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A Halal Spin on Italian and Mexican Food at My Halal Kitchen

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She was born to a Sicilian father and Puerto Rican mother, both Roman Catholic. Her ethnic heritage also meant growing up to enjoy culinary feasts for the senses and the soul - authentically delicious Sicilian style pizzas, lasagna, meatballs, Puerto Rican rice and beans, chicken, meat pies and custard desserts - just to name a few.

What becomes of those appetites and indulgences when one embraces Islam, which means also adopting its guidelines with regard to food which has no room for pork, pork-based products, alcohol and foods with alcohol as an ingredient?

I spoke to Yvonne M. Maffei of DesPlaines, IL, Editor of www.myhalalkitchen.com, who embraced Islam and its dietary laws which include avoiding meats that aren’t slaughtered in the appropriate Islamic way. “Eating things like chicken, lamb and beef at most restaurants was a challenge,” says Yvonne. “Instead, I resorted to eating only vegetarian dishes, but quickly tired of that. I finally decided that I should learn how to make our favorite dishes, even the complicated ones. Although I had always known how to cook well, I really hadn't studied the techniques necessary to make such things as a roasted duck or homemade yogurt, for example. Once I did, I felt able to make really delicious food normally found only at restaurants.”

So what exactly are the special requirements people need to keep in mind when turning a non-halal recipe into a halal one? “As the best chefs say and do, you must "taste, taste, taste" your food as you cook. This allows one to know if a dish is turning out well. If a recipe calls for wine, I simply substitute it with a high quality 100% pure grape juice (white or grape depending on what type of wine the original recipe calls for). For most pork dishes, I will substitute any meat I think will go well in its place and then adjust cooking temperatures and times for the meat I've selected.”

Baking is a different story, however, because following directions exactly is critical to the success of the recipe. “However, I was told by Chef Sebastien Cannone, at the French Pastry School here in Chicago, that one could just leave out alcohol in baking because it is mostly used for flavor. So, for example if I choose a cookie recipe that calls for rum to be added for flavor, I simply leave it out and follow the recipe without that ingredient.”

Publishing a cookbook is one of her aspirations but Yvonne Maffei could very well be the next Rachael Ray. She’s interested in a TV show as a halal chef. “ I am passionate about all aspects of food- selecting, cooking and teaching about culinary arts, and of course all about the halal factor of food. I think Muslims today, especially those living in the U.S., are ready to explore dishes from areas of the world that are not traditionally related to Muslim lands, such as Italian or Mexican. They want to try new things but can't necessarily do that in restaurants because the food is not halal, so they're interested in learning how to substitute elements of these and other cuisines (for example French food where wine is heavily used) and make certain dishes halal.”

Statistics from the food industry in USA and Canada show that halal is slowly becoming a choice amongst Non-Muslims too. Myhalalkitchen.com bears testimony to that as well. “The non-Muslims who frequent my blog are very open-minded about other cultures and often times visit my site because they have seen a Middle Eastern recipe they've found to be interesting. For some of them, MyHalalKitchen.com, is the first time they've learned about what it means to cook and eat halal foods. The responses have all been so positive, making it very encouraging to know that foodies around the world have a common interest in quality food untouched by the chemicals, preservatives and processing techniques that are not good for us.”

“More and more people want to learn how to cook for themselves in order to feed their families on a budget as opposed to spending money for expensive, unhealthy meals at restaurants,” says Yvonne. “I hope that my blog offers some ideas for preparing one's kitchen for healthy and quick cooking as well as recipes that are tasty and well-explained so that anyone can make them.”

The interest in halal, according to a recent study by Packaged Foods, is also buoyed by the ever increasing appreciation of whole, organic and all natural foods. Not all halal meat comes from grass-fed, free range or antibiotic free animals. Still Crescent Chicken and Taqwa Eco Food are a beginning. “If meat is truly halal, then it is inherently organic, natural, humanely-treated and properly fed before showing up on one's dinner plate,” says Yvonne. “Once more and more people learn about halal and know they can buy products that are true to the term halal, they may buy halal meats not only for religious purposes but also out of a conscientious decision to eat healthier and more environmentally-sound products.”