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Kitchen Talk With Chef Lévana Kirschenbaum

“If I catch one of you putting garlic powder in your soup…oy va voy…I’ll sue you”.

On a recent Monday evening, Moroccan born Chef Lévana Kirschenbaum welcomed guests to her Upper West Side home for a cooking class on Moroccan street food. Switching between English, French, Hebrew and Spanish, Kirschenbaum crafted a night of tasty food, bits of kitchen wisdom and hilarious one-liners, like the garlic powder reference above. The menu consisted of chickpea soup (“magnificent and plebian”) and carrot Swiss chard salad (“you’ll understand why we Moroccans eat our vegetables”) among other dishes, and the emphasis was on healthy, simple, quick recipes bursting with flavor.

I sat down with Chef Lévana, former part-owner of renowned New York City restaurant, Levana, one of the first restaurants to offer kosher fine dining, and author of three cookbooks including the forthcoming “Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple,” to talk about her crusade to “spread the good word” about the limitless taste potential of good-for-you food and the cultural attitudes that prevent us from associating “healthy” with “delicious.”

Elizabeth Alpern: How did your cooking career get started?

Levana Kirschenbaum: You know, I did a lot of things in my life, and they all did just one thing, they got me back to where I was running from with a vengeance: the kitchen. I had my Master’s in psychology. But a very funny thing happened when I arrived in America. We had a very open house, so it was not unusual to have unknowns for holidays, and a woman was a guest at our home. It was like Santa Claus. At the end of the meal, she said, “I am the coordinator of events at the 92nd Street Y. And I think that if I could present a meal like what you just served now, people would be thrilled.” Long story short, we ran cooking classes for 10 years.

Over the years that you have been in the culinary field, how have you seen the kashrut-observing world’s approach to food change?

Since I and my family were the trailblazers in the former wasteland of upscale kosher dining, everyone is now happy and grateful for people like me who never stopped clamoring to the kosher supervision powers that be: “If we can use it, look into it, whatever it takes! We WANT it!” I ask you: What don’t we find in our kosher restaurants and stores nowadays? The greatest wines, cheeses, sushi, truffle, wild mushrooms, olives, you name it!

What did you think about the American concept of “eating healthy”?

It’s unbelievable. Growing up [in Morocco] we would take anti-oxidants without knowing it. We ate things that were fabulous for your immune system without knowing it. It was just, natural.

It just always comes back to culture. People are brought up to think that the equation is delicious equals not so good for you. It is so unfortunate that people don’t know the pleasure of a real delicious and naturally roasted chicken.

It’s like when I pass a corner store and I see them spraying carnations, in blue. There is no such thing as a blue carnation…You are forcing something into something it’s not. You can be sure…food is like every other creation. It knows when you mistreat it. It just knows, and it does not adapt.

What makes Moroccan food so special?

I think that you’d be amazed at how many people are familiar with ethnic food. Except that as far as ethnic is concerned, I would say that Moroccan is one of those cuisines that traveled best. Because, while it is different, it also looks familiar and inviting. It’s not something outlandish, it’s just, pleasant. And so easy, it’s unbelievable it’s so easy.

Is there a key lesson you want to impart to your cooking students?

Even if you have no knowledge whatsoever of cooking, just by not using anything wrong, you will get great results. The deletions are every bit as crucial as the additions. Banish all those ingredients that might compromise or ruin your creation, and surround yourself with only what counts and will do you proud! “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” (Antoine de Saint Exupery).

So tell me about your new book.

“The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen” is entirely focused on whole, unprocessed foods. I have a gluten free index, a Passover index and a regular index.

After I spent years teaching and catering every kind of food I am back focused on one thing only: quick, healthy delicious cooking. I am spreading the good word. Now in my older age I want to eat only good food on a budget. Just to know that with a little class, a little hands on, you can do so much. It’s my little food revolution.

I worked with a dietician on the book. In my introduction is the story of a friend of mine who ate her way back to health from obesity with no diet: just whole foods. The story is a triumph.

Chocolate Beet Coconut Cake Recipe From “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple,” by Levana Kirschenbaum and contributor Lisa R. Young, PhD. R.D. (Skyhorse Publishing, June 1, 2011)

4 egg whites
Pinch salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 egg yolks
1 cup oil
3 cups canned beets, drained, juice reserved, mashed
2 cups flour (gluten-free: any gf flour. Passover: 1 1/2 cups potato starch)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup juice from the canned beets
1 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cups unsweetened grated coconut

1) Preheat the oven to 350 Degrees °F.

2) With an electric mixer, whip the egg whites and salt at high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually and whip until stiff. Switch to low speed, and allowing only enough time to combine the ingredients, beating in one ingredient at a time, just a few seconds each time, the yolks, then the oil, etc until all ingredients are incorporated.

3) Pour the batter into a greased tube pan, or 9×13” pan, and bake for 1 hour or until the point of a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (muffins: About 24, baked 45 minutes)

Note: If you would like to make this cake very festive: Unmold it and let it cool. Melt 1 cup real chocolate chips with 1 tablespoon oil on a very low flame (microwave OK), and pour the mixture evenly all over the top of the cake: Yum!


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