what we’re reading: Jerusalem, Herbivoracious, Easy as Pie

One of the greatest delights of my life is to sit on the couch, my daughter on my lap, a stack of books beside us, and read. We read 10 to 20 books at a time sometimes, some of the books so familiar I could recite them in my sleep, and others brand-new to us. (We’re big library fans around here. I still can’t believe we can borrow a bag full of books for free.) Lu listens intently, pointing to images and asking questions, reading some phrases for me, chiding me if I skip a word. This girl runs and jumps and dances all day long. She moves. But when she needs some down time, a little calm after all that kinetic joy, she reads.

We’re all readers in this house. Danny is always perusing cookbooks, reading me ideas for spices we should try (must find some za’atar) and flavors he’s jazzed to combine. There is always a stack of cookbooks in our living room, next to the couch, some of them splayed open to pages bound to be food stained soon. Lu reads and reads and reads, then asks for more books. We treat her every week to two used books at our island bookstore, followed by a pot of tea with her parents. We read the books as we sip our tea.

And me? I can’t even begin to talk about how much books mean to me. As a writer, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to wrestle it into a sentence. When I was 11, my three favorite authors were Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, and Somerset Maugham. (Yep. I’m a weirdo.) My fourth-grade report card noted, in the first quarter: “Shauna has the goal of reading 50 books this year.” By the end of the year, my report card said, “Shauna has read 278 books this year.” Now, I was quite a bit lonely as a kid, and shy. That’s another story, another time. Books were my sanctuary. I still can’t believe that C.S. Lewis sat down with a pen, wrote words on a page, guided children through a wardrobe door, and opened the world of Narnia to me.

Writing is black magic.

These days, I read less than I did before I met Danny and Lucy but more than I did a year ago. Last year, with Lucy finally sleeping through the night, I realized how much I missed that time in bed, curled up with a good book before falling asleep. I made time for books again. Recently, after years of resisting, I bought a Kindle Paperwhite. I thought I would always be a paper-only books girl. But it turns out that I read more with the Kindle in my life. I can read in the ferry line. I can read chapter books to Lucy wherever we go. I can pack 5 books into that tiny machine for plane rides. I’m returning to the rapid-fire reading I did as a kid.

With all this reading, I realized that we don’t talk about the books we love here. We share stories, we offer recipes, and we love that. But the books we read sustain us. Sometimes they’re cookbooks. Sometimes they’re novels that blow my world open and leave me dazed for days. (Cutting for Stone left me openly weeping on an airplane last year.) Most of the time, they’re fantastic children’s books. There are so many wonderful children’s books written now. I’m astounded by all the stories that live in Lucy’s head now, thanks to these writers.

So Danny and I have been talking. We want to share our books with you. Each week (or so), we’re going to share what we’re reading this week. I was inspired by this series on Dinner, A Love Story, one of my favorite food websites. But I’m also inspired by the snippets of book conversations I have with friends at preschool drop-off, by the sounds of favorite writers’ voices on NPR in the car, by status updates on Facebook. Every time I ride the NY subway or walk down the aisle of an airplane, I’m reminded again: reading is alive.

So here you go. Our favorites this week.

Easy as Pie. It’s pretty well documented how much we love pie in this house. So when I was doing my twice-weekly scan of the shelves in the children’s section of our library, and found a book called Easy as Pie, I grabbed it without reading through it all. I cannot count how many times we have checked this one out from the library now. It’s the story of a spunky little kid named Jacob who watches a baking show on tv and decides to make a peach pie for his parents’ anniversary, without their help. Another book might have focused on the chaos, having him burn the pie. Instead, this book emphasizes the resilience of the kid, who makes a mess and says, “If something unexpected happens, fix it as best as you can.” Lu asks me to read this book every day, which has started questions about getting her own Easy Bake oven. We’ll see. But it’s a smart, funny, real book about family and compromise and pie. Plus, there’s a recipe for peach pie on the back.

Jerusalem. Danny and I have been reading about this book for months. We adore Plenty — our copy is food stained and battered by now — so we wanted to buy Jerusalem immediately. Somehow, we waited. We receive a lot of cookbooks in this house, from publishers and friends. So we waited. The other night, our Amazon order arrived. Somehow, they sent us two copies of Jerusalem. So, after Lu went to sleep, we sat on the couch, side by side, reading and pointing out recipes we have to make. That was nearly every page.

