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Jamie Geller: Why You Should Explore Kosher Cooking

Jamie Geller opens the door to the kosher kitchen at Joy of Kosher, her 2-year-old website dedicated to expanding the audience for traditional Jewish foods. Author of two “Quick & Kosher” cookbooks, her site is packed with thousands of her own recipes as well as tips and insights from the best kosher chefs.

A former CNN and HBO producer, Geller founded Kosher Media Network, which publishes the magazine Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller. Founder of Jewish Culinary Heritage Foundation, Geller seeks to connect the broader international community through traditional Jewish food. She recently moved to Israel from New York City.

With the lighting of the first candles of Chanukah, Zester Daily asked Jamie to bring us up to speed on the kosher kitchen.

Tell us why you created Joy of Kosher with a brief history of your site.

Let’s start with the name. If you didn’t grow up in a house that kept kosher, you probably think it’s some kind of a restrictive diet that takes all the fun out of cuisine. To most of the world kosher has a bad rep, it implies boring and limited. You know: syrupy sweet wine and Granny’s gefilte fish.

But nothing could be further from the truth! Today’s kosher kitchen is full of exotic dishes and culinary adventure. The range of kosher ingredients is broad, and kosher wines are winning prestigious prizes all over the world. There’s so much joy in cooking kosher, but who knew? So I wanted to share the news with the world.

The site premiered a little over two years ago as a place where people could think of kosher cooking in a whole new way, and to encourage sharing among kosher cooks. The response has been incredible, not only from traditional Jewish cooks, but from non-kosher chefs who want to expand their repertoire. We’re like family now.

There is a rise in the purchase of kosher products. What’s driving the new interest?

Kosher certification symbols on the package (like OU and Star-K, to name just two of many) do not mean that a rabbi came and blessed the factory, the food or the people therein. It means that every ingredient of what’s inside the package meets certain standards. There are representatives from the certifying agency checking every aspect of production, making sure that no unidentified flying objects or ingredients sneak in.

I want that kind of supervision with my food don’t you? Apparently, millions of people want that too and go out of their way to find kosher products. Moreover, foods or ingredients designated “Pareve” mean that the product has no traces of dairy or meat. This is very important to people with allergies or lactose intolerance. And the rabbis are very trustworthy about this. Another reason is that many Jews who never kept kosher before are turning back to tradition and want to keep kosher now. You’re talking to one of them. I didn’t grow up kosher. But I am now.

Why should someone who doesn’t keep kosher seek out kosher foods?

Because they’re good, and they’re reliable. Whatever is on the label is really there, and nothing else. You can have confidence in a kosher product. And remember all those people going kosher that I mentioned earlier? Often, when there’s a family get-together, many hosts will try to use only kosher foods to accommodate their newly kosher family members, guests or friends.

If you had to choose between Ashkenazic or Sephardic cuisine, which would you choose? Why?

No fair! That’s like asking me which of my kids I love the most. I adore the bold, bright, spicy Sephardic foods, and I’m mad about their music and culture. I often play Sephardic music when I cook, dancing round my kitchen, channeling my inner Sephardi. Did you know that in a past life I was a raven-haired Sephardic princess? At least that’s what my hubby thinks; says he has to watch out for my camel in the driveway.

On the other hand, Ashkenazic food brings me back to my grandparents table, sitting on telephone books, with my feet dangling off the floor. In a flash I can taste their incredibly rich, clear chicken soup, their mile-high perfect potato kugel, their homemade kishka. All of that is what we call “heimish” — literally homelike, but so much more. It’s like every bite comes with a big, warm, cuddly hug.

Now that I live in Israel, I’m culturally engulfed by Sephardic food and my palate is changing: I think everything is better with humus and tahini; I eat falafel for breakfast and sautéed eggplant with cumin and cilantro for a snack and baklava when I have a sweet tooth. I guess, eventually, it will all balance out.

Among the most frequently requested kosher recipes on your site, what surprises you?

Can’t say I’m too surprised by anything anymore. But I do see that kosher folks keep trying for kosher versions of foods that are inherently non-kosher and even more popular — they want tips for turning real decadent dairy recipes non-dairy.

Let me just tell ya, you can’t sub heavy cream with coconut milk and call it a day. And of course we have stuff like imitation bacon (called “Facon”) and mock crab, and you can melt soy cheese on a beef burger, but you can’t really sub out everything in a recipe and expect it to taste spot-on like the original. So while I’ll occasionally cook “mock” versions, there’s no sub for genuine ingredients.

What keeps the kosher cuisine on the sidelines of the international restaurant scene? I don’t think a kosher chef has been recognized by Michelin as among the top in the world.

Well, they should be. I think part of the reason they’re not recognized is that old stereotype about kosher food I mentioned earlier. People just don’t expect to find creative, tantalizing innovations in a kosher restaurant. But kosher chefs should be given a second look: They do real miracles with food, using only kosher ingredients. For instance, Moshe Wendel, at Pardes Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, is doing kosher progressive French food like you’ve never had it before (read: the likes of which has never before been done in the kosher world). Check out places like Solo and Prime Grill (both in NYC) and you’ll find plenty of award-worthy dishes.

What have you learned from that has stunned you, really knocked you for a loop?

Jews love to eat even more than I thought! Everyone loves to eat more than I thought. And I used to think it was only me. I also found that food, especially kosher food, is serious business. And while we all enjoy a fun night out at a restaurant, where we can try new dishes, I discovered that hundreds of thousands of people want to experiment right in their own kitchens, serving up all kinds of fascinating cuisine day in and day out to their families. The demand for new and better recipes keeps us cooking on all burners. I’m always experimenting and tasting, and tasting, and tasting. That’s why I look this way.

Photo: Jamie Geller. Credit: Kosher Media Network

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.

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