Some things just naturally go together: meatballs and spaghetti, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jewish food and…healthy cooking? An oxymoron if we’ve ever heard one, right?
Not anymore. Today’s kosher cooks are just as health conscious as everyone else these days, and The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen (Lévana Cooks) by Lévana Kirschenbaum proves that preparing flavorful, nutritious, healthful meals doesn’t have to be time consuming or costly.
“Cooking from scratch wins the race,” she told me by phone from her New York City home. “The greatest effort is when you work so hard trying not do it. I see people standing in line for 20 minutes waiting to buy coffee and a muffin. Come back home. You could have made a pot full of coffee and a dozen muffins in that 20 minutes. And they do it every morning.”
Born in Morocco, Kirschenbaum studied in France and came to the United States at the age of 24. For more than 30 years her bakery, restaurant, catering business and cooking classes have attracted a loyal following, and no wonder. Her recipes reflect the exotic and more naturally healthful cuisine of her homeland and the international influences of her travels: chicken curry with tomatoes and plantains, artichoke and lima bean tajine, Moroccan chicken pie. Even the old favorites get a healthy update: cholent with spelt berries, apple noodle kugel with yogurt and real maple syrup, a quinoa variation on kasha.
“I want people to have their favorites, only recast in a natural way,” she said. “You don’t have time to make stuffed cabbage but you love the flavor, so make it unstuffed. It’s a nice way to save time and not buy a microwave meal.”
For those who think healthy means organic, Kirschenbaum has a caveat. Yes, she’s all for buying organic when it comes to the “dirty dozen,” those fruits and vegetables highest in pesticide residues: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard greens, potatoes, imported grapes. But she’s almost fanatical in her emphasis on using unprocessed ingredients.
“The organic industry knows how to make a junk meal,” she explained. “That’s why you have the organic microwavable TV dinner. Who needs it? Instead of ‘organic,’ the buzz word should be ‘unprocessed.’”
Unprocessed food, she said, is no more expensive and surprisingly takes less time to prepare than its processed counterpart. “In the time it takes to microwave six individual dinners, I can make six fillets of fish and still have time to put the potatoes in the skillet and a bunch of spinach,” she said. “Then you have a delicious dinner that brings people together instead of everybody eating something else in complete isolation. That’s not even a meal. Arts and crafts, I call it. It’s not dinner. Being isolated together is worse than being isolated alone.”
Kirschenbaum credits her mother for passing along the skills, curiosity and dedication that make her shine in the kitchen. “I have the greatest respect for my mother,” she told me. “Lidia Bastianich (of PBS) always says that she works with very poor ingredients, because this is the training she had at home. Her family was grindingly poor, like we were, but the food was fabulous. There must be something to it, since they used the most modest, unprocessed ingredients, and the result was so great. All the food that God created was good. Things went downhill when you started processing, refining and bleaching food.”
Kirschenbaum is passionate about desserts and tackles the challenge of creating healthier, more flavorful showstoppers without guilt. “Why not enjoy the real thing in moderation?” she writes.
“If you do not eat anything processed, you have room for dessert,” she said. “I use whole grains and unprocessed sweeteners, which more than mitigates the fact that I’m having dessert.”
Kirschenbaum urges us to try substituting whole grain flours for all-purpose, especially spelt. “Spelt is the precursor to wheat,” she explained, “and very ancient. It was grown in biblical times. It’s used in Europe more widely than here, but it’s gaining a lot of ground here too. It’s much lower in gluten than all-purpose flour, higher in fiber, higher in protein with a delicious flavor.” Her chocolate chip cookies made with spelt flour are a perennial favorite, she said.
“I don’t drink soda. I don’t buy low-fat peanut butter spread, which contains more sugar and has 30 more calories. I bake and make desserts in the very good European tradition using a third less sugar, less fat and less salt. I don’t add three inches of buttercream frosting. I eat a piece of cake, period.”
Fish Cooked Moroccan-Style (Chraimi)
Preserved lemon, a staple in the Moroccan pantry, makes all the difference, Kirschenbaum claims. You’ll find the recipe at www.ocjewishlife.com. “Substitute one thinly sliced lemon, and be prepared for a dish 90 percent as good,” she writes.
Yield: 8 servings
1 cup water
¼ cup olive oil
2 large tomatoes, diced small
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Good pinch ground cloves
3 bay leaves or ½ teaspoon ground
1 tablespoon paprika
8 cloves garlic
1 bunch flat parsley
1 small bunch cilantro
½ preserved lemon, skin only rinsed
1 red pepper, sliced thin lengthwise
8 serving pieces salmon fillet or other thick fish
1. In a large wide-bottom pot, bring water, oil, tomatoes, red pepper flakes, cloves, bay leaves and paprika to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, coarsely grind garlic, parsley, cilantro and preserved lemon in food processor using pulse button.
3. Add ground mixture to pot and stir. Add red pepper and fish and bring to boil. Reduce temperature to medium and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature, topping each serving with sauce.
There is no Moroccan cooking without preserved lemons, and the store-bought variety doesn’t even begin to compare with homemade. They take minutes to prepare and two weeks to “incubate,” totally unassisted, and the result is a few months’ supply of the single element that will convert many of your dishes from plain to glorious. Do not let the amount of salt daunt you. Much of it gets washed away, and you can reduce, or even eliminate, salt from the dish you are preparing with the preserved lemons.
Yield: About 2 quarts
8 to 10 large, thick-skinned lemons
Coarse sea salt
1. Wash and dry the lemons thoroughly. Remove any green points attached to the ends of the lemons. Cut them in quarters lengthwise. Place 2 to 3 pieces in a clean, wide-mouth quart-size glass jar, top with a thick layer of salt. Repeat: lemon, salt, lemon, salt, and so on, all the way to the top, pressing down hard as you go to draw out the juice. Don’t worry if the juices don’t appear immediately; they soon will, with all that salt. The lemons should be totally submerged by their own juice, and reach all the way to the top of the jar. Top with an extra layer of salt to ensure that no lemon skin is exposed (or it will mold). You will need 2 jars.
2. Place the jars in a dark, cool place (I keep mine under the sink). They will be ready in two weeks, at which point they should be refrigerated. To use, take out a quarter of a lemon at a time. Discard the pulp, rinse the skin thoroughly, and mince. Add to fish and chicken dishes, bean soups, salads and salsas.
Blueberry Cake with Almond Streusel
Sucanat (anagram for sugar cane natural) is pure dried sugar cane juice. A wholesome alternative for granulated sugar, it retains its molasses content.
Yield: A dozen ample servings.
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1½ cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
3 cups flour: all-purpose, whole wheat pastry, or spelt
2 tablespoons Triple Sec, Kirsch or Cassis
3 cups blueberries, rinsed and dried thoroughly
1/3 cup ground almonds
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup flour (any flour), plus more if needed
1/4 cup sugar or Sucanat
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease and flour 10-inch round or 9- or 10-inch tube pan, or 11-by-14-inch baking pan.
2. Cream oil, sugar and eggs in food processor until light and fluffy. Mixing whole cake by hand is OK too. Add all but last ingredient and pulse 3 to 4 times, until just combined.
3. Transfer batter to mixing bowl. Very gently stir in blueberries with a spoon. Pour batter into prepared pan.
4. Mix streusel ingredients lightly with your fingers until mixture looks like coarse meal, adding more flour if necessary. Sprinkle evenly over cake, using it all up. Bake until knife inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour.
Recipes adapted from The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen (Lévana Cooks) by Lévana Kirschenbaum