Kosher cooking for the masses

Atascadero native Tori Avey is preparing for a home invasion.

Before the sun goes down on Monday, she’ll whip up 12 organic beef briskets, Persian-style chicken, matzo ball soup and several salads for as many as 50 guests. Then she’ll set the Seder table as friends and family begin to arrive at her Los Angeles home for Passover dinner.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s a big job,” said Avey. “(Passover) is like Thanksgiving for Jews.”

The task would prove challenging for the most experienced of Jewish chefs, but Avey is no novice.

She’s the author of “The Shiksa in the Kitchen,” a culinary blog that aims to bring contemporary kosher cooking to the masses.

“I think there’s a real curiosity about Jewish cooking,” said Avey, who also has a kosher cookbook and a television show in the works. “It’s uncharted territory for a lot of people.”

Raised in a non-Jewish household, Avey’s first exposure to kosher cooking came eight years ago when she met her Israeli-born fiancé, composer Shuki Levy.

“I wanted to know what foods he grew up with and was comfortable with and loved,” said Avey, who graduated from Atascadero High School in 1997.

So she took her culinary cues from his family history.

Levy’s father is a Russian Jew whose Ashkenazi ancestors settled in Northern and Eastern Europe after the Diaspora. His Israeli mother belongs to the Sephardic Jewish community based in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.

As Avey discovered, both communities share a rich tradition of flavorful foods and communal meals.

“Every dish in Jewish cuisine has an incredible history to it,” she said, guided by ancient dietary laws. Known collectively as “kashrut,” those Torahbased rules govern every aspect of a meal, from the type of meat served to how animals are slaughtered.

Avey’s fiancé taught her how to cook her first kosher dish — shakshuka, a North African staple that features eggs cooked over a thick tomato and bell pepper sauce.

Over the years, Avey has added several other recipes to her repertoire, including matzoh ball soup and hamin, a slow-cooked hearty stew.

Avey enjoys Jewish cooking so much, in fact, she’s been inspired to create a cookbook.

In January, she launched her blog to gauge the public’s interest in kosher cuisine. The response, Avey said, has been overwhelmingly positive; she has about 3,500 fans on Facebook and about 100 followers on Twitter.

Over the past few months, she’s been collecting favorite dishes from family members and friends — tweaking measurements and updating instructions for modern day cooks who prefer food processors to hand grinders.

“I’m never going to put anything in the cookbook that I don’t love myself,” said Avey, who hopes to complete her manuscript in April. That means lots of experimenting with different flavors and textures.

“My poor fiancé says he feels like the husband in ‘Julie & Julia,’ ” Avey joked, referring to the film about blogger Julie Powell and chef Julia Child. “He says he’ll never be able to lose weight.”

According to Avey, however, Levy should have little to worry about.

“When I do my cooking, I try to use organic kosher meat, organic vegetables and sea salt to get great flavor without as much sodium as kosher salt would have in it,” she said.

And she’s always on the lookout for healthy options, preferring lighter Sephardic cuisine to heavier, heartier Ashkenazi fare.

Avey’s only rule is that each meal be kosher. That means no pork or seafood, and no dairy served alongside meat.

“That’s the only thing that makes Jewish food Jewish,” she said. “Otherwise it would just be world cuisine.”

As a self-described “shiksa,” a non-Jewish woman in a relationship with a Jewish man, Avey said she brings a unique perspective to the kosher kitchen.

“The major part of my life, I’ve come from the perspective of not being Jewish,’’ said Avey, who converted to Judaism in late February. “It’s all exciting to me. It’s all new.”