By Shifra Klein for Bitayavon Magazine and COLlive.com
Levana Kirschenbaum, by all accounts a diva of kosher healthy food, has been practicing, preaching and teaching for the last 35 years.
First with the restaurant “Levana,” which she opened with her husband and brothers-in-law, and later with her best-selling cookbooks and social media presence, bringing wholesome, delicious dishes to homes worldwide.
Determined and strong-willed, she offered upscale Kosher dining back when it was an uphill battle and nowadays expects her audience to relate to what she does with the same respect she approaches her trade.
On the occasion of the publishing of her book “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple,” Kirschenbaum spoke to Bitayavon Magazine and COLlive.com about her upbringing and passions.
What is your culinary background?
To this, I can only answer what some people answer when asked what their children are doing for the summer: “Machane Ima!”
That’s right, not all professional cooks go to cooking school. This is not to say I didn’t get extensive training in cooking. My mother is the original diva of delicious healthy meals.
Tell us more about your childhood home?
Growing up in a crowded house with modest circumstances, I was fascinated with the sheer volume, quality and caliber of her cooking and indeed all her crafts. In fact, I paid my way through my lean college years by bartering cooking and sewing, for my roommates and friends. Not long after I graduated college with various degrees, I decided there was no use denying I was a chip off the old block: A cook is what I should be. Soon after I got married, I found myself co-owning Levana Restaurant, catering, and teaching cooking.
Your new title “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen” is a reprint. Is that correct?
I started this book more than 3 years ago. I like to joke that I doubt it took this long to write War and Peace. You see, I wanted the book to be much more than just a cookbook. Indeed I wanted it to be my Magnum Opus, combining my two – make that three – greatest passions: developing sensible, wholesome and delicious recipes; teaching cooking the simple, delicious and nutritious way; and sharing my thoughts through writing.
The reader can see that my book is devoted to these three passions, and was built as a veritable vault, not only for the valuable recipes I have developed over decades of catering and teaching, but for sensible long-term eating, dieting and shopping practices.
And it gets very detailed…
That is the other great endowment of The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen – its extensive indexes: a General Index, A Passover Index, and a Gluten-Free Index; it’s like having three cookbooks rolled into one! The book includes more than 400 tried-and-true recipes.
So what happened with the first edition?
The first printing of the book had some serious production glitches. I had just spent all this time writing it and shooting gorgeous pictures for it with my talented son-in-law, Meir Pliskin. Then for a few weeks after it came out I was totally crushed at the thought that this homely, cramped low-resolution volume didn’t express in its present shape all the work I had put into it.
How do you feel about the new-second edition?
The redone book looks absolutely fabulous and they are coming out, please G-d, in March 2012. The difference between the two is, as a book reviewer at The Kosher Scene Blog wrote, “Like Black and White TV Gone Color!”
What do you say to those who associate the terms high quality and healthy with expensive and costly food?
What can I say, except that I don’t understand it. I always communicate my feeling of triumph at having made a fabulous dish that took minutes and cost much less than its drab expensive adulterated counterpart. Would you believe I was recently invited to a TV show and chose to make a chickpea soup? My plan was certainly not: knock their socks off by bringing in venison and wild mushrooms (a glorious dish made with these ingredients is a no-brainer). It was, and always will be, precisely the opposite: knock their socks off by showing them what a glorious meal you can make using the most plebeian and basic fresh ingredients!
Any secrets to great cooking you can share with us?
I learned that the singer of that perennial oldie was really on to something when he sang “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby!” What could possibly beat the real thing? I think the food and the restaurant industries that are anxious the public will get bored with the same old offerings start bending backwards and offering absurd concoctions.
That anxiety is what is behind deep-fried cookies with ice cream centers rolled in peanut butter, french fries with some brown gravy and melted cheese on top, or those monstrosities they serve in gigantic cups in boutique coffee shops, topped with whipped cream, caramel and sugar (740 calories for a drink!). One would have to swim across the Hudson River to work off the calories from these dishes.
To all those restless and reckless diners out there I say, don’t eat these items. They are not dishes, they are a heart attack waiting to happen!
So what do you suggest?
Cooking from scratch wins the race. You simply need to use real ingredients to fun dishes. And most importantly, the best secret of all: the single greatest diet and nutrition tool is behavior modification, and the single greatest behavior modification tool is acquiring a better knowledge of what we are ingesting and feeding to our loved ones. Why not learn to relate to food, since we use it all day long, every day of our lives? Understanding our food is easy, fun, delicious, and liberating. Plus the health rewards are endless and permanent. You never need to lose your figure on a delicious dinner.
Order The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen at LevanaCooks.com. The latest issue of Bitayavon Magazine featured Kirschenbaum on its cover and shares some of her Moroccan recipes. Get the issue at a news stand or subscribe online