- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Passover, one of the most continually celebrated festivals known to mankind, takes on many guises in our multicultural society. On the eve of April 5, Jews and many non-Jews all over the world will sit down to the Seder table.

They will all relate the same story: the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. But each gathering will have its own props and its own menu in keeping with Passover prohibitions and varying lifestyles.

In an almost biblical setting in the cactus-filled Sonora Valley of southern Arizona, Dr. Gabriel Cousens, director of the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia and author of “Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet” (Cassandra), lives with his wife, Shanti. Both are vegans and subscribe to a diet of strictly organic raw foods high in minerals and fiber, low in sugar.

Like vegetarianism, the raw-food movement has been gaining interest, with such gourmet raw-food restaurants as the famed Roxanne’s near San Francisco sprouting up around the country.

The nondenominational center acts as a respite for some and a health food and spiritual consciousness-raising facility for others. The meals, which contain neither eggs nor milk, are surprisingly tasty and include vegetables straight from the Cousenses’ own organic garden. The cooks rely on a powerful blender and a dehydrator instead of a stove.

For Passover, the Cousenses, who are Jewish, conduct a communal Seder for neighbors and those staying at the center in casitas that can house up to 18 guests.

Raw-food chefs and apprentices have no problem making charoset with seven fruits and nuts, including coconuts, apples, walnuts, almonds, raisins, prunes and pears. The fruit-and-nut paste symbolizes the mortar with which the Jewish slaves in Egypt created buildings, but the cooks must be ingenious with the rest of the meals they prepare in this age in which food has to appeal to the eye as well as the stomach.

The Seder plate, with symbolic foods representing the Passover story, will include a round stone instead of the roasted egg to symbolize renewal in the spring and eternal life. A beet will replace the roasted shank bone to symbolize the Pascal lamb.

The Cousenses’ grape juice for the Sabbath and Passover will be made from fresh grapes or raisins, as is traditionally done in many parts of the world. Because they never eat flour, their matzo is blended from soaked flaxseeds and carrots and then dehydrated. Milk comes from soaked almonds, a drink that Jews from countries such as Syria and Iraq have drunk to break the fast of Yom Kippur, a tradition that got its start more than 2,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Recently, I ate several delicious meals with other guests, who raved about the food. The Sabbath braided challah was made of almond flour, flaxseeds, coconut water and three grains of buckwheat in order to conform to the tradition of baking challah, which must contain some kind of wheat grain.

The “pasta” was prepared from raw julienned butternut squash topped with a sun-dried tomato marinara sauce and “cheese” made from almonds.

Dr. Cousens, 1, took his medical training at Columbia University. He says he feels closest to the Biblical Essenes, a branch of the Pharisees who conformed to the most rigid rules of Levitical purity while aspiring to the highest degrees of holiness. He came to “conscious eating” from his journey to spirituality: from the Bible, as well as stints with Muktananda, an Indian guru who was well-known in the 1960s, and as a sun dancer with American Indians. Mrs. Cousens lived in India for many years and leads yoga at the center. She also is the innovator of many of the raw-food recipes.

“We see live foods as a connection with nature. This is not just a Jewish thing,” Dr. Cousens said as he sipped herb juice on a sunny terrace outside his cooking center. “We see ourselves as a community holding the light of well-being as a model of how people can live their lives.”

When I told Dr. Cousens, whose bright blue eyes and clear skin defy his age, how impressed I was with the aesthetic approach to what could seem an ascetic cuisine, he smiled and said he prefers an even simpler diet.

As we held hands in prayer for the food we would eat, he said, “For me vegetarianism is the best diet for a spiritual life.”

Tree of life seven-fruit charoset

¼ cup prunes

½ cup walnuts

½ cup blanched almonds

1 cup shredded coconut

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped apple (about 1 medium)

½ cup chopped pear (about ½ pear)

1 tablespoon raw honey, or to taste

½ tablespoon cinnamon

1 lemon, grated rind only

3 tablespoons grape juice, or to taste

Place prunes, walnuts and almonds in warm water to soak for about 10 minutes. Drain and discard water. In a food processor with a steel blade, place drained prunes, walnuts and almonds, along with coconut, raisins, apple, pear, honey, cinnamon and lemon rind. Pulse until fruits and nuts are combined, but not pureed. Add just enough grape juice to bind. Adjust honey and grape juice to taste. Makes about 5 cups.

Green salad with spicy red pepper sauce

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

1 endive, leaves separated

1 cup red cabbage, sliced thinly

4 cups mixed greens

2 mandarin or other oranges, peeled, seeds and membranes removed

¼ cup sesame seed paste (see note)

1½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1 large clove garlic

1½ teaspoons peppercorns

1½ teaspoons chipotle or hot red pepper flakes

½ of 1 Catarina or other medium-hot chili

1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil

¼ cup raisins

Core and cut one half of red and green bell peppers into julienne strips. Add endive leaves, red cabbage and mixed greens and place in an attractive serving bowl.

Place remaining half of red and green bell peppers with oranges, sesame seed paste, salt, ginger root, garlic, peppercorns, chipotle or hot red pepper flakes, whole chili, pumpkin seed oil and raisins in a powerful blender or food processor.

Blend until smooth and adjust seasonings to taste. Pour some of dressing over salad. Makes about 2 cups dressing. Use remainder as a vegetable dip. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Sesame seed paste, also called tahini, can be difficult to find in the United States in kosher form for Passover. If necessary, mayonnaise can be substituted.

Raw sweet-potato salad

2 cloves garlic

½ cup (about 8 sprigs) parsley leaves

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered

4 tablespoons orange juice

1 lemon, juice and zest

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

Several grindings of pepper

¼ cup dried cranberries

Place garlic, all but 1 tablespoon parsley, sweet potatoes, orange and lemon juices and zest, olive oil, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor equipped with a steel blade and pulse until sweet potatoes are well chopped but not pureed. Adjust seasonings and serve sprinkled with dried cranberries and remaining 1 tablespoon parsley.

Makes 6 servings.

Joan Nathan is the author of “The Foods of Israel Today” and “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf).

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