Jewish food and healthy cooking. Two expressions you don’t expect to see in the same sentence, right?
Not anymore. Today’s kosher cooks are just as health-conscious as everyone else, and The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen by Lévana Kirschenbaum proves that preparing flavourful, 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 to 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 over 30 years her bakery, restaurant, catering business and cooking classes have attracted a loyal following, and no wonder. Her recipes reflect the exotic and 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 favourites, only recast in a natural way,” she said. “You don’t have time to make stuffed cabbage but you love the flavour, so make it unstuffed. It’s a nice way to save time and not buy a microwave meal.”
For those who think “organic” is synonymous with “healthy,” Kirschenbaum has a caveat. Yes, she’s all for buying organic when it comes to the “dirty dozen,” twelve fruits and vegetables highest in pesticide residues: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard greens, potatoes and imported grapes. But she’s almost fanatical in her emphasis on 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. “[Chef and cooking show host] Lidia Bastianich 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 flavourful 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.”
For Rosh Hashanah dessert, we think first of honey cake, signifying our wish for a sweet New Year. Kirschenbaum’s is moist and spicy infused with orange marmalade. “I trust it will make you forget all the indignities of past dried out and brittle honey cakes,” she writes. For those that do not eat nuts during the holiday, they may be omitted.
But why serve honey only in honey cake? Honey-Roasted Bananas with Coconut Sorbet is a delightful take on our iconic holiday symbol, best served warm. Or indulge in Amlou. a Moroccan-style honey almond jelly that Kirschenbaum fondly recalls eating with peanut butter, her favourite childhood snack. “The original spread is made with Argan oil, an insanely expensive and insanely delicious oil from a tree growing only in Morocco,” she writes. Olive oil makes a fine substitution. “Talk about healthy – a nutritional powerhouse.” And what a great hostess gift for the holidays, too.
1 cup oil
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup dark honey (if not available, substitute regular honey and use brown sugar instead of white)
1 cup orange marmalade, preferably all-fruit
4 large eggs
3/4 cup strong coffee, at room temperature
3 tbsp. rum or brandy
3 cups flour: all-purpose, whole wheat pastry, or spelt
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. each cinnamon, allspice and ginger
1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)
Preheat oven to 350. Grease tube pan or 10-in. or 11×14-in. pan.
Mix oil, sugar, honey, marmalade, eggs, coffee and rum in a food processor.
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, and add in 3 additions to the wet ingredients, using the pulse button, mixing each time only until combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle almonds evenly over the top, if using. Bake until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 1 hour (may be longer, depending on pan used). Invert onto a rack to cool. Yield: 12 generous servings.
HONEY ROASTED BANANAS WITH COCONUT SORBET
6 medium-ripe bananas, or ripe plantains, split lengthwise
1/3 cup honey, maple syrup or agave nectar
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp. rum
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup unsweetened grated coconut, packed
coconut sorbet, for garnish
chopped toasted nuts, or granola, for sprinkling (optional)
Preheat oven to 400. Place banana halves tightly side by side in baking pan just large enough to fit them all in one layer.
Mix all remaining ingredients thoroughly in bowl, and pour mixture evenly over bananas. Roast 15 minutes.
Serve warm with a scoop of coconut sorbet. Sprinkle with nuts or granola, if desired.
HONEY ALMOND SPREAD (AMLOU)
2 cups toasted whole unpeeled almonds (about 15 minutes in preheated 325 oven)
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup dark honey
1/2 tsp. salt
Process all ingredients until smooth. Yield: about 2 cups. Store refrigerated in a glass jar.
All recipes from The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen by Lévana Kirschenbaum (LevanaCooks.com).