Two decades ago, Stuart Davis introduced chocolate cheesecake and rugelach to a bakery in Kobe, Japan, where he was living while teaching English as a Second Language at a Jesuit school for boys. The confections quickly won raves from palates unfamiliar with the Jewish-inflected goodies.
Now the Cherry Hill resident is hoping a dish inspired by his Asian sojourn will find favor with famed chef Jacques Pepin and fellow judges later this month, when he competes in the fifth Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off at the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side in Manhattan.
At stake are a $25,000 grand prize, including a set of GE kitchen appliances, and a year’s worth of kvelling rights.
Four of the finalists in the cutthroat competition were selected by a panel of judges; the fifth—Davis—won on the basis of an on-line vote on Manischewitz’s web site in polling that ran from Jan. 17 through Jan. 31.
He’s not sure how many votes he received, but Davis does know that ballots flooded the site from friends in Israel, Canada, Vienna and Japan, as well as from students at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, where he teaches, and Kellman Brown Academy, where his wife Sarina teaches.
It may take a village to raise a child, but for Davis it took a global effort to win a finalist’s slot in the live competition.
To qualify for the event, contestants were challenged to prepare kosher family-friendly recipes incorporating at least two of Manischewitz’s products, including the company’s line of broth. The dishes had to be easy to make and take no more than an hour; only original works created by the entrant were eligible.
Piece of cake—or rather, rice cake—for Davis, who says he splits the household cooking duties with Sarina and who loves trying out new and often daring concoctions on his four children. Reinterpreting the classics and experimenting with international flavors are among his favored cooking techniques.
He calls it “going beyond brisket and potatoes.”
“I grew up in a house where food was certainly important. To this day, my mother makes a seder for 50 every year,” Davis said.
Mom is attorney and Jewish communal leader Debbie Davis, who among other achievements edited a Hadassah cookbook that her son still keeps in his well-appointed gourmet kitchen.
Stuart Davis faces hefty competition in the March 31 event.
Fellow finalist Naylet LaRochelle of Miami, who previously won a “Build A Burger” cook-off and a Cozy Shack Pudding competition, is bringing her Moroccan Chicken Bowl; and Jeanette Nelson of Sophia, West Virginia, a semifinalist in the second Manischewitz contest, will be there with her Golden Sweet Potato Tagine.
Other contestants, also winners of previous competitions, will prepare such main courses as Shallot Smothered Chicken and Simple Fisherman’s Stew.
It’s the maiden voyage for Davis, who heard about the cook-off from his mother’s friend, Shirley Tannenbaum.
He’s looking to bring home the honors with his Chicken and Egg Donburi. Adapted from a rice-based Japanese dish— “Every family has its own donburi recipe,” he noted—the concoction takes a half hour from start to table and incorporates as many vegetables as the individual cook desires.
Japanese children love the one-dish meal with its velvety sauce and bite-sized pieces of chicken, Davis said.
Tweaking the traditional approach to donburi, Davis replaced the stock usually made with bonita, kelp and seaweed with Manischewitz’s low-sodium broth, adding a dollop of the company’s Wasabi sauce as an accompanying dip.
CHICKEN AND EGG DONBURI
1/4 cup creamy wasabi sauce
5 Tbs. soy sauce/broth ingredient
2 1/2 Tbs. sugar/broth ingredient
2 1/2 tsp. mirin/broth ingredient
16 oz. boneless breast of chicken
1 cup green onions cut on diagonal
2 1/2 cups Japanese
1 cup Manischewitz® Reduced-Sodium Chicken Broth
Heat the broth ingredients in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Into a small frying pan over low heat, pour about a 1/4 cup of the heated broth. Add four ounces of chicken and 1/4 cup of the green onions. Cook the chicken pieces, turning them over for about three minutes, then beat an egg and stir in. In the meantime, have ready one portion of steamed rice in a deep bowl. When the egg has set, in about 50 seconds, slip the mixture over one serving of rice. Repeat this process for the remaining servings. The creamy wasabi sauce is used as a dipping sauce for the chicken. This recipe serves four.
The goal for Davis was to make the staple of Asian cuisine not only kosher, but also Western-friendly.
“A lot of Japanese food is popular in America—think sushi and teriyaki—but the rest is more obscure,” Davis observed. “I had made this version for my family before, and I remembered they liked it—and I liked it.
“I didn’t enter the cook-off for the money, but for the fun and to see where it will take me,” said Davis, a veteran of 10 years in the mortgage world who now teaches a course called (what else?) “Digesting Hebrew” at TBS.
The self-described foodie is also looking forward to meeting the legendary Pepin, now in his second year as celebrity guest of honor for the contest.
A graduate of Kellman Academy (now Kellman Brown) and the Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary Joint Program, Davis received a degree in international marketing from St. Joseph’s University. He’s hoping his extensive post-graduate travels throughout Asia, including the four-year stay in Japan, will add to his edge in the competition.
If it’s any encouragement, last year’s Grand-Prize winning dish represented a similar corner of the world: Mandarin Dumpling Soup, featuring turkey-stuffed wontons simmered in a ginger-sherry broth, brought national acclaim to its creator, Sarah Freedman- Izquierdo of Miami Beach.