When it comes to matzah balls made from cassava flour, no doubt traditionalists would say it’s a shanda, a shame. But for those who are avoiding gluten or grains? It’s a mechaya, a joy.
Given the rise in popularity of the Paleo diet (defined as eating the way people ate in prehistoric times), it was only a matter of time before someone merged the Paleo diet with the kosher one. Cassava root, a staple crop in Southeast Asia, South America and parts of Africa, has been around for thousands of years and is now being grown commercially in Israel, where bakeries offer gluten-free products.
Simone Miller, 38, chef-owner of Zenbelly Catering and a San Francisco resident, has just co-authored “The New Yiddish Kitchen: Gluten-Free and Paleo Kosher Recipes for the Holidays and Every Day” with another Jewish Paleo-diet adherent, Jennifer Robins, who lives in the D.C. area. (There’s also Shoshana Ohriner, who blogs at Paleo Kosher Kitchen and is a rabbi as well as the rebbetzin of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga — stay tuned for a column about her.)
Miller, raised in New England, said she came from “a family of food snobs. … We were the people in the restaurant saying ‘We could make this better.’ My mom is an amazing cook and definitely makes the best chicken soup on the planet.”
As the granddaughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors, one of whom worked as a pastry chef when he first came to the United States, she says in her family “Jewish holidays were always about the food.”
Miller worked in restaurants during college, and after moving to the Bay Area decided to pursue catering. But then she was diagnosed with a gluten allergy. At first, she questioned whether she could be a food professional with such a dietary restriction. Then, taking the “make lemonade” approach, in 2009 she decided to offer gluten-free catering. It was a move she saw as risky at the time, but with a growing interest in gluten-free eating, “It turned out to be a really smart thing to do,” she said.
She also attended the nutrition educator course at Bauman College in Berkeley, where she learned about the Paleo diet. She had long experienced trouble regulating her blood sugar and would get wildly cranky if she didn’t eat every few hours. The Paleo diet was an awakening. “Once I cut out the grains and made meat and nonstarchy vegetables the bulk of my diet, I felt a lot better,” she said.
Miller began blogging, which led to her first cookbook, “The Zenbelly Cookbook: An Epicurean’s Guide to Paleo Cuisine,” and connected her with other bloggers. One day she was bemoaning the lack of Jewish Paleo recipes with fellow blogger Robins, and they decided to create an e-book of Paleo Jewish recipes. That eventually led to “The New Yiddish Kitchen,” so titled because “the thing we love so much is the culture,” Miller said.
Recalling fond memories of her bubbe and her great-aunt speaking Yiddish around the table, she said “just the sound of it makes me all warm and fuzzy.” Plus, “While we include holiday menus, we didn’t want people to feel it wasn’t a book for them if they’re not Jewish. So many people, regardless of their cultural background, love bagels and brisket.”
The book has recipes for all the Jewish classics that are naturally Paleo (like brisket) and harder ones to master, like bagels and babka. Challah was particularly hard, she said, given that non-grain flours make more of a cakelike dough that can’t be braided; in the book they recommend using a bread mold that is shaped like a braid. But no doubt that is a small price to pay for grain-free folks who thought they might never be able to eat challah again.
Given that the Paleo diet eschews dairy as well as refined sugar, the babka recipe calls for almond flour, cassava flour, maple syrup and psyllium husk. (The latter is controversial in the Paleo movement because the husk contains insoluble fiber, which some people find difficult to digest.)
For people unfamiliar with gluten-free baking, it’s practically unheard of to use only a single gluten-free flour to replace regular flour, Miller said. Some commercial mixes blend rice flour, potato starch and tapioca flour. “Cassava is the best [as a stand-alone flour], but a lot of what we do is figure out how the various flours blend together to re-create the chemical makeup of regular flour,” she said.
Miller’s favorite feature in the book is the “Bubbie’s tip” found with each recipe along with a picture of one of the authors’ matriarchs. (At the bottom of a recipe for chicken soup, for example, it says: “There’s no right answer, bubula; it’s all about finding your joy. If kreplach makes you plotz and you’re sensitive to nightshades, just pick your matzo balls and veggies based on what makes it geshmak [tasty]!”
“We loved making it fun, as many books that revolve around religion can be serious,” Miller said. “We were trying to be the voice of that bubbe who’s been doing this for so long, giving you a helping hand while insulting your modern way of life at the same time, in a snarky but loving voice.”
“The New Yiddish Kitchen: Gluten-Free and Paleo Kosher Recipes for the Holidays and Every Day” is out March 8, and Miller will be appearing at 11 a.m. on April 17 at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland. See her website (www.zenbellycatering.com) for other appearances.
SMALL BITES: Erin Gleeson, the best-selling author behind the Forest Feast blog and book of the same name (and who was featured in this column in 2014, www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-gleeson), is celebrating the release of “The Forest Feast for Kids: Colorful Vegetarian Recipes That Are Simple to Make.” Expect lots more gorgeous photography mixed with watercolor illustrations and simple healthy recipes. Gleeson will be at Book Passage at the Ferry Building at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 and at Books Inc. in Mountain View at 4 p.m. March 5. She’s also doing a brunch at Rakestraw Books in Danville at 11:30 a.m. on March 13; see her website for details (www.theforestfeast.com/cookbook).