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G-d Cares What I Eat? Lessons From a Kosher Kitchen Innovator

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I wasn't always kosher.

Now, I speak all over the country about how I went from TV producer to kosher cookbook author.

I'm not saying the transition was easy.

My busy career was once my whole life, and I was too time-crunched for introspection. But then one day, I came across a story: A rabbi said to a 20-something, "What's your goal in life?"

"To be a dentist."

"So when you die, you want the eulogy to go 'Here he lies: he just filled his 1 millionth 40 thousandth cavity.' That's what you want out of life?"

The question actually bothered me. I began to wonder: 'What do I want to be? Who do I want to be?" It was the scariest thing I ever did. I had no answers, so I went looking and somehow, I landed in my own backyard.

To be frank, when I first heard about keeping kosher, I sort of went into shock. We're talking about Rules with a capital R. Until then, I answered to no one. There were no boundaries. Short of killing someone, there was no right or wrong, just shades of grey ranging from "OK" to "not so OK." Now they're telling me that G-d cares what I eat?!

Until then, I had used the term "kosher" in my everyday speak, as in, "That doesn't sound kosher" (meaning, "You better back off the deal because something ain't right!"). And I was vaguely aware that religious Jews would only eat food that's kosher, foregoing the culinary adventures the rest of the world relishes. I mean, would normal people lock themselves in like that? Yet, I was drawn to friends with kosher homes more and more. And I began to understand.

Kosher is a way of life. While it initially meant a set of dietary rules, it actually defines the people adhering to those rules -- how they make choices every day, from where to eat dinner to huge moral issues. It's living on two planes simultaneously, physical and spiritual. In Jewish life, they are never separated.

And that's where self-discipline comes in. Hey, I know. That term is anathema to our "Free to be you and me" generation.

What puzzled me is that the "kosher" people seemed so relaxed and happy, despite the restrictions they voluntarily accepted.

Then I realized that I, too, could say no. I could say no to self-indulgence; I could say no to going along with the crowd; I could say no to a lifestyle that wasn't really doing it for me. I began to see that a little self-discipline makes me feel strong and proud, and connects me to a tradition that gives my life larger meaning.

So I decided to go kosher. I even decided to get married, have a family, go the whole nine. After my wedding, I was literally the bride who knew nothing in the kitchen. I had never even turned on an oven, thanks to my mom, who is really great but kept us alive on take-out.

Learning to keep kosher and learning to cook simultaneously turned out to be an even bigger challenge than meeting a movie star. Let me sum up kosher:
• Meat & dairy never mix.
• Most seafood is out.
• Pork: no way. (I bet you knew that.)

Quite simple, really, until you consider the implications. "Never mix," means that meat and dairy remain as separate as two ex-spouses at a Hanukkah party. They can't share the same cookware, dishes, silverware or dishtowels. And then there's the question of foods like bread, wine, eggs -- are they meat or dairy? It turns out that they belong in a twilight zone called pareve which means more neutral than Switzerland.

Forbidden seafood doesn't include most fish, though some fish are off-limits. Having fins and scales gives a fish the privilege of winding up on a kosher menu.

The no-pork thing is best known and least understood. It has nothing to do with health or sanitation. It has everything to do with the spiritual aspects of food, and to explain it means going into Kabbalah that would make your head swim, so just take my word for it.

Learning to cook kosher (OK, learning to cook at all) was probably the biggest hurdle of my life. A lot of kosher recipes take hours, even days. And I was such a harried bride, with my job at HBO still intact (with unprecedented permission to be off on Shabbat) and a husband who liked to eat real food, not something out of a box. But I devour challenges. I hunted down terrific recipes and developed so many ways to cut prep and cook times that I decided to write a cookbook of my own called Quick & Kosher Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing.

It sold like crazy and suddenly I was a celebrity. I had a blog, was producing an online kosher cooking show and giving demos all over the country. Instead of stilettos and a press badge, I was wearing flats and an apron (oh the horror), but I loved it when the media started calling me "the kosher Rachael Ray."

And all that positioned me to be the CFO, Chief Foodie Officer at Kosher.com, an online kosher supermarket. You could say that all my HBO and CNN experience went kosher.

My second cookbook, Quick & Kosher: Meals in Minutes, was just released. Like my first book, which grew directly from my own inexperience (and doesn't hesitate to confess all), this one emerged from having a career, a family and lots of friends who drop in for dinner on short notice. When I get word that folks are coming over, my first instinct is to check the clock to see how much time I've got till they come stomping up the driveway. I based my book on that "moment of panic." It's actually arranged according to how long it takes to prepare a complete menu. You've only got 20, 40, 60 minutes? No problem. It's the book I've been needing for myself all these years, so I wrote it!

It makes cooking easy. It makes kosher easy. I wish someone had done that for me.

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