Sunday, July 21, 2019 -
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Cooking up a storm

By the time I had arrived, the six finalists in the third “Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off Day” had assumed  positions against the wall, in crisp white aprons emblazened with a bright red and yellow Manischewitz logo, fired up and ready to go. The ingredients necessary for their respective recipes were laid out before them. A brand new gleaming oven stood behind them.

We were at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, in the heart of New York City, right in the middle of the theatre district. Among the vintage Broadway show posters such as “Guys and Dolls,” “The Fantasticks,” “The Music Man” and “Mary Poppins” was a sign for the “Simply Maniscewitz Cookoff,” directing everyone to the eighth floor to be a part of the wonderful high that some feel from something as wholesome as cooking.

For the six finalists, whose recipes were selected out of thousands of entries nationwide, it all started when they each received an exciting phone call a couple of months ago that they had been chosen to compete in this culinary excitement, “the only such kosher cookoff of its kind,” according to Manischewitz President Paul Bensabat. (I know, the most Ashkenaz sounding name on the kosher food market and the company is owned by a Sephardi person, with the name Bensabat! Indeed, we shared a laugh over this.)

Among the finalists, Denver was represented by her very own Deborah Foster-Leebove, with her original “Mani Meatloaves” recipe. As a surprise, there turned out to be another Denver connection in another finalist. Shana Aaron Schuman, Beth Jacob High School alumni, 1988, was selected for her delicious and colorful meaty “Manischtroni” recipe.

As soon as the official announcement to begin was made, a rabbi went scurrying from oven to oven turning it on, and the finalists began to set their game plan into action. After testing and re-testing their recipe for months, the day they had waited for was here!

With the ease and  flair of a hostess of her own TV cooking show, Deborah chatted her way through the preparation of her batch of moist and flavorful miniature meatloaves that she was moulding with her hands, clumps of mixed and seasoned raw beef into round shapes, nestling that famous comfort food into the 12 indentations of a muffin tray.

Deborah’s running commentary was laced with quips such as “beets are the new pomegranates” as she continued to prepare a gorgeously bright magenta sauce with Manischewitz borscht to glaze the miniature meatloaves.

Deborah cultivated her love of cooking from her grandma Beverly. Ever since she can remember, starting with challah and corn muffins, Deborah spent time in the kitchen with her, baking. Meaningfully, as a gesture to her grandmother, among all the sterile kitchen utensils at her disposal, Deborah placed her grandmother’s old recipe tin at the corner of her table.

To this day, Deborah bakes with her grandmother’s wooden rolling pin that they used to roll sugar dough together!

Deborah’s neighbor was the “Sloppy Moses,” a tall and lanky,  perfectly coiffed woman named Myra Smolev. While Myra looked more like she was about to sprint down a modeling runway rather than be on the brink of having her apron splashed with puddles of grease from a sizzling frying pan, her personality certainly matched that of the cookoff.

“Time for the chopping!” and other such announcements were enthusiatically shouted across the room by her as she progressed with the steps of her quite elegant potato pancake and meat recipe.

Myra was the “madcook,” playful and chaotic, in the hectic pace and atmosphere of the cookoff.

When Myra completed preparing the “Sloppy Moses” you knew it when you suddenly heard the clapping and squealing from her and her friends, crying out “finished!”

Myra never defined herself as a cook. But then she became a grandma. Every Wednesday is “NannyGranny” day in her family. She got into cooking by trying to be inventive in her food presentation so her grandchildren’s finicky tastebuds would find the food she prepared appealing.

For years now, Myra is famous for her Passover seders, where she entertains up to 50 guests in her Greenwhich village apartment.

“Sloppy Moses’s” neighbor was “Ruby Red Risotto with Pistachio-Basil Pesto and Garlic Herb Goat Cheeses” giggly Erin Evenson.

Erin has many Jewish friends, and has been cooking with Manischewitz products for years. In fact, a lover of beets, “they are so sugary and earthy,” she created this beautiful looking pink and green risotto years ago using borscht instead of the more classic tomato sauce.

Then, one day, one of her Jewish friends said, “You know, this risotto is kosher, and the kosher company producing the borscht you use hosts a cook-off.”

Erin says, “A day of cooking for others is a good day. This is my prize right now — meeting other home cooks.”

When I asked her about the art or technique of making a risotto, Erin says it’s just to keep stirring. “I don’t really understand the fear or mystique of risotto. All you need to do is stand by the stove. I’ll just stir and relax a little, thinking about my day. I’ll just stir, and listen to some music . . .”

Elise Lalor prepared a sophisticated dish of “Laced Lamb with Figs. It was pungent and lovely! And then there were the chic falafel sliders prepared with sauted onions by Amy Siegel.

As each finalist plated her dish so artistically, presenting it to the panel of judges from Saveur, Food & Wine, an Epicurious blogger, a Food Network specialty gourmet ingredient buyer, and the winner of last year’s “Simply Manischewitz,” there was a real sense of anticipation. In the end, it was hats off to the “Marvelous Mediterranean Falafel Sliders” of Amy Siegel of Passaic, NJ, who won the grand prize of $25,000 state-of-the-art GE kitchen appliances, cash and more.

Now that it’s over, I guess it’s time to get back into the less glamorous, humbler reality of cooking. No wait — or begin dreaming up an original Manischewitz based recipe for next year’s competition. I think I’ll start dreaming . . .

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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