Tuesday, April 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Food For the Soul

Disclaimer:  I was sent the following book as a gift from the publisher, Gefen Publishing House, in order that I could write an honest review.  Other than the free book, I do not profit in any way by the following review.

Food for the Soul:  Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating by Chana Rubin, RD
copyright Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2008

Chana Rubin is a registered dietician from the US now living and teaching in Beer Sheva, Israel.  Her website is:  http://www.healthyjewisheating.com/  Although I don't think she mentions this specifically, it is pretty clear to me at least, that she is also an observant Jew and is writing for a predominantly religiously Jewish audience.

I was pretty skeptical upon receiving this book.  I have heard most dieticians spouting off bad advice about eating "lite" bread and artificial, fake diet foods.  But Food for the Soul turns out to be a wonderful book, spot on with the latest nutrition data and advice, with totally sane suggestions for a balanced lifestyle of health and happiness AND a fabulous recipe section.

Chapter 1, called "Diet and Health: The Jewish Connection" gives inspiring textual sources for Judaism's view of healthy diet and lifestyle.  You wouldn't know there was such a thing in our texts based on the dietary habits of most modern Jews, but from the Bible through Maimonides and the Mishnah, we Jews are commanded to mind the body as our temple.  For instance:

"Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if one is ill - therefore, you must avoid that which harms the body and accustom yourself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger."  (Rambam, Hilchot De'ot 4:1)  page 7 of Food for the Soul

"There are two reasons to avoid eating harmful foods:  First, to prevent the food from causing physical harm.  Second, to humble the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and break his cravings...because certainly a person must be careful not to eat foods which he knows are bad for him."  (Ra'avad, Ba'alei Ha'nefesh)  page 10 of Food for the Soul

The next chapter, "Jewish Women:  Setting the Tone with Food" is chock full with wonderful advice for women charged with feeding and caring for the family.  Ms. Rubin encourages her women readers to behave in a spiritual fashion with food and make time to nourish and care for themselves as well.  Bravo!  This is a beautiful section in my opinion.

The following chapters get into specific nutrition and exercise information.  I particularly like the chart on healthy substitutes for trans-fat laden dairy substitutes.  There is even a section supporting Vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective, although the main tone of the book is to use chicken, fish, eggs and dairy moderately while decreasing red meat and increasing plants, grains and legumes.  I can fly with that.

Then there are the recipes.  There are 108 recipes in the book.  Only 6 of them are for chicken, 12 of them are fish, 48 of are vegetarian (some with vegan option), and a whopping 42 of them are vegan!  (some do have honey, but that can be subbed).  NONE of the recipes contain beef or lamb or any other mammal, yay!  Here are the recipes I tried in no special order and how they rate:

Chana's Granola
5 stars for health - no sugar, low fat, lots of nuts and seeds
4 stars for taste - needs to be a tad sweeter - maybe add pureed orange next time

Peanut Butter Cookies
2 stars for health - there are TWO cups of sugar in these cookies!  But I gave points for whole wheat flour and oil instead of butter or margarine
4 stars for taste

Red Pepper Walnut Spread
5 stars for health
3 stars for taste (just not to our liking)

Eggplant Spread
5 stars for health
5 stars for taste

Soy Glazed Salmon
5 stars for health
Family says 5 stars for taste

Sephardic-Style Red Lentil Soup
5 stars for health
5 stars for taste
Easy too!

Easy Shabbat Brownies
4 stars for health
4 stars for taste
(The whipped cream was added b/c they were a bit flat and bland.  Good excuse, right?)

Spinach Mushroom Mina (pie for passover)
4 stars for health - it's still matzah after all
4 stars for taste

Matzah Lasagna
4 stars for health
5 stars for taste - the kids gave it a big thumbs up too!

the spinach mina and the matzah lasagna on my pretty pesach plate!

My overall impression of this book is very high and I think it makes a wonderful addition to any Jewish kitchen.  I actually think non-Jewish readers would also appreciate the spiritual aspects of eating as presented, the sound nutrition advice, and the delicious, healthy recipes.

One other thing:  For better or for worse, the recipes tend to be very simple and none require any fancy or specialty ingredients.  It is particularly nice for those of us in Israel to have a cookbook where we can find all the needed ingredients easily in our more limited marketplace.  On the other hand, there are recipes for "Simple Steamed Broccoli" and "Peas and Mushrooms" that truly not many of us really need a recipe for anymore.  For that reason, I think this book would be a particularly good book for a newly married couple, or a young adult off on his/her own for the very first time or someone new to cooking.

That said, I very much look forward to trying many more of these recipes.  Keep your eyes on my blog to see more from Food for the Soul.

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