Healthy Roots Rediscovered

By Jennah Epsteinkraus

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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It’s a well-known stereotype: Jewish cooking is overly sweet and dripping with fat — a cholesterol-raising nightmare. In his newly published “The Healthy Jewish Cookbook,” health guru Michael van Straten seeks to discredit the misleading statement that “all Jewish food is ‘a heart attack on a plate.’”

The author of more than 30 other health-related books, including his best-selling “Little Black Dress Diet” (Kyle Cathie, 2001), and “Superjuice” (Mitchell Beazley, 1999), van Straten is by no means a newcomer to the world of healthy living and eating. In his cookbook, van Straten claims that the association of Jewish cooking with fattening, heavily sweetened dishes is largely misinformed. Modern Jewish dishes, he argues, stem historically from much healthier roots than many realize.

Using cholent, a time-honored Sabbath-day dish (traditionally prepared on Friday and left to cook slowly overnight) dating back to medieval France, van Straten gives an example of healthy-Jewish-food-gone-fatty.

“Cholent, with its artery-clogging saturated fat and heart-stoppingly massive portions served by mothers-in-law, started life as the healthiest of dishes,” writes van Straten. It was originally “a dish of beans, lentils, and root vegetables, and in the good times may have had a scrap of meat for flavor. But it was virtually fat-free.”

Van Straten’s cookbook is festively decorated with mouth-watering photographs of his recipes. These images tempt not only the eye but also the palate, and go far in convincing the wary chef to take a stab at preparing van Straten’s dishes.

It must be said, it’s not always easy to create healthy recipes, especially if you want the final outcome to taste good. Van Straten’s recipe for “peanut butter squares” is a perfect example, as it resulted in chalky, cardboard-esque not-quite-cookies. The verdict is still out on whether the blame should be attributed to this particular cook’s personal lack of baking experience or to a faulty recipe. Regardless, the list of ingredients did not include butter, eggs, oil or water, instead calling for only 3 tablespoons of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of honey, which, in theory, is healthy, but in reality, is difficult to turn into dough.

As for the other extreme of healthy cooking, van Straten’s recipes for “chicken with mango glaze,” “Mediterranean medley” and “blackberry and apple crisp” (which, in my version, became “blueberry and apple crisp,” due to a lack of non-outrageously-expensive blackberries in Manhattan in the middle of winter) were nothing less than delicious.

Unfortunately, while van Straten includes small sidebars of interesting “Health Notes” throughout his book, the exact nutritional content of each individual recipe is not listed.

The lack of nutritional information notwithstanding, van Straten presents an impressive assortment of recipes and history. From Cuba to Africa, and ancient Greece to New York City, van Straten’s recipes reach far beyond the boundaries of language, time and geography. He traces Jewish history through food, and manages to forge a delicious (and healthy!) path around the world.

Jennah EpsteinKraus is a senior at Bard College.

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