Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen - Glorious Meals Pure and Simple

Cookistry welcomes cookbook author Levana Kirschenbaum who wrote The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen as a guest poster.

When we were kids, there was nothing I felt our mother couldn’t heal with food. Stomachache? She’d cook up a pot of oatmeal. A cold? Chicken soup. Nausea? A baked sweet potato. Sore throat? She’d boil milk with ginger and cloves. Hungry for a snack? She’d melt a dark chocolate square and spread it on toast.

We so looked forward to the “cure” that we were always coming up with some urgent real or imagined booboo. She liked to exhort us by declaiming Maimonides’s immortal line “Let nothing which can be treated by diet be treated by any other means.” Oh yes, she knew her classics, and used them all day long! She is the ultimate artisan, the diva of glorious simple meals, the mentor I fashioned myself after all these years of owning a restaurant (the eponymous Levana Restaurant, which ran thirty years and closed 4 years ago), writing cookbooks and giving cooking demos. Meals made from scratch is all we ever ate, and it has never changed. I am the girl who never buys a pint of prepared food.

But before you decide I must be some kind of masochist weirdo who lives shackled to her kitchen, I want to share why, for me and my cookbook readers, meals made from scratch wins the race each time. Wouldn’t it be terribly vexing to realize you may have worked harder than me, spent more money than me, getting a so-so forgettable commercial meal, and missed out on eating the unbeatable real thing, whipped up in minutes for pennies? 

Even when I catered meals for temples and community centers for twelve bucks a person, I cooked and baked from scratch for sixty, seventy, a hundred and more guests, and had a house full of happy campers, as happy as the ones I catered luxurious weddings for.

On a basic level, unprocessed foods, in their original form, are foods packed with nutrients that promote and optimize good health. We city dwellers often wish we were fortunate enough to have better access to locally grown foods, but we can mitigate this disadvantage by getting our food minimally processed or unprocessed. It is most interesting to point out that all unprocessed foods nowadays marketed as “super foods” are in fact ancient foods, in vogue today by the grace of G-d. Finally, something good for us all is trendy to boot, and I hope and pray it never goes out of fashion.

What about the kids? The great war cry of the fretting mother—They will never eat this!—is receding to a remote and barely audible echo. Kids turn my mountain of all-natural cookies and muffins to rubble in the blink of an eye, giving me—to say nothing of their moms!—endless pleasure, and lots of hugs. They eat my blended soups too, which they just call yellow soup, red soup (no fool me, I blend them to remove all evidence of objectionable broccoli and other children-rejected foodstuffs, leaving only delicious taste and texture). No problem with my chicken dishes, and many more.

All those misshapen, grimy, bulbous, monolithic roots—rutabaga, celery root, turnips, and so on—don’t let them daunt you. What need do they have of looking pretty? They contain endless reserves of inner beauty and flavor and produce dishes much superior to the prosaic and humble sum of their parts. All you need is a hammer (yes, a hammer) and a good knife to break them up in a snap. They cost pennies and are in many ways priceless, and so lean! 

As for the homely leaves you see piled on produce stalls—kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard—they are veritable powerhouses and are very cheap and easy to cook. Do not let unfamiliar foods intimidate you—there is very little you can do to ruin them. Sauté them, throw them in soups, shred them raw, and add them to salads. 

When cooking a soup, consider adding a handful of barley, quinoa, or millet. Make your smoothies out of frozen raspberries and blueberries, powerful antioxidants. Add a teaspoon of turmeric to meat or vegetable stews. Use unfiltered apple cider vinegar (did you know it may work wonders on sore throats too?), easily available in health food stores, to create a great-tasting salad dressing. And when preparing a batch of cookies, add a handful of almonds, sunflower seeds, chia, hemp, or flaxseeds for extra crunch and flavor, and a whole lot more nutrition. Substitute barley, spelt, millet, or quinoa flakes for part of the flour in your cake or cookie batter. 

Agar or kuzu, natural gelling agents, are easily found in health food stores and make for soothing and delicious desserts in just minutes. I guarantee that you will become so attached to these ingredients you’ll be using them all the time, as I do, in times of good health and in fun company !

This link tells the story of how I survived my lean college years in good health and in style, for pennies and with hardly more than equipment than a blender, a skillet and a pot, and piled hungry friends in my dorm room.


Take my Oat Chocolate Pots de Crème recipe, from my cookbook. It will give you a good idea of the mood I set throughout my cookbook: Serious ingredients, quick fun dishes. Consider this my tagline.

Oat Chocolate Pots de Crème

Long before the whole-grain fashion frenzy set in (I am not telling you how long, I heard ladies don’t do that, but I will give you a hint: circa my ultra-lean student years, the very years that inadvertently turned me into a cook, as I was constantly bartering all kinds of favors for a good homemade dinner), I was exploring ways to eat nutritious food for pennies and in minutes, and subsist on a low-low budget.

Oats and all their possibilities were, as they still are, at the top of my list. You would think I would, at all costs, stay away from the struggling-student association they inevitably conjure up in my mind. Exactly the opposite is the case, I assure you. Now I can jazz them up with some really fabulous and easy-to-find ingredients, and end up with an elegant comfort food. The lean years were fun and creative and made me the nutritious-delicious-inexpensive cook that I am: Forgive me if I say it with great pride as I go down memory lane!


3 cups milk or dairy-free milk, low-fat OK
1 cup steel-cut oats
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2/3 cup maple syrup or agave, or a little more to taste (wait till you taste the finished dessert before adding)
2 tablespoons instant coffee powder
3 tablespoons rum or brandy
1 cup coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon salt

Bring all ingredients to boil in a saucepan. Reduce the temperature to medium-low, and cook covered for about 20 minutes. Thin with a little more milk if you like it a little looser. Pour into a serving bowl, or a dozen small individual bowls, and chill.

Take another great favorite from my cookbook

Roasted Salmon with Maple Glaze

One of my – and many of my regulars’- great favorites. This mixture will leave all your store-bought condiments in the dust. The short and dazzling flavor lineup does its magic with practically no work. You will never say you are bored of salmon again! This is so quick you can multiply it and make it even for a very large crowd in the same amount of time: less than 5 minutes. 

1∕3 cup pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon cracked pepper, or less to taste
1 whole side salmon, about 31/2 pounds, skin off, bones out, trimmed

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Mix all but last ingredient in a bowl. Place the salmon skin side up in a baking pan just large enough to fit it snugly in one layer (if you have empty spaces, the liquids will burn).

Pour the sauce evenly over the fish. Bake 18 minutes, or a minute or two longer, until the fish is tender but firm to the touch. Transfer to a platter and pour the cooking juices over the fish. Serve hot, or at room temperature. Makes 8 main course servings, or a dozen ample first course servings.
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