Ah, the joys of August. Whether it is from a farmer’s market, a roadside stand, your own backyard or even the produce aisle of your local supermarket, there is no doubt that now is the time to feast on the freshest and most delectable offerings of the year. But while many of us consider late summer to be prime time for enjoying the simple goodness of nature’s bounty, for one of the most respected names in the kosher cooking world, simplicity is the name of the game all year around.
A pioneer in kosher upscale dining, Levana Kirschenbaum made a name for herself as co-owner of the Manhattan restaurant that bore her name for thirty years. While Levana’s, which opened in the late 1970’s, closed its doors in early 2000, it’s proprietress has remained a fixture in the kosher cooking world, offering private cooking demonstrations and weekly cooking classes in Manhattan – and has authored four cookbooks. Levana’s latest volume, a four hundred page full color cookbook published by Feldheim, titled The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen, is accompanied by a DVD featuring two of her cooking classes, showing simple yet delicious menus for Shabbos and Pesach and should be required reading for every home cook.
Opening up The Whole Foods cookbook, I expected to see magnificent glossy photographs of beautiful dishes that I would admire, and possibly drool over, but would never aspire to reproduce on my own. Instead, I was immediately greeted by twenty seven pages of common sense advice, given with Levana’s trademark good humor and candor, touting the benefits of using food in its simplest form to yield both the optimal taste and nutritional value as well as page after page of uncomplicated, yet tempting, recipes. While there are many beautiful photographs sprinkled throughout the book, myriad tips, explanations and practical information abound as well, with recipes easily identified as gluten free, gluten free adaptable or kosher for Passover. A three page section of suggested menus, as well as a gluten free index and a Passover index at the end of the book are sure to inspire many a cook, no matter what the occasion or dietary need.
I admit to being spellbound watching Levana’s Shabbos cooking demonstration on the accompanying DVD, titled Delicious Shabbat Dinner in Under an Hour and a Half. Clocking in at just over forty minutes, Levana prepares Minestrone, Mushroom Chicken, Cous Cous, Grilled Vegetables, Mixed Green Salad, Roasted Salmon with Maple Glaze, Chocolate Espresso Mousse and Halvah. Featured early on in the cooking demonstration was the chocolate mousse, something I rarely make because it is too time consuming. Preparing myself to hear lectures on the benefits of heavy cream or whipping egg whites into a snow, I was shocked to hear that this dish incorporated neither of those ingredients and instead contained a one-pound block of silken tofu, adding a walloping dose of protein to what promised to be a delectable dessert. I continued to watch the DVD, expecting Levana to exhort me to invest a small fortune in premium chocolate and the finest Swiss cocoa in order to make this dessert really pop but while Levana continuously repeated her mantra of using high quality ingredients to obtain the best results, I was literally stunned to see her pour both Hershey’s cocoa and store brand chocolate chips into her mousse, explaining that while it is important to buy cocoa and chocolate that are labeled “pure” there is no need to overpay for premium items.
“Why was everyone mourning Trader Joe’s Chocolate Chips?” asked Levana in a phone interview. “Chocolate doesn’t have to be brand name and there is no reason to spend a lot of money. You just need to use real chocolate.”
Levana, a New York City resident, scoffed at the notion of using only home grown or locally farmed produce in order to obtain the best flavors.
“Grow local?” queried Levana. “Who are you talking to? I live in Manhattan. Where are you going to find a farm? I find it nothing short of snobby and more than a little condescending.”
Another shocker for me was her unabashed devotion to frozen fruits and vegetables, which deliver optimal flavor at a fraction of the cost and often require no additional preparatory work at all.
Levana credits her mother for imbuing her with a passion for enjoying the simple goodness that lies within each and every food.
“We had very limited means growing up,” explained Levana. “My mother was very resourceful. We didn’t have convenience foods. We had just the simplest things, which my mother would whip up quickly from scratch. Everything was fast, nutritious and delicious. Today, everyone is so concerned with how food looks and not with how it tastes. It is a complete lack of thanksgiving for the food that we have. Food was created beautiful. We need to respect the food and its flavors, not drown it in processed items.”
