Food Not Worth the Fuss

It may be attractive, it may be nutritious but it also may taste like cardboard. So much for recipes for 'healthy' food.

"Mehamitbach bivriut: ochel tov lehaim tovim" ("From the Healthy Kitchen: Good Food for Good Life") by Ruth Sirkis, R. Sirkis Publishing, 256 pages, NIS 99

There was tofu in the house. There was also, as it happened, some broccoli. And we always have carrots on hand. So we said, "Let's see what there is on tofu, broccoli and carrots in this book." In the index, under "broccoli," we found a cross-reference to a tofu dish; under "tofu," we were referred to a broccoli dish. "Great!" we exclaimed (although we could have said glumly, "Oh well, we have no choice.") "We'll just go and buy healthy canola oil, string beans, ginger and a few other things. Then we'll make a meal using this new book. Because Sirkis will never let you down and her recipes always come out just right."

However, there was a problem: If we used the broccoli and tofu and if the recipe came out right, the result would taste like something made out of cardboard. Sure, it would be colorful like the book's cover, and it would certainly be nutritious. But it would not fill our hearts with joy. Or, as one friend who is a yoga devotee would define such a dish with a sigh, "This is the whole-wheat flour dilemma. Whole-wheat bread is still something that is fairly tasty. But all the muffins with the ginger, dates and cinnamon and whatever you add to the whole-wheat flour will never be as tasty as a fresh butter croissant. And tofu is also a sort of food fetish, part of an incessant process of balancing and compensating, a constant headache that is simply beyond description."

And she is so right. Think, for example, of a steak. You take a steak, baste it with olive oil (which one also does just for the sheer pleasure of the act), and then you place it in a scorching hot frying pan. First one side, then the other. You add salt and pepper and that's all there is to the preparation process. And serving it is also so blessedly simple: You just put it on a plate together with a fresh salad. Pure unadulterated joy.

None of the alternatives made from proteins and carbohydrates that are measured in grams and calories can be prepared so simply (and I am not even referring here to the difference in taste and texture), and each of them always requires a lot of work before the ingredients are fit for human consumption and before the dishes end up with a palatable flavor. Tofu always has to be soaked in some kind of sauce, and legumes have to be soaked in water for 24 hours before you can use them. However, in the case of the latter, despite all the tricks and ruses intended to defuse the problems with this kind of food, beans and chick peas are never easy to digest. Thus, even before you start cooking or baking them, your mind is preoccupied with the digestion problems ahead, and you try to concoct compromise solutions.

A lost cause In general, fussing too much over food preparation is not healthy and, in the opinion of my yoga-devotee friend, it is a lost cause anyway: "Despite all your efforts and all the spices, and even if you manage to hit upon a winning combination, no dish will ever be as satisfying or as consoling as a serving of mashed potatoes with butter. In short, all this work just does not make any sense. If you want to eat healthy food, you should stick to nuts."

In order to arrive at the conclusion that Sirkis thinks the same way, you first have to pass the hurdles offered by the book's outer appearance. No great expectations are stirred by the book's cover, which is a mishmash of color and fonts. Indeed, it reminds one of an old-style shop window where the idea is to display everything that is sold in the store - even the sewing needles. And once you get beyond the book cover, the next stage, until you reach the recipes, has nothing that will really tempt you. What you get is a long series of photographs, some of them really quite professional (by Jonathan Bloom) and some of them less so, then an introduction by a clinical dietician, followed by all sorts of introductory remarks, charts, rules and regulations, together with explanations of the pitfalls and obstacles along the Sisyphean route to healthy living. You could almost die before you finally get to the food. Just like Passover Seder night although, in the case of Sirkis' book, you can always skip a few pages.

The recipes start on page 32 and there are 200 in all. You will discover that some of them are rather interesting, even somewhat tempting (that is, if you ignore the book design and graphics, and focus only on the text). I am referring here not to the dietetic recipes but rather to the "healthy dishes," as they are called in the book. Apparently, this term expresses the idea that healthy food is food that you can really enjoy. In fact, one could go even further and state that Sirkis is really telling us although this is not conveyed explicitly, but could arise from interpreting the text that a short, happy life is preferable to a long one that is full of prohibitions.

Thus, readers are presented with dishes such as borscht with creme fraiche or sour cream, roasted-pepper soup (with garlic), cholent (a traditional Sabbath stew) for small families, a New York cheese cake (made from 30-percent cream cheese!), figs with ice cream and chocolate syrup, chocolate fondue with fruit, chocolate mousse and a "cosmopolitan punch with cranberry juice" a "very fashionable cocktail," to quote the author. And, in the spirit of what is fashionable, passion fruit also stars in the dessert recipes.

When women my age were young girls, there were always aunts around who sewed clothes according to the patterns in Burda magazine, who would always say that the clothes were the "latest style." I could never understand the definition of the "latest style." The clothing patterns were always "super-proper" and super-bourgeois (well, after all, what else could one expect from Burda?). Sirkis' cocktails are closer to the "latest style" than they are to "fashionable."

This book is very much a family affair in spirit and in its actual production and all the members of the Sirkis family (from all the generations) participate (judging from the credits and the list of acknowledgments). The best thing about bourgeois life is its food and Sirkis can always be relied upon here: She is not "one of the gang" or a member of a professional elite. Over the years, she has consistently reported from her secure family kitchen, and no one can ever take issue with the claim that whoever follows her recipes simply cannot fail.

Ofra Reisenfeld has recently published "Flying Jenny"