By Elisa Spungen Bildner
(JTA) – With the temperature in the mid-80s, it was not the night to kick off Shabbat dinner with chicken soup, or rather, given our family’s eating mishegas, vegan chicken soup (yes, there is such a dish). So where or whom do I turn to for a seasonal alternative?
Answer: Chef Mark Reinfeld, who as the “30-Minute Vegan” has a series of books filled with recipes that I’ve found are sure to come out right and always taste great. (Reinfeld most recently authored Healing the Vegan Way: Plant-Based Eating for Optimal Health and Wellness.)
So for this sultry Shabbat, I chose Raw Peaches and Cream Soup (don’t get fatootzed about the word “raw”), which turned out to be a hit with a Friday night dinner crowd that included rabbis, an Episcopal priest and their spouses.
I was lucky to meet up with Reinfeld on a very un-summer night in February near Boulder, Colorado, where he lives. There he told me about growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Stony Brook, Long Island, that kept kosher and ate chicken every Friday night.
After Reinfeld spent his junior year at the London School of Economics, which he followed with a backpacking trip across Europe, he found he just couldn’t embark immediately on his plan A, attending law school right after college.
After his acceptance into New York University School of Law, Reinfeld deferred his admission and decamped one more time to Europe. In Paris, he worked as an au pair in the mornings, and his afternoons walking the streets of the French capital “holding a baguette and bottle of wine,” as he likes to put it.
From there he traveled to Amsterdam and Berlin. Forrest Gump-ishly, he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, then managed to hit Prague in time for the Velvet Revolution that brought down the ruling Czech Communist Party. His next stop: Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in Israel, where he worked with (and then ate) chicken five and sometimes seven days a week.
Reinfeld remembers the kibbutzniks chasing and catching the chickens in vast shed-like coops, then handing them over to the volunteers.
“We’d have to take them out to a truck,” he recalls. “The chickens were screaming and their legs were breaking in your hands. That is precisely when I realized that I couldn’t do this, and I couldn’t eat them. So I gave up chicken cold turkey.”
Back in America, Reinfeld started law school, dropping out after the first semester when he realized this wasn’t the direction he wanted his career to take.
“I didn’t have a plan B,” he notes.
Somehow the spirit of his maternal grandfather, Ben Bimstein, a caterer who Reinfeld describes as a “culinary genius” and a renowned ice carver, guided his next move.
Reinfeld loaded his possessions into his car, drove west until he hit San Diego and landed a kitchen job at the natural foods grocer Jimbo’s. From there he quickly became a meatless entrepreneur, starting Blossoming Lotus Personal Chef Service in Malibu, California, and ending up, with the help of angel investor Bo Rinaldi, as the co-owner and chef of the award-winning Blossoming Lotus restaurant in Kauai, Hawaii.
With Rinaldi, Reinfeld wrote Vegan World Fusion Cuisine, garnering honors including a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best vegetarian cookbook in the USA.
By this time, Reinfeld also was a practitioner of Vipassana, a type of Buddhist meditation, and actually started his restaurant while observing an 18-month period of silence. That didn’t take him away from Judaism, and in a 2013 article for ReformJudaism.org titled “Vegan is the New Kosher,” he outlined the Jewish basis for a plant-based diet.
Reinfeld couples the Talmudic principle of “tza’ar ba’alei chayim” (Bava Metzia 32), which prohibits cruelty to animals, with Genesis 1:29: “God said, ‘Behold, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food,’” and urges Jews to make the compassionate choice.
“The reality is that factory farm-produced meat, eggs, and dairy (whether kosher or non-kosher) are raised and treated in a way that is a blatant violation of the principle of tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” Reinfeld writes.
A philosophy major as an undergraduate, Reinfeld says he understands that animals kill and eat animals, and that some people eat animals out of necessity.
“If you saw a lion pouncing on a gazelle, you may wince, but you know it’s part of nature and you’re not going to sit the lion down and say ‘I think you have anger issues, why don’t you try tofu?’” he says.