In keeping with that philosophy, The Whole Foods cookbook offers a plethora of easy to prepare items that can replace processed foods, with homemade counterparts that are fresher, tastier and far less costly, including fifteen salad dressings, some basic and some leaning more towards the gourmet, and several options for preparing infused oils and vinegars.
“People think that if someone took the trouble of manufacturing an item, they must be saving us something,” said Levana. “But the truth is they aren’t saving us anything at all.”
Levana’s goal is to inspire people to create basic meals using high quality – but not high priced – ingredients, requiring us to spend no more than an hour a day on food preparation. The key to great meals, according to Levana, is to use only the best ingredients, which she defines as not the most expensive items, but rather the most flavorful. And while Levana is a firm believer in allowing the natural flavor of foods to shine through, a simple glance through the soup section of her latest culinary tome offers recipes ranging from the familiar (Minestrone, Corn Chowder, Mushroom Barley Soup) to the intriguing (Quick Black Bean Chocolate Soup, Chestnut Mushroom Soup and Cold Cucumber Avocado Soup). The other sections of this beautiful cookbook (Salads, Fish, Poultry and Meat, Vegetable Dishes, Grains and Pasta, Breakfast and Brunch, Breads and Flatbreads and Desserts) follow suit, with a wide variety of culinary offerings, which allow their natural flavors to take center stage, without ever becoming dull or mundane.
“People think that using whole grains and foods is going to be boring, maybe it won’t look so nice,” said Levana. “But that is not how I think. If it is delicious, I want it. Give it to me.”
A firm believer that it is taste, not appearance that is most important in food, Levana’s goal is to teach her audience to respect and embrace home cooking and not devote endless hours to presentation.
“The most insidious advice the home cook has ever gotten is to make their food look like it came from a restaurant,” opined Levana. “If I wanted my food to look like restaurant food, I would have gone to a restaurant. We have no appreciation for food from our home and we need to shift our attention more towards valuing and enjoying home cooked food.”
I can’t tell you how often I make this treat, and at the drop of a hat. I always notice with pleasure it’s a huge hit with the young crowd. If I don’t have time to thaw the fish, I simply dip the sealed container in warm water for a few minutes. I trust you will welcome the serving suggestions I have included, but most often I serve it by itself: It’s that good!
1 pound frozen mock crab chunks, thawed and thinly crumbled
3 ribs celery, peeled and sliced very thin
1 long seedless cucumber, halved lengthwise and sliced very thin
1 bunch scallions, sliced very thin
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons bottled hot sauce
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Serve at room temperature in any of the following ways:
Alone -Tossed with 8 ounces cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water, drained and cut up (adjust the seasonings to accommodate the bulkier salad).
On top of salad greens – As hors d’oeuvres on endive leaves or cucumber rounds.
One of my greatest sellers! These delightful confections have a funny name, because each slice is specked with the nuts and graham crackers and looks as funky as salami. No problem making them gluten-free! No need to slice all of them, leave the unused logs in the freezer or refrigerator until ready to use: They keep very well.
1 ½ cups confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
1 cup margarine spread
3 tablespoons rum, bourbon, or unflavored brandy
2 cups best-quality semisweet chocolate chips or grated chocolate
¼ cup cocoa powder
2 tablespoons instant coffee powder, decaf OK
1 egg (or 2 egg whites; if you must, settle for ¼ cup flax mixture, page 276)
1 cup toasted pecans or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
½ box (7½ ounces) unflavored graham crackers, gluten-free OK, broken by hand into small pieces
Melt the first set of ingredients on a very low flame, stirring.
Turn off the flame and quickly whisk in the egg until incorporated.
Add the nuts and graham crackers and combine thoroughly.
Refrigerate briefly to let the mixture firm up so it’s easier to handle.
Shape into logs about 2 inches in diameter and wrap tightly in plastic, securing the ends with twisters. You will get 4 to 5 logs total.
Refrigerate the logs 2 to 3 hours, until firm (or freeze the logs you will use later).
Unwrap the logs, and slice ½ inch thick with a sharp serrated knife.
Makes about 4-5 dozen slices (each log makes about a dozen slices). Keep the slices refrigerated until serving time.
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