Put three chefs in a shul social hall, each with only one pot and two butane burners, and what do you get? As a judge, I thought, not much.
Wrong. On a Saturday night at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, chefs Mark Fenner, David Green and Jeff Rosen created six sensational main dishes — from start to finish in one hour.
Their working area was functional at best. One-third of the temple's social hall had been cordoned off and set up for the chefs; at each station, two butane burners and a three-gallon pot were arranged on a long work table. Another round table held the chef's ingredients.
The extraordinary challenge for the three chefs: no oven, no microwave, no food processor, nor any other equipment that makes for culinary ease. But this didn't upset the toqued chefs and their lay assistants who, when I arrived, were checking ingredients and adjusting burners with a keen eye.
The remaining area of the social hall had been transformed into a chic, restaurant-style dining room. White tablecloths were draped over tables, seating 10, with floral centerpieces on each. Wine and water glasses, and flatware wrapped in linen napkins, were set at each place. About 120 congregants and guests paid $25 to attend. As they streamed in to take their seats, there was an air of excitement, camaraderie and plain old fun.
Based on the format of Food Network's wildly successful "Iron Chef" program, Temple Brith Achim's competition was strictly timed, built around selected supplies and a secret ingredient.
For this competition, there were actually two secret ingredients; five varieties of apples and two of pears — typical fall fruits. The chefs were informed just before starting to cook. This needed quick thinking; how to successfully incorporate these items into their dishes.
Temple Brith Achim went a step further. The focus, "Farm to Table," was a deliberate choice by master of ceremonies Budd Cohen to emphasize the temple's longtime support of sustainability.
Fresh produce was supplied by Smith Farm and Merrymead Farm, both in Worcester Township, Pa., along with organic ingredients, like rice, salad greens and wheatberries from Wegmans. Everything from acorn squash to honey vinegar were prominently displayed on a side table where the chefs could gather what they needed.
According to Cohen, this focus on farm to table is a religious commitment to tikkun olam — the healing and repairing the world.
Temple Brith Achim's Iron Chef competition was planned to provide extra funding to remodel the shul kitchen. As one member described, "the kitchen is totally antiquated."
When I asked Cohen how long it took to organize this event, he laughed out loud. "This competition was my baby, my brainchild. We were looking for ways to raise funds and have fun, so we decided, let's do it. But it took about four years in the making."
He admitted that "it was a mammoth task. We had to get judges, sponsorships, donations and volunteers, as well as to figure out how to make it work without a kitchen."
But the temple's 240-family congregation is diverse and enthusiastic. From the beginning, almost everyone, from young to old, in some way, pitched in with their
Patrick Sinel, an architect, designed what will be a brand-new kitchen; Cheryl Carmel, a temple member, served as the event organizer. She contributed tomatoes, green peppers and jalapeño peppers from her own vegetable garden.
Live music was provided by the TBA band formed by musician Jay Popky. The entire event was captured on video by Peter Walsh, and Abbe Longman was the official temple photographer.
Fifteen members each paid $100 to participate in the judging. That included 11-year-old Abby Cohen, who as a young cook and food lover, persuaded her parents to buy her a place on the judging team; indeed, her perspective provided a valuable dimension.
Included in the brochure given to diners was a "Wish List" with 13 kitchen items still needed — and the cost of each one.
Making up the chef teams were Mark Fenner, an executive chef for CulinArt; David Green, cafe manager at Montgomery County Community College; and Jeff Rosen, currently general manager at the Charlie Brown restaurant corporation.
We were a judging team of 21. The four professional culinary judges besides myself were Roger S. Kelly, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America; Frank D. Quatttrone, editor of Ticket, an award-winning weekly entertainment guide; and Mark Rothenberger, part owner of Merrymead Farms, family operated for more than 100 years.
Bottles of spring water and slices of good French bread to refresh the palate between tastings were placed before each judge. Judging was based on three criteria: presentation, originality and taste. Ethnic dishes ranged from Thai, Cajun, Tex-Mex, French country, Southern-style and traditional Jewish-style with a twist.