Inhabitants of remote fishing villages in Alaska or isolated tribes with limited access to adequate protein must fish or hunt.
“Where there’s necessity,” Reinfeld says, “there is a different moral issue, but when we have a choice of how much violence we bring into the world through our food selection, and we know we can meet our body’s nutritional needs, eat tasty food and minimize our environmental impact,” then one can draw a different line.
Back on the mainland, Reinfeld continues his vegan entrepreneurship. Called “the male equivalent to a vegan Rachael Ray” in a Publisher’s Weekly review of Soup’s On, a cookbook in his 30-Minute Vegan series, Reinfeld is dedicated to popularizing vegan eating and living and compassion toward animals. Through his Vegan Fusion company, he offers consulting, chef services, culinary workshops, and chef and cooking teacher training internationally and online.
In July, Reinfeld was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame.
Elisa Spungen Bildner is 99 percent vegan [she cheats on ice cream]. She is a member of the board of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company.
Raw Peaches and Cream Soup
From the kitchen of Mark Reinfeld
Sweet Cashew Cream:
3/4 cup chopped raw cashews
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons raw coconut or agave nectar or sweetener of choice,
or to taste (I used agave)
Raw Peach Soup:
7 ripe peaches, pitted and chopped (5 cups)
1 1/2 cups fruit juice (try apple)
2 tablespoons raw coconut nectar, agave nectar or pure maple syrup (which I used), or to
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of sea salt
2 teaspoons mirin (Reinfeld says this is optional, but I’d recommend it as well. Mirin is a
Japanese sweet rice wine that is easy to find.)
2 tablespoons chiffonaded fresh mint, for garnish
Place the cashews in a small bowl with ample water to cover. Allow them to sit for 20 minutes. Drain and rinse well. Meanwhile, place all of the peach soup ingredients, except the mint, in a strong blender and blend until creamy. Transfer to a bowl. Place the cashews in the blender with the water and the coconut nectar (or whichever sweetener you’re using) and blend until very creamy. Transfer to a small bowl. Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of cashew cream and top with fresh mint before serving.
* Grill the peaches until char marks appear, about 5 minutes, lightly basting with melted coconut oil before blending.
* Replace the peaches with nectarines, mangoes, blueberries or papayas. (Blueberries work well, although less sweet than the peach. You might try to prepare two versions, and delicately place them side by side in each soup bowl, in a yin/yang design.)
* Replace the apple juice with orange, pineapple or mango juice, or a combination.
* Create differently flavored Sweet Cashew Creams by adding 1/2 cup of fruit, such as blueberries, strawberries or mango.
6 cups chopped watermelon (1-inch cubes)
1/2 cup water or coconut water
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 teaspoon seeded and diced jalapeño pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
Pinch of sea salt
3/4 cup seeded and diced cucumber
3/4 cup peeled and diced jicama
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
Place the watermelon, water or coconut water, lime juice, jalapeño, chili powder, chipotle chile powder, and salt in a blender and blend well. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well before serving.
America’s top cheese brands are going kosher
By Ben Hartman
It’s early morning in the Sardinian countryside and a farmer is milking his sheep while an Orthodox Jewish kosher supervisor looks on.
The supervisor, known as a mashgiach, is sleeping in the farmer’s barn, and he’ll be there all week.
Welcome to the world of kosher cheesemaking.
The weeklong kosher cheese run in Sardinia is just one of a number of methods that artisanal kosher cheese-maker Brent Delman, owner and founder of The Cheese Guy, uses to manufacture products for kosher consumers who have developed a taste for fine Italian cheeses.
“I like to partner up with the most authentic suppliers of non-kosher cheese and see if we can replicate it. This requires flying in Jews from mainland Italy and bringing them to Sardinia to watch the milking of the sheep,” said Delman, an Ohio native, explaining that many of the farmers he works with have never met Jews before the mashgiach shows up to inspect their operation.
