Jamie Geller, the ‘Kosher Rachael Ray,’ Dresses Up Simple Family Meals
‘I still don’t like to cook. I love to eat. I love to watch my children eat,’ she says in her new cookbook, ‘Joy of Kosher.’
Jamie Geller has been described as the “kosher Rachael Ray” because of her propensity for crafting approachable, get-me-out-of-the-kitchen-quickly recipes. But the similarities don’t end there: Like the woman who made 30-minute meals a major brand, Geller has created a large media presence, albeit in the kosher world. She founded and is chief creative officer of Kosher Media Network, which includes JoyofKosher.com and Joy of Kosher With Jamie Geller magazine (which merged with Bitayavon last year), as well as JDeal and JBlasts—two Jewish-centric sites her company acquired—plus JGives, BuyIsraelWeek, and MetroImma. She has sold close to 60,000 cookbooks and counts 30,000 subscribers to the magazine.
But her latest endeavor, a cookbook tiled Joy of Kosher: Fast, Fresh Family Recipes being published this month, is a crossover into the more mainstream world of celebrity chefdom. Geller’s first two books—Quick and Kosher: Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing and Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes—were put out by the Jewish publisher Feldheim; the new book is published by HarperCollins imprint William Morrow. “Last time around, my mother-in-law and I were picking out fonts,” said Geller. “This time there’s a lot more pressure to do something new and to do something on-trend.”
Staying on trend is increasingly important in the kosher cooking world. “Just like everyone else, people in Jewish communities have become foodies,” said Geller. “Kosher websites and blogs abound, and they showcase kosher Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai, and all different kinds of food. At fancy food shows you can see that many ethnic products want kosher certification because they know kosher cooks are using all of them.”
The new cookbook is a continuation of Geller’s ever-expanding Joy of Kosher brand, although she says it also continues in the style of Quick and Kosher before it: “Cooking quick and kosher is at the core of my being. I haven’t abandoned the essence of that brand.”
The new cookbook has over 100 recipes, with wine pairings suggested throughout. Each recipe also includes a “dress it up” or “dress it down” feature. To dress up her Easy Cranberry and Pine Nut Couscous, for example, Geller serves the side dish in squash bowls; for another variation, she tweaks it a bit more to create Cranberry Couscous Eggplant Boats. There’s also an entire section devoted to variations on challah dough, from basic pull-apart challah to garlic knots to cinnamon buns. “I work full time and have five kids—I’m always doing double duty,” she said. “I feel like my recipes should too.”
In addition to the recipes, the book is filled with personal anecdotes and stories. Geller introduces readers to each of her five children, using their nicknames, like Little Momma, Miss Bouncy, and Angel Face. “My heart and soul is in the book,” she said. The life she describes in detail in the cookbook—both the large, religious family and the celebrity chef career—is something Geller never envisioned. Before she became Orthodox in her mid-20s, in fact, Geller didn’t keep kosher, and she rarely cooked. “I used to work at CNN and HBO as a producer. I always ate from the craft services table and used my apartment’s oven for storage,” she said. That was something she learned from her own mother, who she says always dreamed of a house with a kitchen that was near the garage so that she wouldn’t have to walk through it very often. “She actually wanted to build a house without a kitchen,” said Geller.
After she became more observant and got married—she met her husband Nachum through a matchmaker and married him within a few months (“Quick and kosher is my life’s mantra,” she joked)—she started cooking regularly. Nachum, who comes from a long line of caterers on Long Island, helped teach his wife how to cook (he still helps out often in the kitchen), but Geller also relied on friends and others more adept in the kitchen to provide their recipes and tips and transform her from her self-appointed title of “The Bride Who Knew Nothing.” Running an Orthodox home, she soon realized, meant hosting hundreds of meals a year, often with many guests. Soon enough, the Gellers’ Monsey, N.Y., house, and specifically her state-of-the-art, customized kitchen, became a meeting place, the heart of her home.