Conversation stopped as stop watches were set. The chefs were primed, ready for Budd Cohen's announcement "Let's Start." One congregation member, not necessarily a cook, was assigned as helper to each chef. And they performed magnificently by handing utensils, paring vegetables and doing whatever else was asked. Chopping, mixing, stirring, sautéing, simmering — all at a frenzied pace.
After the hour was over, dishes were ladled out in 2-oz. portions, just the right amount to enable judges to critique. Mark Fenner's Brunswick Stew was first to be set in front of me. Originally, Brunswick stew was a hearty squirrel-meat, one-dish meal. Today, it's generally made with rabbit. Mark's interpretation was based on turkey and root vegetables. Diced apples and pears lent a whisper of sweetness.
His second dish, a black-bean chili, was tempered with a garnish of sour cream and smoked cheese. Remember this was a Reform temple event; while no treif meats or fish were used, dairy and meat could be mixed. Kosher cooks could substitute a nondairy sour "cream" and a smoked soy "cheese."
Coconut milk, lentils and a thick yellow-curry mixture gave David Green's vegetarian Thai curry it's authenticity. Diced pears almost melted into the spicy ingredients, though left an appealing grainy texture.
David's second dish, a jambalaya, married diced chicken, smoked beef sausage, tomatoes, apple, pear and rice. The flavors proved sublime.
Jeff Rosen's chicken and dumplings was inspired by his Jewish heritage. The mini-matzah balls floated in a vegetable-fruited broth enriched with diced chicken. His second offering — a ragout of stewed squash, wild mushrooms and orchard fruits — was simmered in vegetable stock and spiced with cinnamon sticks.
The judges handed in their decisions. But before the prize winners were announced, Temple Brith Achim's Rabbi Eric Lazar conducted a Havdalah service. Congregants joined in the singing marking the end of Shabbat and the ushering in of a new week.
Finally, to loud drum beats, the prize winners were announced:
Third runner-up: Mark Fenner, with Brunswick Stew, and Beef-and-Black-Bean Chili.
Second runner-up: David Green's Vegetarian Thai Curry and Jambalaya.
The grand prize winner: Jeff Rosen, with Chicken and Traditional Dumplings (with a contemporary twist) and Vegetable Ragout With Orchard Fruits.
The chefs were presented with engraved, silver-plated spatulas. The grand winner also received a casserole cookbook.
Below is the winning recipe. Ingredient amounts are approximate, but I was assured that a little more or less won't hurt.
Jeff Rosen's Vegetable Ragout
1 medium acorn squash, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 cups thinly sliced carrots
1 leek, sliced and cleaned by running cold water through
1 small cauliflower, trimmed and cut into sprigs
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
4 pears, peeled, cored and diced
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
2 cinnamon sticks
7-8 cups vegetable stock
Place all items in a large pot. Bring to simmer over medium heat.
Cook until vegetables are tender. Remove cinnamon sticks.
Serves 8 to 10.
David Green's Vegetarian Thai Curry
1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
1 Tbsp. minced ginger
1 cup thinly sliced leeks, white only
2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup red lentils
1/4 cup thick yellow curry paste
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk
1 cup peeled and diced, Granny Smith apples
1 cup peeled and diced, Bosc pears
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, finely shredded
In a large pot over medium low heat, sauté the garlic, ginger and leeks until softened. Add the squash, thyme and bay leaf. Sauté for 5 minutes.
Add the stock and lentils, and bring to simmer. Add the yellow curry and simmer until lentils are cooked, about 20 minutes. Add the coconut milk, apples and pears. Simmer for 5 minutes more, or until fruits are softened.
Stir in the basil and heat through. Serve hot over cooked rice.
Mark Fenner's Brunswick Stew
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 small head of cabbage, shredded
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 carrots, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
2 each apples and pears, peeled, sliced and diced
1 can (16 oz.) three- or four-bean salad
4 cups chicken broth
1 bunch parsley, snipped
4 cups smoked turkey, diced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat.
Add the cabbage, onion, carrots, bell pepper, apples and pears. Reduce heat to medium low. Sauté for 8 to 10, minutes or until softened.
Add the bean salad, chicken broth, parsley and turkey. Bring to simmer and cook until thick, about 15 minutes.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. E-mail her at: [email protected].