Heated Cookoff At The JCC | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Heated Cookoff At The JCC


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Heated Cookoff At The JCC

From left: Ronna Farley; Naylet LaRochelle; Jamie Brown Miller (winner); Dina Burcat; Joe Carver. Lauren rothman/JW

Manischewitz All-Star gives former finalists a second chance.

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It was a second chance at success last Thursday as five previous finalists of the annual Manischewitz Cook-Off returned to Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center to compete in an hour-long cooking competition judged by representatives from magazines such as Saveur and Good Housekeeping.

Each contestant had fallen just short of victory—all $25,000 of it—in previous competitions and was now seeking the title of “Manischewitz All-Star” along with a prize package that included not just the cash award but also an all-expense-paid trip to New York City, a crystal trophy, and an assortment of Maytag appliances.

Two of the participants had already met: Naylet LaRochelle of Miami and Dina Burcat of New York competed against each other in 2011. Also competing last week were Jamie Brown Miller of Napa; Joe Carver of Philadelphia; and Ronna Farley of Rockville, MD.

In the basement of the JCC, each cook occupied a station equipped with an oven, stovetop and cutting board, and overhead cameras recorded each stir of the pot and slice of the knife. The competitors prepared recipes featuring Manischewitz ingredients such as boxed broth, potato starch, egg noodles and matzah ball mix, and the resulting dishes were as diverse as the cooks’ respective backgrounds. LaRochelle seared spiced halibut fillets and served them on a bed of boxed couscous; Burcat crusted chicken breasts with latke mix, pan-fried them and nestled them in a mushroom-apple cider gravy; Brown Miller embraced her southern origins with latke mix waffles topped with matzah mix-coated, deep-fried chicken drizzled with a spicy maple syrup; Farley filled puff pastry cups with seared beef tenderloin; and Carver baked a tofu-fortified egg noodle kugel. As the contestants cooked, onlookers sampled versions of each dish that had been prepared in advance.

When the bell rang and it was time for the judges to weigh in, each cook stepped forward to present her dish. Carver, up first, recalled his grandmother, whose noodle kugel inspired his recipe.

“One of the things I like about food is how it can revive memories,” he said. “And I think about my bubbe every time I make this dish.”

When introducing her dish, Burcat admitted to a weakness for any kind of fried potatoes.

“What could be better than a nice piece of chicken coated in a crunchy latke?” she asked the crowd.

Unsurprisingly, at a Jewish event, the topic of bubbes came up yet again when LaRochelle stepped forward to present her halibut.

“This dish brings me back to my grandmother,” she said. “She used to make wonderful hamburgers that she flavored with smoked paprika, so I included smoked paprika in the glaze for my fish.”

Holding a giant platter of fried chicken atop a wobbly wrist, Brown Miller referenced many a home cook’s inspiration: overpaying for under-impressive food.

“Chicken and waffles is a southern classic,” she explained, “and a few years ago I ordered it out somewhere and was completely underwhelmed. I thought I could do better than that restaurant did.”

Presenting her puff pastry cups, Farley said she was always awed by how a small, flat square of frozen puff pastry turns into a towering, golden shell in the heat of an oven.

“They just puff right up and you can really fill them with anything,” she said.

Each of the five judges got her own small serving of each cook’s dish to appraise. They were Helen Rosner of Saveur; Sharon Franke of Good Housekeeping; Claire Suddath of Bloomberg Business Week; Rosie Saferstein of New Jersey Monthly; and Jen Goren of the JCC. After they munched and mulled, they declared Jamie Brown Miller’s “Waffled Latkes with Matzah-Fried Chicken and Spicy Syrup” the winner. Having taste-tested each dish myself, I’ll admit the results were not a surprise: after all, who can resist fried chicken?

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