saltsman said cheerfully at the farmers’ market, pointing to her friend Alex Weiser, who grew up working alongside his parents in the fields and at farmers’ markets where the Weiser Family Farms have set up shop for many years.
“The best education I ever had was at markets,” Weiser added.
Because The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen draws from experiences with her extended market mishpocha as well as her biological family, the Weiser farming family appears in the book. Alex currently runs the operation that his father, Sid, a Boyle Heights native and a high-school chemistry teacher, and his mother, Raquel, who is from Syria via Mexico City, founded in the town of Tehachipi, located about 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield, in 1977. They’ve become a beloved fixture at the most heavily trafficked markets around the L.A. area and cult celebrities among chefs, thanks in part to their potatoes, and when the season yields, melons and other semi-obscure prized vegetables, such as romanesco and Jerusalem artichokes.
Saltsman and Raquel joined forces to develop recipes for Syrian lemon chicken fricassee and Raquel’s “Rice and Fideo,” which Saltsman explained is an ode of sorts to Rice-a-Roni. It’s a nice form of reciprocity, given that Saltsman wrote an article about the Weiser Family Farm for the Los Angeles Times in the late 1990s, which she pointed out was uncommon in the time before Modern Farmer and mainstream media outlets began trumpeting farmers’ contributions outside of trade publications. “We take all this writing for granted,” she said.
Santa Monica Farmers Market supervisor Laura Avery noted that Saltsman was “the only one to follow through with her promise” to write a cookbook centered on the market. Avery is surrounded by the region’s culinary powerhouses, and yet in that mix, “I always love to hear her take on how to use the best food in the world.”
“This is about humble ingredients,” Saltsman said, lingering on the last two words. Not everyone has access to all of the components her recipe for arugula with fresh golden Barhi dates, dried apricots, nectarines, and sumac that the September and October chapter calls for, but The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen still reminds readers to value foods through multiple lenses and remember the “people with stories behind the ingredients.” (Her recipe for golden borscht is here.)
With The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen, Saltsman has applied this think global, act local worldview to her own heritage and kitchen to share with her family and circle of friends. “There’s so much love in the book,” she said.
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Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.