We will be cooking out of this book, and probably adapting recipes for you, for a long time.

As Danny says, “The thing I really like about this book is that it shares food you really don’t see much in this country. The way the authors talk about this food, it’s clear that it brings people together. This is a place where people have been going at each other’s throats for generations. But they can still sit down and eat. It’s food. There’s an essay called The Hummus Wars! You have to love that. I love the photographs of the real people who make the food. And everything looks so good. Roasted potatoes with caramel and prunes. Spicy beet, leek, and walnut salad. Roasted chicken with clementines and arak. I want to cook everything out of this book. It’s deeply inspiring.”

Herbivoracious. Our friend Michael Natkin has written a fantastic cookbook. He’s funny, meticulous, and determined to show folks that vegetarian meals can be vibrant and interesting. He’s right, of course. I was a vegetarian for 10 years. Even though I love the beef belly that Danny braised us for dinner last night, it was only part of a meal made of kale and carrots sautéed with berbere seasoning and coconut oil. Many nights, we eat meals that happen to be vegetarian. It’s not because we’re consciously participating in Meatless Monday, although I think that’s a great movement. We eat vegetarian meals because we love good food. Sometimes, you want chermoula-stuffed eggplant, crispy Vietnamese crêpes, shiitake tacos with Asian pear slaw, or red pozole with pinto beans and hominy. These are all dishes in Michael’s book and they’re all damned good. We’ve been reading and cooking from this book since this summer and it’s staying on our shelves.

This is just a bit of what we have been reading this week.

SABICH (Iraqi-Jewish eggplant salad)

This summer, Michael came over to our house for the day to make a video with us about how to make sabich. Traditionally, this is a pita-bread sandwich. But there’s every reason to enjoy it without the pita, as a salad. (Our new cookbook, which comes out at the end of April, has a recipe for gluten-free pita. We’re pretty darned happy with it.) Kindly, Michael has allowed us to re-publish his recipe for sabich here.

But first, let’s watch Danny and Michael make sabich.

Iraqi-Jewish Eggplant Sandwich (Sabich)
Vegan option
Gluten-free option
Makes 4 sandwiches
30 minutes

Sabich is a popular Sabbath food for Iraqi Jews, who, when they emigrated to Israel and set up a community in Ramat Gan, brought the sandwich with them. It has since gained widespread popularity, and of course, in typical Israeli fashion, there are 100 variations and 200 opinions about which one is best.

There is something about the creaminess of the egg and the fried goodness of the eggplant that works really well together. And the garnishes of Israeli salad (tomatoes and cucumbers with a bit of lemon juice), hummus, onions, pickles, parsley, and amba give your mouth the full workout of sweet, spicy, sour, herbaceous, smooth, and crispy.

Amba is a pickled mango condiment. You may be able to find it at a Middle Eastern grocery, or check the Internet for a recipe and make your own. If you can’t find it or make it, use a little harissa or other hot sauce instead.

2 plum tomatoes, finely diced
Half an English cucumber, finely diced
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into generous 1/4-inch slices
4 large eggs, hard-cooked, peeled, and sliced (omit for vegan)
2 cups hummus (store-bought or make your own)
1 cup pre-seasoned tahini (sesame paste, also known as tehina or tahina) or 1 cup plain tahini seasoned with 1 clove minced garlic and lemon juice to taste
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh flatleaf parsley leaves
Half a small white onion, minced
1/2 cup thinly sliced or diced dill pickle
Amba (pickled mango; see headnote for substitutions)
4 pita breads (omit and serve as a salad for gluten-free)

1. In a small bowl, make a simple salad of the tomatoes, cucumber, and lemon juice, adding salt to taste.

2. Put the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the eggplant in batches until completely tender, turning to brown on both sides, about 7 minutes total; drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. (You can also grill the eggplant instead of frying for a different, lighter taste.) Transfer to a serving dish.

3. While the eggplant is frying, put the eggs, hummus, tahini, parsley, onion, dill pickle, and amba in small bowls so diners can build sandwiches to their own specifications.

4. Serve it forth, preferably with a cold beer, and encourage everyone to make a gigantic sandwich.