Interview: Levana Kirschenbaum

Levana KirschenbaumLévana Kirschenbaum was co-owner of Levana Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (alas, recently closed after thirty two years), and the pioneer in Kosher upscale dining. She is a cooking teacher and cookbook author, and gets countless devoted fans for her fearless, practical and nutritious approach to cooking. She gives weekly cooking demos, and gets cooking demo engagements around the country. She has published "Levana's Table: Kosher Cooking for Everyone", "Levana Cooks Dairy-Free!”, and a book-dvd set based on her demo series called "In Short Order”. She is currently at work on her next cookbook, scheduled to be published in June 2011: “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple”. She is launching a line of all-natural spelt desserts, called, what else, Lévana. Her weekly cooking demos take place at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: Get ready for dinner and a show! Go onto her website to find out more about her demos, cookbooks, desserts, and entertaining stories at www.levanacooks.com

IRS: When did you become interested in cooking? What were your early influences?

LK: My earliest and longest-running influence is my mother's, the diva of glorious quick healthy meals, as I like to call her. Growing up in Morocco and watching her do her magic with pennies and in minutes, I couldn't help but being hooked: such plebeian ingredients, such great results!

IRS: In the course of your career, you have had to transform non-kosher dishes to kosher dishes by substituting ingredients. For example one of your books, “Levana Cooks Dairy-Free!: Natural and Delicious Recipes for Your Favorite Forbidden Foods” features recipes that do not include any dairy products in their ingredients. What were some of the challenges that you experienced while adapting these recipes to the Jewish Halakhik framework?

LK: I didn't only have to combat the Jewish Halakhik framework, but indeed the whole secular gastronomic world who for the most part thinks (sometimes there is here and there a glimmer if hope that this is getting better) any dessert made without cream or butter is not worth bothering with. In the Kosher world, I also had to steer them away from the non-dairy whipping cream, margarine etc... And it is well worth the effort: more and more people, not only observant Jews who want to serve a dairy- free dessert after a meat meal, but dairy-intolerant diners as well, are delighted to find dairy free and natural renditions of dishes that have been off-limits to them for so long, both savory and sweet. Just try my cheese cake, my tiramisu or my chicken Tandoori and you will see what I mean.

IRS: What are some of the health benefits of maintaining a kosher diet?

LK: Even though kosher diet was prescribed to us for spiritual reasons, the health benefits are obvious: no shell fish or other scavenger animal. Likewise no diseased animal. Above all, only domesticated peaceful animals. No hunting, no trapping, only ritual and humane slaughtering of perfectly healthy animals (no mad cow disease!) We have a much more meaningful relationship with food. Also, labeling on kosher products is much more stringent, so there's no chance of accidentally ingesting something you might be allergic or intolerant to.

IRS: Do you maintain a strict kosher diet? If not, for which non-kosher foods do you have a weakness?

LK: I do maintain a strictly kosher diet:-)

IRS: As its name implies, the International Recipe Syndicate blog features recipes of signature dishes from countries around the World. What are two of your favorite dishes that are quintessentially Israel?

LK: Oooooh that's easy: their schawarma, and their outrageous cheeses and cheese omelets.

IRS: As a former restaurant owner in Manhattan, you are well acquainted with the industry in New York City. If you had to recommend a few delicatessens in New York City to our readers, which ones would you choose?

LK: I have always heard Second Avenue Deli is fantastic, but alas I can't check it out, because even though all their meats are kosher, they have no kosher supervision. So when I have a yen for deli, I just go to Mr Broadway!

Be sure to visit the International Recipe Syndicate next week to see Levana's recipe for Apple Raisin Farfel !!

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