Interview with Leah Koenig

Publish date:

The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, was published by Rizzoli in March, 2011.  Prior to jumping into the freelance food writing world, Leah worked at Hazon for several years, where she managed their Jewish CSA program, organized the first Hazon Food Conference, and edited The Jew & The Carrot: Hazon's award-winning food blog.  She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, musician Yoshie Fruchter.

1 How did you learn to cook?

Growing up I never had a strong desire to learn to cook, despite having a mom who was a wonderful home cook and who made family dinners a priority.  My passion for feeding others was sparked in college while I was living in a coop.  Making dinner for the housemates was one of the weekly requirements of living there - an idea that, at first, terrified me.  Luckily most of my housemates were talented in the kitchen - the kind of cooks who could open up the fridge, pull about a bunch of random ingredients and make something amazing.  At first I just watched them, and offered to chop a carrot or do whatever small task was needed.  But slowly I began to pick up some skills and gain confidence.

2 How did you end up working on an organic vineyard in Italy and what did you learn?

It all started with a broken heart!  My college boyfriend and I had broken up that year (senior year), and I was looking for a post-college experience to take my mind off of being sad - kind of like Eat, Pray, Love, but two years before the book was published.  So I signed up with WWOOF, an organization that matches up volunteers for work-stays on organic farms all across the world.  From there I totally lucked out - I got to spend a month working on this amazing vineyard in Tuscany, living in a medieval castle, drinking lots of delicious wine, and cooking amazing dinners in a gorgeous kitchen using produce from the garden outside. I had some tough, cathartic moments out in those vines, but many years later the heartbreak has long since faded, but the experience itself has stayed with me.

3 How do your recipes help the Jewish cook create every day meals?

The recipes in this book focus on simple, delicious, fuss-free dishes that any cook, regardless of background, could enjoy.  With the exception of Shabbat and the holidays when we focus on special, traditional foods, Jews eat with the same globally-inspired palate as our non-Jewish neighbors - and I wanted the book to celebrate that.  What makes the recipes Jewish is firstly, that they're all kosher.  And secondly, whenever possible I tried to incorporate Jewish touches - either an ingredient that has Jewish resonance (like pomegranates, dill pickles, or tahini), or a bit of history that ties the dish into its Jewish context.

4 You have been involved with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and you are a strong proponent of using local, organic and seasonal ingredients when preparing menus.  What inspired your personal “eco-lution” ?

I've always been an environmentalist - ever since I first learned about recycling and the hole in the ozone as a second grader.  But I did not always make the connection between food and living an eco-friendly lifestyle. In college I majored in environmental studies with a focus on religion, and ended up working for the Jewish environmental organization, Hazon, for the first four years after I graduated.  My duties at Hazon included running their Jewish CSA program, planning their first-ever Jewish Food Conference, and editing their food blog, The Jew & The Carrot.  During that time I met many inspiring farmers, chefs, nutritionists and other food professionals who were doing amazing work around local, seasonal food - those experiences absolutely changed the way I think about eating and cooking.

5 What advice do you have for the busy home cook?

1. Save time by planning ahead.  I'm not the type of person who can plan out my meals for the week and then go shopping for them - though if you are, more power to you!  But when making dinner, think about the 2-3 things on your menu (i.e. a casserole, a side dish and a salad), and plan accordingly.  Are you chopping garlic for more than one recipe?  Chop it all at once and portion out what you need for each dish.  What dish will take the longest?  Start with that and once it's browning in the oven or simmering on the stove, use that cooking time to make the other dishes.

2. Invest in a good set of sharp knives and learn how to use them (i.e. sign up for a knife skills class at a local culinary school or your JCC).  Being able to chop vegetables swiftly, safely and efficiently is the number one way to speed up cooking times and make meal prep less of a headache.

6 How can people on a budget support sustainable agriculture?

Prioritize!  If you can't afford to buy everything organic or local (and who can?) pick the 5-10 things that you never compromise on - like dairy, eggs, and meat, and certain produce - and do your best to buy sustainable versions of those products.  Signing up for a CSA is a great way and economical to support sustainable agriculture and benefit from the farmer's fresh, delicious produce.  If that's not your thing, then try treating yourself to 1-2 items from the farmers' market each week.  They may cost more than what you find at the grocery store, but you'll be supporting local farmers and chances are good they'll be worth the added expense.

7 You feature many cuisines in your cookbook.  Do you have any travel stories related to food? What is your favorite food city?

It sounds cliche, but Rome is definitely my favorite food city.  Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti with cheese and black pepper) is my absolute favorite comfort food.  It's so elemental and satisfying.  Also, my husband and I spent some time in Rome a couple of years ago and I had a chance to research the city's Jewish history and storied Jewish cuisine. (Here's an article that came out of that research. Here's another.)  While there we also got to eat a Shabbat meal at the home of a kosher caterer that was literally one of the best meals of my life.  It was everything you hear about when people wax on about Italian hospitality and meals that stretch on for hours - plus it was Shabbat so all the better.

8 What food do you dislike?

I'll tolerate eggplant in certain dishes (especially deep-fried, when you can't really taste it!), but I would never go out of my way to eat it.  There's something about the mushy texture and the smoky taste that doesn't do it for me.

9 What is your most memorable cooking moment?

Testing the recipes for this book was definitely memorable.  Partly because I tested them last summer when it was 95 degrees out for most of July and August (and I don't have an air conditioned kitchen)!  But throughout the process I just felt so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to get to cook professionally and share my passion for food with others.  At the end of the process I could also feel how much I had grown personally as a cook - what a gift!  I hope that everyone who reads or cooks from the book ends up feeling that way too.

Here are few of Leah's recipes for you to sample the unique flavors in this book:

Ginger Sesame Tempeh with Green Beans

Radish Sandwich

Turkey Fig Sandwich