Contents Under Pressure

"Food is the last connection some people have to Judaism," insisted Rabbi Yaacov Horowitz. And this gentleman, employed by the Orthodox Union and the expert in charge of all operations at Manischewitz, should know.

Traveling throughout the world — to Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Israel and England, where Manischewitz has production plants — he sees firsthand how Jews embrace Jewish foods, even though they may not attend synagogue or are not involved in religious activities. This is especially true at Passover time, when, notes the rabbi, "a box of matzah and a bottle of kosher wine on the table makes them feel connected to Judaism."

Horowitz was relaying all this information while at the second annual "Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off" event, held recently at the DoubleTree Hotel on Broad Street, where nine home cooks were the semifinalists chosen from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Two were to be chosen to go on and compete February in the finals in New York City. The end result for the winner — a $25,000 grand-prize package, including a GE Profile kitchen, cash and more.

Stacey Bender, president of the Bender Hammerling Group, and her staff worked for two days to set up the proceedings, transforming the hotel ballroom into a mini-kitchen for each contestant — complete with stainless-steel ovens, worktables, equipment and all ingredients requested.

Exhibits of an array of Manischewitz products, from traditional items to new ones — bottled creamy horseradish wasabi sauce, anyone? — sat on display. (Manischewitz is the nation's largest producer of processed kosher-food products and the single largest matzah producer in the world). Tables and chairs were set up for locals — the event was open to the public — and a kosher lunch was served.

Even with interested folks milling around asking questions during the actual cooking part of the competition — one hour from start to finish — the eight women and one man performed magnificently "under fire." Questions were answered with humor and grace, while they worked efficiently and speedily, the end result being that the dishes were ready to be presented to the judges right on time.

Rabbi Horowitz was present to oversee the entire culinary event.

You might think that all the contestants were Jewish. Not so, although the two semifinalists — Joe Carver and Joy Devor — are Jewish and keep kosher.

Candace McMenamin from Lexington, S.C., who was the very first "Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off" champion in 2006, wasn't at all raised in a kosher environment, but she says that the competition gave her the chance to show off her cooking skills. Candace was on hand to watch this year's competitors.

So how do non-Jews become prize-winning kosher cooks?

The answers varied — from reading kosher cookbooks, researching kosher cooking online, and talking to and cooking with Jewish friends.

This reminded me of my first trip, decades ago, to the Catskills. At the strictly kosher hotel where we stayed, I was amazed to learn that the chef in charge of several kosher kitchens was Chinese — and yet knew everything there was to know about keeping kosher.

Do you have to be Jewish to cook kosher? Rabbi Horowitz notes that, according to current statistics, most people looking for kosher food are not Jewish. Menachem Lubinsky, of Integrated Marketing Communication and creator of the annual Kosherfest trade show, projects that by 2010, there will be 14 million regular kosher consumers — that includes only about 2 million Jews who keep kosher, and 45 million potential consumers of kosher products!

The non-Jewish segment regards the kosher certification as a guarantee of natural, healthy and wholesome food. It includes strict vegetarians, Muslims, Hindus and those who are allergic to dairy foods. The kosher pareve designation is their assurance that a food contains no animal-derived ingredients, including milk and milk products.

The demand for kosher-certified foods is increasing at an incredible rate — some records showing a 12 percent to 15 percent annual increase.

Each contestant showcased his or her dish with enthusiasm and culinary creativity. Lisa Grant from Cherry Hill, N.J., whisked up a Southwest Potato-Cheddar Bisque. While not Jewish, she resides near a large Jewish community. She explained: "I really like the [Manischewitz] products because I can use so many as a base for so many dishes … and when I entertain I want to make sure that my Jewish friends have plenty of dishes to choose from."

For her soup, she used Manischewitz potato-pancake mix because, as she acknowledges, "it beats peeling potatoes."

For Amy Seigel, who lives in Clifton, N.J., and does keep kosher, "the falafel mix just jumped out at me when I was deciding what to make for the cook-off." The result was Falafel Chicken Bundles with Fire-Roasted-Pepper Salsa. Besides falafel mix, she used chicken-seasoned coating mix. Though not a semifinalist, she made a delicious and beautifully presented dish. Amy also suggested serving extra salsa for dunking challah into on Shabbat.

Veronica Callahan's Pomegranate Chicken made onlookers comment that, "I can't wait to get home and make this!"

It both smelled and looked luscious, and is a perfect, new-tasting dish for Shabbat dinner. Moreover, pomegranate juice is the latest item being plugged as hip and healthy.

As a judge, I had a hard time grading the dishes; each one had eye appeal and tasted delicious. All demonstrated versatility, originality and easy preparation — all of what's being requested as part of our demanding 21st-century lifestyle.

The well-deserved winners were Philadelphian Joe Carver and Joy Devor from Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Joe, a father and grandfather who lives in the city, has served as a past president of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.

The two will compete against four other finalists Feb. 27 in New York, where one grand-prize winner will be selected by a panel of food experts and celebrity chefs.

Joe's winning dish is a crunchy falafel shell topped with creamy hummus, then covered with thin slices of cucumber and tomato, and crowned with a melange of black, green and pimento-stuffed olives. I just couldn't stop at just one bite of this scrumptious "pizza."