But last summer, Geller and her family traded it all in for a less-than-ideal kitchen in a rented cottage in Beit Shemesh, Israel, when they made aliyah—a journey that was well documented in a program called Joy of Aliyah for Nefesh B’Nefesh. “There are only two burners that work, and the oven rolls away from the wall,” she told me. “Luckily, I created and tested everything that went into this cookbook before I left, because people warned me everything was different.”
Geller admits that at first, the move was something her husband wanted to do more than she did. “But I’ve come around to it full circle,” she said. “My husband always teases me that now I’m the biggest cheerleader for people making aliyah.”
In her new kitchen, Geller has taken to the Israeli custom of being generous with za’atar and cumin and putting “eggplant in everything,” she said. Yet she still misses some American cooking conveniences, as well as some products. She still brings toasted sesame oil and plum vinegar back to Israel from America and has trouble converting measurements into metric, like the Celsius temperatures on her new oven. “I brought my teaspoons and tablespoons with me,” she said, “and I’m still using them.”
Luckily, she’s always loved Israeli food, and several recipes in the new cookbook, perfected before she made aliyah, have Middle Eastern flavor: dishes like ktzitzot, Israeli-style sliders served with hummus rather than ketchup, and a lemon lover’s hummus (dressed-up version: Tricolor Hummus Trifles). Now that she’s in Israel, she’s indulging her love for Middle Eastern food on a regular basis. She says falafel is one of her favorite Israeli foods (there are recipes for falafel poppers with lemon sesame schug and falafel sandwiches in the book), but she always prefers hers on laffa bread rather than pita. “That spongy, doughy bread is heaven on earth,” she said.
One of her favorite things about living in Israel, she says, is learning cooking techniques and recipes from Jews of all different cultures—something she explores on her show Joy of Israel, which airs on JLTV, JoyofKosher.com, and YouTube. The first episode finds Geller tagging along with Israeli cowboys and learning how to make a meat stew; the second features Kurdish cooks who cook flavorful dishes without the help of any spices. “There are over 100 Jewish cultures here—from Indian to Ethiopian. Each one thinks their home cooking is the Jewish food,” said Geller. “My eyes are opening all over the place.”
While Geller has occasionally been criticized by some foodies for her unabashed desire to get out of the kitchen quickly and her equally unabashed love of shortcuts (which sometimes lean toward processed ingredients), she has no qualms about her style. “I still don’t like to cook,” she confesses in her new book.“I love to eat. I love to watch my children eat.”
Ari White, owner of the Yonkers, N.Y.-based Gemstone Catering, says that it’s both Geller’s multitasking skills and her approachable style that make her a star in the kosher cooking world. “She doesn’t claim to be a chef, and she doesn’t have classical training,” he said. “She doesn’t wear a chef’s coat—it’s an apron. She’s entirely relatable.” And, White added, she’s become something of a celebrity because of that: “There’s a trend toward foodie-ness in the kosher world … and within that we’re definitely seeing an emergence of Jewish food celebrities. I think as far as international recognition, I’d put Jamie at the top of the list. Joy of Kosher has become the giant in the room when it comes to the food scene.”
White credits Susie Fishbein’s “Kosher by Design” line of cookbooks for paving the way for people like Geller. “I have a signed copy of Susie Fishbein’s first cookbook and I still use it,” he said. “That book changed shabbos meals, and even kosher cooking in general, across the country overnight. What Jamie is doing is sort of the next thing. She’s a person with a passion for food who wants to expand tastes and abilities of kosher crowd.”
Cassie Jones, vice president and executive editor at William Morrow, added: “I loved Jamie the moment I met her! Her devotion to food and family was really inspiring and I wanted to work with someone with such a big vision.”
What does Geller think of those common comparisons to Rachael Ray? “I love it,” she said. “I really think she should be credited with getting America back in the kitchen. You don’t have to feel like you must grow your own herb garden to cook. It’s really just about approachable food. And if I could have a fraction of her success, I would be thrilled.”
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