Cooking Like It's Treif

Keeping kosher doesn't mean your meals have to lose out on style and taste.

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For many people, cooking kosher means dusting off their grandmother's cookbook, scouring through family recipe cards from the 1960s, and stealing ideas from the Temple Sisterhood. This may feel "retro-cool" for a minute, but when the Food Network, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart are pushing ham-and-milk-sauce to go with your shrimp-and-a-side-of-bacon, it can be enough to drive a foodie to the dark side of treif, or toward settling for a life of mediocre falafel.
 
However, enterprising amateur (and professional) kosher chefs need not despair. Here are some tricks for how to deconstruct treif recipes, and turn forbidden meals into something deliciously Jewish.

The Art of Substitution

In the event that a recipe calls for a non-kosher ingredient, the easiest thing to do is to look up its chemical substitution online. The best example is gelatin, which generally comes from the connective tissues of non-kosher animals. It is a key thickening agent in sauces and baking, as well as a glaze for traditional French desserts like fruit tarts.
cooking good kosher food
There are certain kinds of vegetable gums used in commercial food manufacturing and processing--guar gum, agar, and gum acacia--that can be used instead of gelatin. All of these are kosher and can be purchased online or at larger health food and Asian grocery stores. Agar, in particular, is a great substitute because one teaspoon of agar can replace one teaspoon of gelatin.

Flavor Profiling

When chefs create new recipes, they consider the flavor profile that they wish to achieve. The idea of a flavor profile is that what makes a dish taste good is more than just the sum of its ingredients--it is a delicate balance of separate tastes, odors, and other impressions, such as silkiness in the mouth, aftertaste, heat, and spiciness.
 
When you come across a non-kosher recipe that intrigues you, consider how you can modify it with fresh herbs, spices, and non-traditional ingredients--and still stay true to its flavor profile. Expand your repertoire by visiting international grocery stores, spice markets, and farmers' markets, where you can find a wide variety of culinary tools not readily available at the local supermarket.

For example, look out for high quality risotto, which is dairy-free but has a milky, cheesy quality. Another great piece of food magic is the variety of non-dairy "milks" available. You've probably heard of soy milk, but what about almond milk? This tastier version of non-dairy creamer is perfect for gravy or mashed potatoes.

The Treif Challenge

It might seem impossible to modify this recipe for Filet Mignon Wrapped in Applewood Smoked Bacon. Here is the recipe, first in non-kosher form, then deconstructed and re-imagined by flavor profiling, and thinking outside the treif box.
 
Filet Mignon Wrapped in Applewood Smoked Bacon
Serves 4.

2 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon parsley flakes
1 teaspoon minced onion
4 filet mignon steaks
4 slices applewood smoked bacon
 
Coat the steak with butter, parsley, and minced onion. Wrap steak with bacon, using a tooth pick as a skewer. Grill until rare or medium rare.

The Kosher Solution

This recipe is obviously treif; it contains bacon as well as meat mixed with dairy. Filet mignon is also a suspect cut. Since it is dangerously close to the sciatic nerve, it is nearly impossible to butcher according to Jewish law, and therefore extremely expensive and hard to find when it is kosher.
 
The flavor profile of this dish is mouth-watering: firmness of beef, juiciness of blood, glossiness of butter and pig fat, woodiness and crunch of bacon, sweet and peppery flavor, slightly tart herb taste of onion and parsley.
 
With that flavor profile in mind, the kosher chef creates the following:

Rib Eye with Chimichurri Sauce Wrapped in Turkey Bacon

Serves 4.

4 Tablespoons chimichurri sauce
4 rib eye steaks with plenty of fat left on the cut
4 slices turkey bacon
1 Tablespoon cracked pepper
 
Chimichurri is a Dominican green sauce made of herbs and oil, and used for marinating. Its woody taste mimics the applewood bacon. Not only does this sauce have a luscious herbal flavor (a better substitute for the boring parsley/onion combination), it also contains vegetable or olive oil, which replaces the glossiness of butter.
 
Rib eye is, for the money, the best gourmet kosher beef cut. It has excellent marbling (fat to lean ratio, where there is just enough fat to create juiciness), and this means that the butter and the pig fat from the bacon will not be missed.
 
Finally, turkey bacon has the same crunchy texture and visual appeal of applewood bacon. In general, turkey, especially smoked, is an amazing pork substitute. It can also be honey baked to have the same taste and texture as ham.
 
Just like with the treif recipe, rub the steak in the marinade, wrap in the "bacon," insert toothpick, and grill. No one will be the wiser.

Having Fun With Limitation

What drives many people away from kosher cuisine is the idea of "giving up" the foods they want. No more cheese on the cheeseburger. No more baked potatoes loaded with bacon.

But in the past, Jews in every country in the Diaspora found ways to create kosher versions of their neighbors' food. Italian Jews took duck and smoked it to create duck prosciutto, the kosher cousin to the famous Italian salted ham. Jews in India replaced butter and yogurt with coconut milk and oil to make kosher meat curries.

Today, the secret is to have fun and think about how your creative substitutions make you part of a rich Jewish culinary history.

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Patrick Aleph

Patrick Aleph (also known as Patrick A) is a freelance writer and activist, using technology and pop culture to bring Jewish spirituality to people who are disconnected from traditional Jewish life. Aleph is also the singer for the punk rock band Can!!Can and founder of PunkTorah.com.