Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 35, Nechama Cohen was forced to rethink the traditional kosher kitchen she kept with her husband and their six children. Schmaltz was certainly out. So were refined sugar and high-gluten flour. In short, all the things that Jews have been led to believe are necessary to make plump, fluffy challah and silky, marbled gefilte fish.
“I felt immediately that I did not want diabetes to hinder my Jewish way of life,” said Cohen, now 56, of her struggle to balance the demands of the disease with the comforting heft of her grandmother’s cooking.
It was, at first, an admittedly daunting task.
“But from a battle it has turned into an enjoyable way of life,” Cohen said this week from her home in Jerusalem. She has compiled her ever-growing stable of nutritional guidelines, culinary wisdom and almost imperceptibly modified recipes in her first cookbook, “Enlitened Kosher Cooking,” released last month by Feldheim Publishers. The hardcover book, which retails for $39.95, features some 250 recipes “from the simple to the elegant” and is accompanied by the kind of vivid, up-close photos that would make the book seem equally at home on top of the coffee table as on the kitchen counter.
“Jewish cuisine is far less stubborn than people realize,” she said of the process of re-imagining familiar Jewish staples as low-fat, low-carb alternatives.
Much as it is said that you can tell a quality sushi chef by his omelet, matzo balls are the surest measure to sniff out a serious Jewish cook. Cohen went through a few versions of her “enlitened” matzo balls before she found a recipe that faithfully retained the toothsome suppleness of the original.
“A matzo ball is matzo; that’s all it is,” she said of the challenge, which she eventually solved with a splash of seltzer and a mixture of soy and almond flour.
Other dishes — like the virtually carbohydrate-free Passover blintzes — were “a pleasure and a joy to create,” she said. Potato starch replaces flour in the recipe, and Cohen suggests halving the standard amount of mashed potato filling and adding cooked cauliflower instead.
“It’s a whole lifestyle,” said Cohen, who has served as the head of the Jewish Diabetes Association since 1985, when she founded the group in the wake of her own diagnosis. The recipes and practical advice in the book are an outgrowth of the diabetes support meetings that began two decades ago as informal salons in Cohen’s basement in Brooklyn.
The first 30 pages are devoted to a wide-ranging discussion of what it means to eat healthily: the role of fat in the diet, good carb vs. low carb, and when it’s okay to just throw up your hands and devour a slice of chocolate babka.
“It’s not cheating, it’s choices,” maintains Cohen, who is careful not to label her eating plan a “diet.”
“A diet is a temporary thing,” she said. “But you can live like this forever without feeling like you’re being deprived.”
Joshua Yaffa last wrote for the Forward about the chef Dan Barber.