The clever combination of Israeli flavors and textures was irresistible. It's a meal or a hearty snack — and incredibly original. Joe explains that it's also heart-healthy, and that for a dairy dish, cheese can be scattered on top — "feta would be good," he suggests — and if pre-sliced olives are used, it's all whipped up in about 20 minutes. That's one dish to add to my repertoire when entertaining vegetarians (without the cheese, it's vegan).

Vibrant and bubbly, Joy Devor looks too young to have six children, ages ranging from 5 to 19. Tired of serving gefilte fish for Shabbat dinner, she came up with her winning pareve recipe for Fantastic Flounder Rolls — and they are incredible, with a zesty, crisp crust generously stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and onions. It's guaranteed to immediately convert fish-haters into fish-lovers.

The contest rules for the judged competition were:

· U.S. residents, 18 or older, were invited to submit an original, easy-to-make entree.

· All recipes must be original, kosher and include at least one Manischewitz product.

· No more than eight ingredients could be used.

· Dish must be prepared and cooked in one hour.

Here are the recipes from some of the semifinalists, including the two who will go on to the New York finals. We wish all the competitors a hearty mazel tov!

Joe Carver's Falafel Pizza

1 box Manischewitz falafel mix
1 jar Manischewitz hummus
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsps. Manischewitz extra-virgin olive oil
1 cucumber
4 oz. black olives
4 oz. stuffed green olives
1 tomato
2 Tbsps. chopped fresh oregano or 2 tsps. dried

Preheat broiler on high.

Mix falafel and hummus mixes per package directions.

Season hummus with salt and pepper to taste.

Thinly slice the cucumber, olives and tomato. Coat a round pizza pan with half the olive oil.

Spread the falafel mixture in 1/2 – to 3/4 -inch thick circle on the pizza pan and brush top with remaining oil.

Place falafel shell under the broiler for 3 minutes. Turn and broil for another 2 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Top "pizza" crust with hummus mixture, spreading evenly over.

Top with thin slices of cucumber, then with the cut tomato and olives.

Sprinkle oregano evenly over the top.

Cut into wedges.

Serve at room temperature.

Makes 8 supper servings or 16 appetizer servings.

Joy Devor's Fantastic Flounder Rolls

2 Spanish onions, chopped
2-3 Tbsps. Manischewitz extra-virgin olive oil
1 container (10 oz.) freshly sliced button mushrooms
1 box "Everything" Tam Tams
4 long fillets of fresh sole
1/3 cup cornflake crumbs
1 bottle (16 oz.) Thousand Island Dressing
salt and pepper to taste
garnish: curly parsley and red bell pepper

Preheat oven to 350°.

Sauté the onions in oil until soft and translucent.

Add the mushrooms. Sauté them over medium-high heat until nicely browned.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Crush the Tam Tams lightly, and add to the mushroom-onion mixture, continuing to crush tams until they're in very small pieces.

Take a piece of fish and spread a generous tablespoon of Tam-Tam mixture in the center and roll as in a jelly roll.

Place on a greased baking sheet, seam-side down. Continue with each fillet.

Liberally pour the Thousand Island dressing over the fish.

Sprinkle the cornflakes over the fish.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in a preheated oven until cooked through.

Garnish with parsley and red pepper. Serve warm or cold.

Serves 4.

Veronica Callahan's Pomegranate Chicken

2 large pomegranates
2 Tbsps. Manischewitz extra-virgin olive oil
4 boneless skinless Empire chicken-breast halves
1/2 cup Manischewitz balsamic vinegar
1 jar Manischewitz cherry preserves
1 package Manischewitz wheat-pilaf mix
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
1 Tbsp. chopped chives
kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Cut the pomegranates in half.

Reserve 2 tablespoons of the seeds.

Over a strainer into a small bowl, squeeze, press or use a reamer to extract the juice from the halves.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.

Add the chicken breasts.

Cook 3 to 5 minutes per side to brown.

Whisk together the pomegranate juice, balsamic vinegar, cherry preserves, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture over the chicken.

Reduce heat to low.

Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a cutting board and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Bring the pan liquids to a boil. Cook until reduced by two-thirds.

Cook the pilaf according to package directions. Stir in the pecans and chives. Spoon onto a serving platter.

Carve the chicken into 1/2-inch-thick slices and fan over the pilaf. Season with salt to taste.

Drizzle the reduced sauce over the chicken and pilaf.

Garnish with pomegranate seeds.

Serves 4.

Lisa Grant's Southwest Potato-Cheddar Bisque

2 Tbsps. Manischewitz extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 cup frozen corn kernels
4 cups 2 percent milk
4 cups water
1 box (6 oz.) potato-pancake mix
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus extra for garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium to medium-high heat.

Add the onion, red pepper and jalapeño pepper.

Sauté 4 to 6 minutes, or until veggies are tender.

Add the corn, milk and 4 cups water. Bring to a low boil.

Reduce heat to low.

Add the potato-pancake mix.

Combine well and simmer for 25 to 35 minutes, or until soup is thick and blended. Stir occasionally so soup does not stick to pot.

Remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

If soup is too thick, extra water may be added to thin it out.

Place soup in bowls.

Garnish with cheese or a dollop of sour cream.

Serves 8.

Food Editor Ethel G. Hofman, author of the recent Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.



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