If you’re going to buy one Jewish cookbook this year, make it Lévana Kirschenbaum’s “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple” (Lévana Cooks, $39.95).
But be warned: Lévana has no patience for fad diets, box mixes, the dearth of extreme television cook-offs, deceptive marketing, can’t-lose-weight pity parties, “bad-bad-bad-for-you additives, preservatives, supplements and whatnot,” and proofreaders.
The co-owner of Manhattan’s haute-kosher Lévana Restaurant, which recently closed after a three-decade run, takes a whole foods approach. (The “whole foods” in the title is not connected to Whole Foods Market). Even in the Northwest, where farm-to-table is becoming household language, a kosher cookbook focusing on holistic dining is refreshing — and necessary.
Lévana opens this 400-page hardbound beast of a book with a polite, 18-page tirade about American food culture. She is outraged by low-carb diets (“I would hate to add myself to the glut of people who feed you a barrage of information on low-carb foods, which leaves me, for one, confused and not an ounce thinner”), liquid meals and various marketing sleights-of-hand that fool consumers into thinking they’re saving a few grams of fat, when in fact they’re eating a higher-calorie product pumped with unpronounceable manmade ingredients.
Aside from a fresh — literally — approach to Jewish cooking, one that does not require such kosher-aisle offenders as MSG-laden powdered soup stock and Passover cake mixes with no ingredients found in nature, Lévana’s recipes are beautiful, easy and inventive. Recipes like “Quick Black Bean Chocolate Soup” and “Mushroom and Feta-Stuffed Tilapia Rolls” make me fall in love with food all over again. Well, since yesterday.
This is an excellent go-to book for holiday recipes, not only for traditional recipes (with an emphasis on Lévana’s Moroccan background) but also because each recipe makes enough to feed a small army. No need to worry about making an elaborate dish, only to find out it serves four supermodels or one normal person. And in case you overdo it, you can burn off some calories bench-pressing the book.
One note of caution: Some recipes call for pantry items like preserved lemon, which takes two weeks to make. While most ingredients are readily available at the supermarket or farmers’ markets, be sure to read through ingredients first.
Here are a few recipes that use in-season ingredients and will bring symbolic meaning to your holiday tables. B’tayavon!
Kabocha Sweet Potato Soup
Round lentils symbolize the cyclical year, and at Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seders gourds — based on Hebrew word play — represent the tearing apart of evil judgments on us, and the announcement of our merits before God.
1 Kabocha squash, about 2 pounds, unpeeled, seeded, and cut into large chunks (use a hammer)
2 large sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 large red onion, cut into large chunks
2 cups red lentils or yellow split peas
6 ribs celery, peeled
1 large bunch dill, fronds and stems
1∕3 cup olive oil
6 bay leaves, or 1 tsp. ground
1 Tbs. turmeric
Sea salt to taste
12 cups water
Ground pepper to taste
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a wide heavy pot. Reduce to medium, cover, and cook 1-1/2 hours. Cream with an immersion blender. Adjust the texture and seasonings. Makes a dozen ample servings.
Kale, Beet and Seaweed Salad (Gluten Free)
Give this one a chance! Kale is abundant right now, and in the Sephardic seder beets and scallions symbolize the hope that our enemies will retreat and be eliminated by God.
1 bunch kale, tough stems removed, leaves cut into very thin ribbons
1 large beet, red or golden, grated very fine (food processor fine shredding blade)
6 scallions, sliced very thin
1/4 cup hijiki or other seaweed: wakame, arame, etc. (available in health food stores), soaked in hot water to cover
1/4 cup sesame or other seeds (chia, flax, hemp, etc.), toasted
1 cup Chinese green tea dressing (see below)
Place all salad ingredients in a mixing bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss. Store refrigerated in glass jars. Makes 8 servings.
Chinese Green Tea Dressing
Servings: 2 1/2 cups
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup strong green tea (or Red or White) Decaf OK
2 tablespoons honey, agave, or maple syrup
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup unfiltered apple cider vinegar or brown rice vinegar
dash of bottled hot sauce to taste
Grind the ginger finely in food processor. Add all remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Store refrigerated in a glass jar.
Roasted Salmon with Maple Glaze (Gluten Free)
Bluefish will be suitable here, as well as any thick white fish.
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 Tbs. soy sauce
3 Tbs. Dijon-style mustard
3 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbs. cracked pepper, or less to taste
1 whole side salmon, about 3 lbs., skin off, bones out, trimmed
Preheat the oven to 500º. 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.
Lemon Coconut Mousse (Gluten Free)
1-1/2 envelopes unflavored kosher gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1 15-oz. can coconut milk
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup rum
1 cup light agave syrup
1 lb. silken tofu
1 8-oz. container dairy-free cream cheese
1 cup toasted coconut for topping (about 15 minutes in a 325°F oven), optional
Dissolve the gelatin in the water and reserve. Bring the coconut milk and the lemon juice to just below boiling in a small saucepan. Transfer the warm mixture to a food processor with the reserved gelatin mixture and process about 30 seconds. Add all remaining ingredients and process until perfectly smooth. Pour into a bowl or small individual cups and chill. Top with toasted coconut, if desired. Makes a dozen servings.
Many of Lévana’s recipes are available on her website, levanacooks.com. Here are a few personal recommendations:
Moroccan Fava Bean Soup
Though the reputation of fava beans was permanently altered for the worse by Hannibal Lecter, this soup is incredible. The spice mix will put some hair on your chest, too.
Made with vegetables peaking right now, this is a wonderful side dish or vegetarian main dish. To boost the protein content, throw in a can of chickpeas. Make this a day ahead to enjoy a bolder flavor.
Fish and almonds are related to fertility and abundance, good things to hope for in the New Year.
Brisket in Coffee and Brandy Sauce
This is a perfect example of Lévana’s experimentation with “wacky ingredients” and a result “that comes out to die for!” I might just have to come out of vegetarianism for this one.