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April 2, 2018 by

Pushing the Matzo Ball Forward–A Russian Passover

A Vegetarian Russian Jewish Passover

flickr.com/donutgirl

flickr.com/donutgirl

Shiitake schmaltz and plant-based sirniki? These are two of the amazing “healthified” delicacies that 34-year-old Jewish holistic nutritionist Meribel M. Goldwin has created, putting a modern spin on classic, Russian comfort foods. This Passover, eating healthy doesn’t have to mean sacrificing tradition.

On March 8th, at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, Goldwin, who is the founder of Blossomed Life LLC, hosted “Pushing the Matzo Ball Forward,” a lecture on modernizing Russian-Jewish cuisine, followed by a tasting of the recipes. The tasting portion of the evening was curated by Elena Tedeschi, chef of Well Rooted Kitchen. This project was created as part of COJECO (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations) BluePrint Fellowship and Genesis Philanthropy Group.

After the event, I sat down with Goldwin to discuss how she’s transforming beloved holiday recipes, fostering health while maintaining flavor.

Sara-Kate Astrove: Is Russian-Jewish cooking unhealthy?

Meribel Goldwin: Yes, especially processed meats, very salty foods—anything with mayonnaise and too much processed carbs.

S-KA: So how did these foods become Passover staples?

MG: Jews in Eastern Europe who lived in shtetls had to do a lot with very little. Matzo ball soup preserved matzo crumbs by combining them with oil and fats from chickens or cows. Schmaltz was made from chicken skin and fat, fried until crispy and brown. Now we know that deep fried meat is carcinogenic.

S-KA: But have these dishes stayed the same over time? 

There’s a few slight modifications. Before, Jewish people lived off their land, so they ate locally produced beets, carrots, potatoes, homemade pasta, self-caught fish. Even mayonnaise used leftover eggs from the local or your own farm. Now, ingredients farmed locally and organically are mass produced and shipped from who knows where. That’s the problem.

S-KA: As a Russian Jew, did you grow up on these foods?

MG: I was 10 when my family came to the U.S. from Russia as refugees. We were confused celebrating holidays, since we weren’t allowed to observe publicly until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. We tried celebrating with what we knew, such as cold cuts made of pork, Selyodka Pod Shuboy—Herring Under Fur Coat—and stuffed fish.

S-KA: Did your Jewish holidays change?

MG: Absolutely, we had freedom to observe. But we were disconnected from Judaism—we didn’t know how to practice. We ate sliced cold cuts for Rosh Hashanah.

S-KA: Do “healthified” dishes mimic the originals?

MG: I used to eat a lot of meat, and I come from that culture, so I really remember certain tastes. Now that I’m plant-based, I replicate the authentic flavor I experienced when I wasn’t so health conscious. I play around with different spices and plant-based ingredients to find what will taste similar to the meat version. For sweetness, you can use raw sugar, things like jaggery. Jaggery is raw sugar that’s actually good for you.

S-KA: How would you transform the Passover meal?

MG: Every meal can use a hint (or a large helping) of balance. What I do is put forward plenty of vegetable dishes. Then I replace processed grains with whole [kosher for Passover] grains. Since those contain more of the original proteins and fibers, they are more filling, fulfilling, and healthier for the heart and digestive tract. This year, I’m serving quinoa matzo balls in a creamy carrot-beet sauce, almond sirniki with cherry compote, along with alternative recipes for kugels, schmaltz, and Herring Under Fur Coat.

S-KA: Is preparation time the same as the traditional versions?

MG: Even shorter, because you don’t have to cook the food as long since it’s plant-based. Without eggs or meat, the preparation is about half an hour shorter. It’s amazing that while still sticking to tradition, you can have something equally delicious that saves time and is on the table even faster so you can start celebrating faster.

S-KA: Do you find Jews are attached to their traditions or open-minded about trying new things?

MG: I think people are attached to tradition because it gives them a certain sense of familiarity and comfort, and a lot of this food is comforting. But at the end of the day, everyone wants to feel healthy. I believe there’s a desire for meals that are still delicious, still comfortable, but taste like what we’re used to, what our moms fed us as children. I find that for some reason, people think they can’t have both. I want my relatives to understand that their nutritional choices make a difference, and that they don’t have to sacrifice their traditional dishes and way of living for a healthy meal.

S-KA: What’s the future of Russian-Jewish cooking?

MG: More wholesome ingredients, whole grains. Many in the Russian-Jewish community suffer from lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. We can’t continue the way we’ve been going, propagating unhealthy habits into the future. Our ancestors didn’t have options. Also, their ingredients weren’t as processed as they are now. But today we have options, the ability to take things into our own hands, and the knowledge necessary to give us the lives we want to live, the health we want to have, and the bodies we want to live in. I’m happy that instead of moving away from traditional foods, we can healthify them—but not lose the flavor.

Goldwin’s next event for the COJECO BluePrint Fellowship will take place on June 5th at 7:00 p.m. at The Brownstone, located at 224 E. 12th St, New York, NY 10003.