Why kosher cooking is good for the soul

Helen Nash, author of "New Kosher Cuisine."  (Courtesy Helen Nash)

Helen Nash, author of “New Kosher Cuisine.” (Courtesy Helen Nash)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Cooking has been a passion for me, and passing on my knowledge and experience to a new kosher audience one of my greatest joys. When my two earlier books were published — “Kosher Cuisine” and “Helen Nash’s Kosher Kitchen” — that joy was mingled with regret at having to exclude so many more appetizing dishes and ideas about cuisine, nutrition, and a healthful approach to everyday meals. At the time, though, I couldn’t imagine going back to the arduous process of developing, refining, testing, and retesting new recipes. But then a personal tragedy gave me a compelling desire to start working on another book.

My husband of five decades — a brilliant, visionary, and passionate man with great generosity of spirit — suffered a massive stroke, and for many years he was ill and homebound. Jack loved good food, and one of the ways I tried both to give him pleasure and keep him relatively healthy was to cook for him. As everything about our life changed, cooking creatively also became a way for me to maintain a positive attitude. And in trying to keep Jack’s spirits up, I raised my own.

I discovered that even when Jack was ill, he was receptive to new tastes. So I began experimenting with novel kosher ingredients that were just coming to the market. Wasabi powder, miso, panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), balsamic and rice vinegars, and a variety of oils — truffle and sesame — hadn’t been available to kosher cooks when I wrote my first two books, so Jack and I became acquainted with them together. In coming up with new dishes, their nutritional value was, of course, a decisive factor. But so was their appeal to the palate and to the eye.

Until the very end, Jack looked forward to the meals I made for him, so I counted my experiments a success. Yet as his illness progressed, comfort foods — meatloaf, soups, frittatas, risottos, vegetable burgers, tuna burgers, turkey scaloppini, and most chicken dishes — were more to his liking than some of my more modern innovations.

Whether you and your loved ones opt for the familiar or the exotic, eating well on a daily basis requires good planning, portion control, and nutrition. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to select ingredients of the highest quality and, whenever possible, seasonal products. Indeed, if I have one rule for both cooking and eating, it is that what is best and freshest at the market — fish, vegetables, fruit, and meat — should dictate the menu. The better your ingredients, the better your results.

But in the end, keeping kosher is more, to me, than just a sensible way to live and to eat healthfully. The ancient Jewish dietary laws help to organize my life around family, Friday nights, and holidays. They remind me of the importance of community and anchor me to the other rituals of our religion. Their observance inspires me to study our texts more deeply — a search for meaning that, in turn, heightens my respect for human nature. The Torah says it all in its reverence for life. And one way we can bring that reverence into our lives and our homes is with a well-planned, home-cooked, nutritious kosher meal.

(Excerpt from NEW KOSHER CUISINE © 2012 by HELEN NASH. Published by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc., New York, NY. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.)

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