The incongruous sourcing partnerships are a sign not only of the complexity of kosher cheese production, but also of the growing taste among kosher consumers for artisanal cheeses and greater cheese variety.
A number of mainstream cheese producers have begun large-scale kosher cheese production in recent years. In 2015, the Kraft subsidiary Polly-O generated excitement among consumers when it began producing Orthodox Union-certified kosher string cheese, undercutting the existing kosher competition significantly on price. Wisconsin’s Lake Country Dairy, a subsidiary of Schuman cheese, has been making millions of pounds of kosher Italian-style Parmesan, Asiago, Romano and mascarpone for about a decade. Smaller artisanal cheese-makers, like the Seattle-based Beecher’s, are also making kosher versions of their flagship cheeses.
Many hard cheeses use rennet, an animal byproduct, in production and therefore are not kosher. To be certified as kosher, hard cheeses not only must use synthetic rennet, but all the equipment and ingredients must be kosher and a mashgiach has to supervise the production.
Until recently, kosher Danish blue cheese and fine parmigiana were almost impossible to find; likewise for Brie and other fine soft cheeses. But with the market for kosher products growing – studies show that in addition to the burgeoning Jewish kosher market, many non-Jews prefer kosher because they associate it with increased cleanliness and healthfulness – increasing numbers of cheesemakers are getting into the kosher market.
“Companies that never would have considered making kosher cheese now do because they see their competitors succeeding with it,” said Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, a dairy expert in the O.U.’s kosher division.
Typically, rather than convert entire facilities to kosher production or keep kosher supervisors on site year-round, large companies will do a special kosher run – perhaps once a month, or in some cases for a few hours each day. During the kosher campaign, non-kosher production is shut down, all relevant equipment is cleaned and rabbinical supervisors oversee production.
Lake Country Dairy produces some 26 million pounds of cheese per year, including four million pounds of kosher mascarpone, Parmesan, Romano, Asiago and fontina sold under the brand names Bella Rosa, Cello Riserva and Pastures of Eden.
While the availability of less expensive cheese has been a boon to observant families, greater culinary sophistication in the Orthodox community is also having an effect on the dairy market, according to Gordimer.
This trend is of a piece with American consumers generally, where in recent years consumers have developed a taste for artisanal foods, locally sourced products, craft beers and other high-quality offerings. U.S. retail sales of natural and specialty cheeses reached $17.4 billion in 2015, an increase of 4.1 percent since 2011, according to a report by Packaged Facts.
Cheese consumption is rising, too: In 2016, Americans consumed 5.35 million metric tons of cheese, a 7.6 increase from 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For the major cheese producers like Kraft, economies of scale means that prices for kosher-certified products can be similar to non-kosher cheese. Not so for smaller companies, which typically charge a premium for kosher cheese to cover the costs of kosher production and certification. Products made with cholov yisroel – milk produced solely by Jews, reflective of a more stringent level of kosher preferred by some strictly Orthodox consumers – can be two or three times as pricey as non-kosher cheese.
Until about a decade ago, the kosher cheese world was like the kosher wine market 30 years ago: There were the basics, but little for the discerning connoisseur, according to Delman, The Cheese Guy. Just as fine kosher wines from Israel replaced the ubiquitous Manischewitz at kosher dinner tables, fine kosher cheeses are also now commonplace, he said.
Delman’s production shows the challenges of small-scale, fine-cheese production. For example, to manufacture a beer cheddar he is producing in cooperation with a dairy farm in Vermont, Delman first must arrange for kosher supervisors to accompany him to the facility. They clean the lines and check that all the ingredients are kosher; only then does production start.
Cheeses like Swiss and feta are made in brine, which must be kept separate from non-kosher cheeses. Because most facilities don’t have extra brine tanks, Delman has to bring his own brine and cheese molds, further driving up costs.
Juravel says mass production is particularly difficult when it comes to cheese, so kosher cheese will always be something of a challenge. But it’s worth it.
“Cheesemaking is an art,” Juravel said. “There’s science behind it, but it’s an art.”
(This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.)