But somewhere in the mid-1980s, just as she was working on "Chocolate Sensations" and "Dessert Sensations," she realized that testing those recipes, on top of six years at cooking school in Paris -- and following every enticing smell into street markets and cafes -- had added a lot of weight to her tiny frame.
"For many years, I thought that since I love food so much, there is no way I can ever be at the right weight for my height. I was just going to be chubby and that's it," Levy said recently over a cup of coffee in Woodland Hills, where she lives with her husband, Yakir.
Good thing her next book focused on vegetables.
"I found out that you can have good meals from mostly vegetables. If you have vegetables and a legume, and maybe a little lean protein, whole grain rice or whole grain bread -- but just a little -- you can lose weight," said Levy, 56, an award-winning author of around 20 cookbooks, including "1,000 Jewish Recipes" (Wiley, 2000) and "Feast From the Middle East" (William Morrow, 2003).
She's translated that knowledge into her new book, "Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home: 200 Recipes for Eating Well on Holidays and Every Day," (William Morrow, $29.95). Unlike her low-fat books of the late 1990s, this one focuses not on what to cut, but on the wide variety and interesting ways to prepare components of a nutritious diet.
Written for foodies and novices alike, the book offers recipes with adventurous spice blends that perk up vegetables and healthy alternatives to traditional favorites. Passover is the perfect time to take some courageous leaps with vegetables and put colorful organics at the center of meals that might otherwise be laden with fatty meats, dense matzah and ubiquitous potatoes.
In fact, Levy and her husband once experimented with an all-vegetable diet. They managed on only vegetables for three weeks -- it was all the chopping and preparing that eventually got to them -- and then slowly added fruit, legumes and then finally small amounts of vegetarian protein and whole grains.
Now, they have a more moderate diet. She and Yakir enjoy all varieties of meats, grains and legumes, but she throws double vegetables into everything. And, she still leaves room for the things she loves too much to swear away, like homemade pasta with creme fraiche and ganache (two ingredients: really good chocolate and cream).
Talking to Levy, it became clear just how much she loves food -- and not just because she kept saying so. The emotion poured from her eyes and smiling voice as she told stories that wandered from Jerusalem to Santa Monica to Istanbul, of meandering through the new markets she is always discovering, of the friends she loves to eat with and the people -- family, neighbors and professionals -- who taught about cooking.
Her new book is something like that, too, full of tales of how she developed these recipes, the people she met along the way, and her many experiences at cooking school and in teaching cooking classes. In her recipe introductions, she offers tips and explanations that are just as valuable as the recipes themselves. It's worth sitting down with this book to get to know Levy when you're not frantically trying to craft your own impressive menu.
Her recipes blend a variety of traditions -- her childhood in a kosher, Ashkenazi home; her husband's Yemenite traditions; her training in French cooking; and her love for Chinese and Italian food. Levy uses tons of fresh ingredients -- herbs and lemon juice are everywhere, and she seems to have a real affinity for ginger and jalapeÃ±o peppers, often in the same recipes.
Some of my favorite recipes in the book are not usable for Passover: baked barley with chard and garlic pesto; a cabbage and carrot salad with peanut sauce; a simple blend of bulgur wheat, fresh garlic and ginger.
But there is a lot to choose from for Passover. Levy's Passover section includes twists on the traditional, like whole-wheat matzah balls floating in chicken soup with asparagus or sopping up flavor in a chicken and vegetable stew.
But leaf through the other sections to explore the bounty of vegetable recipes -- it's just the thing to offset the potatoes, eggs and meats that usually make Passover eating anything but healthy.
Braised Calabaza Squash with Chiles and Ginger
12-pound piece calabaza squash (or butternut or Japanese kabocha squash)
1 tablespoon canola oil or other vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped peeled ginger
1 or 2 poblano chilis (called pasilla in California), seeds discarded, cut into strips
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Cut squash into pieces and cut off peel with a heavy, sharp knife. Remove any seeds or stringy flesh. Cut flesh into about 1-inch cubes.
Heat oil in a stew pan. Add onions, cover and sautÃ(c) over medium-low heat, stirring often, for five minutes. Add ginger and chili strips and saute for five more minutes. Add squash pieces and a little salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons water, cover and cook for 15 more minutes or until tender, stirring from time to time and adding water by tablespoons if necessary. Stir in coriander. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or warm.
Makes three to four servings.
Cucumber, Jicama and Orange Salad with Black Olives
1 small jicama (12 ounces)4 small pickling cucumbers (10-12 ounces), halved lengthwise, sliced 1/4-inch thick (2 2/3 cups slices)
2/3 cup black olives, pitted
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 navel oranges, peeled
Halve jicama from top to bottom and cut off peel. Put each half, cut side down, on a board and cut it in half through its "equator." Slice about 1/4-inch thick.
Cut largest slices in half so they are roughly the size of the cucumber slices (you'll need 2 2/3 to 3 cups). Mix jicama, cucumbers and olives in a shallow bowl.
In a small bowl, combine oil, lemon juice, paprika and cumin and whisk to blend.
Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add to salad and mix lightly.
Trim excess pith from oranges. Halve oranges from top to bottom. Set, cut side down, on a board and cut in crosswise slices about 1/4-inch thick. Cut each slice in half, removing any pits. Gently mix orange pieces into salad. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve cold.
Makes four servings.
Ethiopian Spiced Vegetables
3/4 pound carrots, sliced about 1/2-inch thick
3/4 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
1 pound cauliflower, divided into medium florets
1/2 pound green beans, ends removed, cut into 2- or 3-inch pieces (Ashkenazi Jews do not eat green beans on Passover. Substitute with doubled zucchini )
1/2 pound zucchini, quartered and cut into 3-inch pieces
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger
1 or 2 jalapeÃ±o peppers or other hot chilis, chopped, or 1 to 2 teaspoons canned diced roasted jalapeno peppers
1 teaspoon paprika
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste or tomato puree (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine carrots and potatoes in saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Add salt and simmer, covered, about 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Drain well; reserve cooking liquid for soups.
Add cauliflower to a saucepan of enough boiling salted water to cover florets by about 1 inch and boil, uncovered, over high heat for 2 minutes. Add green beans (if using) and boil for two minutes. Add zucchini and boil for one minute or until vegetables are crisp tender. Drain in colander, reserving cooking liquid.
Rinse vegetables with cold water and drain well.
Heat oil in a large ovenproof stew pan or sautÃ(c) pan. Add onion and sautÃ(c) over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Add garlic, ginger, chilis, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, nutmeg to taste, and cumin (if using) and cook over low heat, stirring for one minute. Remove from heat. Stir in tomato paste (if using) and 2 tablespoons water. Mix with vegetables. Taste and adjust seasoning. Leave mixture in stew pan or transfer it to a 2-quart casserole dish.
Cover and bake for 20 minutes or until heated through and vegetables are tender enough for your taste. Serve hot.
Makes four servings.