Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D is a writer, speaker, and animal rights activist, focusing on the promotion of vegetarianism within the Jewish community. She has written several books including The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook and The Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook. Roberta lives, writes, publishes, and cooks in Massachusetts.
1 How did you wander into vegetarian cooking?
How I became a vegetarian: in 1985 or 86, Richard Schwartz sent me a copy of his book, "Judaism and Vegetarianism" for publication. At the time I ate kosher meat, and was shocked at his description of factory farming and the idea that factory farmed meat was kosher. I found this hard to believe, having been raised, like most Jews, to believe that kosher meat was merciful. There's nothing merciful about the factory farming method. It's brutal. I called my butcher and read him two paragraphs from Schwartz' book and asked him where our meat came from. His answer changed my life. "Mrs. Kalechofsky," he said, "all meat for the commercial meat market, kosher or not, comes from the same place. We just killed the animal differently." I read the paragraphs to my husband and told him what our butcher had said and then told him, "We're not going to eat meat anymore." He was a little surprised at first, but followed me into this adventure twenty-five years ago ahd has had no regrets.
2 All of your recipes are vegan (no dairy, no eggs, no meat) What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegan food?
The biggest misconception about vegan food is that you can't get enough protein. There are many sources of protein---beans, nuts, quinoa, lentils, green vegetables---and all of them healthier sources than meat.
3 What do you say to those who believe you have to have fish and meat on Shabbat?
The idea that you have to have meat on Shabbat was over-ruled after the fall of the Temple, when the sacrificial system came to an end. It was then accepted that wine---or any source of pleasure at the table--was acceptable. The point of the Shabbat is that you should have "joy,"---that joy does not have to come from meat, and for vegetarians it does not.
4 How do you make your holiday and Shabbat meals special without meat?
We make the Shabbat special without meat by cooking excellent food--like one of our cholents or vegetable pies or vegetable loafs---dishes I might not have the time to make on a weekday. We do what most Jewish households do on the Shabbat---we light candles, we have challah, we have a very good meal which we eat leisurely. A meal is made special not by meat, but by the Shabbat atmosphere. During Biblical times Jews rarely at meat at any time. Fish and beets were most often eaten on the Shabbat.
5 What advice would you give someone considering going vegetarian or vegan?
Someone who is considering going vegetarian or vegan should definitely read two or three of the excellent cookbooks available on vegetarian/vegan cooking and discover how varied and pleasurable vegetarian food is. Don't start by making the most difficult dishes, and certainly consider the taste of the other members of your family. The vegetarian cuisine is like any cuisine you have to learn about. Choose two or three nights a week for a vegetarian meal (make the Shabbat one of them) Within a few months everything will be familiar to you, and you will be eating vegetarian food 'round the clock. There are considerable taste adventures to be had in vegetarian cooking, herbs and spices that will titillate your palate. Once you have become familiar with vegetarian cooking--from making interesting rice and kasha dishes--to half a dozen ways of cooking beets or broccoli or asparagus, then discover the health qualities and the overwhelming impact on global warming that reducing the consumption meat has---and notice that I put enjoyment before health and environment---I am a glutton for good food.
6 Who is your cooking inspiration?
There have been many vegetarian "cooking inspirations" in my life. Early on, it was Molly Kazan, but her cookbooks are heavy on eggs and cream. When I consult them today, I "convert" them. As I became vegan, Robbie Schiff, my co-author for "The Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook" has been an inspiration because she is so knowledgeable about vegan food. It's also a pleasure to shop with her--again because she knows so much about spices, etc. I also learned a great deal from Rosa Rasiel, my co-author of "The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook." She was not a vegetarian at the time- but the most knowledgeable person I knew about cooking at that time and how to put a cookbook together. Trained as an editor, she taught me how to write a cookbook. (I am a ficton writer by experience.)
7 What has been your most memorable cooking experience?
My most memorable cooking experience was probably the five summer days I spent cooking dishes for "The Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook" with Robbie. It was a marathon. The heat was about 95 degrees---and I do not have air conditioning. We set up fans in my (small) kitchen, and cooked nine to five every day---and then went out for dinner. Yes, it can be done. Have everything on hand and think about the steps you will have to make. Have your shopping list ready---last minute sprints to the market are fatiguing.
8 What is your favorite ingredient and why?
My favorite ingredient is tofu---really! Unfortunately, most people don't know what to do with it. It is amazingly versatile. You can make pies, loaves, burgers, eggless "tuna" and eggless "chopped eggs." Unless you're allergic to tofu or soy beans--you can make almost anything from tofu. After tofu, I like lentils---such an inexpensive and wonderful substitute for meat.
9 What is your earliest memory of cooking?
My earliest memory of "real" cooking was making a meal for company soon after I was married. One of my dishes was stuffed baked potatoes. For some reason the potatoes refused to bake well enough to scoop them out. I finally cut them open, tried to cook them in a saucepan, turning my kitchen into a haze of starch. Finally I mashed them half cooked, with piles of butter and milk to soften them---and served them. My guests looked puzzled.
10 What do you miss most since you went “meatless”?
I missed tuna and chopped eggs for years---they were always among my favorite dishes. I think I never really cared for meat--but ate it because everyone else did, and didn't realize how much I disliked meat until I stopped eating it. Most of us are "socialized" into eating meat and I certainly was.
CONTEST ALERT: ENTER FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF THE VEGETARIAN SHABBAT COOKBOOK AND BRING MORE VEGETABLES TO YOUR TABLE. COMMENT BELOW ON HOW YOU HAVE TRIED TO INCLUDE MORE VEGETABLES IN YOUR LIFE. [Contest open to US Residents only. Two winners will be picked at random on Wednesday May 4, 2011 at 9am.]
Here are a few recipes to try your hand at vegan cooking: