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.