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Chicken soup contest for Jewish souls

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Chicken soup contest winner, Rosely Himmelstein of New York. (Robert Miller)

Chicken soup contest winner, Rosely Himmelstein of New York. (Robert Miller)

NEW YORK, March 2 (JTA) — You could smell the chicken soup before you could see it. And after all the boiling, the stirring and one kitchen mishap, Rosely Himmelstein of New York walked away the crown princess of chicken soup, winner of a trip for two to Israel. The first national Chicken Soup Challenge, a 500-recipe contest sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program, was also an advertisement for the eighth annual Shabbat Across America. That program, also sponsored by the outreach group, aims to bring tens of thousands of unaffiliated U.S. Jews into synagogues across the country on March 12. The goal: to get Jews interested Judaism, according to program director Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum — not to mention get cooking a few pots of tasty chicken soup. Amateur chefs from around the country sent in their recipes to acclaimed chef Jeffrey Nathan, executive chef and owner of Abigail’s restaurant in New York and host of the PBS program “New Jewish Cuisine.” Nathan selected five finalists who then came to his restaurant for the Feb. 24 cook-off. The cooks presented their versions of the traditional Jewish cure-all to a panel of judges who plunged into their steaming bowls of chicken soup with gusto. Slurping was not required — but it wasn’t forbidden either. Scores were based on flavor and presentation, and the only cooking rule was no artificial additives or meat products. Given nearly four hours in the kitchen at Abigail’s — which donated the ingredients and kitchen time — each contestant recreated their soup entries, stirring, smelling and tasting their brews before the early afternoon deadline. Even before the judges arrived, the kitchen staff at Abigail’s — who put off preparing the restaurant’s dinner menu to help contestants — had settled on their favorites. The contesting cooks included Himmelstein; Gail Barzilay of Westport, Conn.; Veronica Gold of Worcester, Mass.; Jerry Greenberg of Belmont, Calif.; and Paulette Rochelle-Levy of Santa Monica, Calif. Though there were a few culinary experts among the judges, most were self-proclaimed chicken soup connoisseurs and well-known Jewish or New York personalities. The Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, said his qualification for judging was “59 years of Yiddishkeit.” Judging alongside him were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel; Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, among others. As the judges spooned, sipped and slurped, they shared running commentaries on each entry. There was the soup with cream of wheat, one with basmati rice, a cilantro-infused potion and one concoction with jalapeno peppers and spicy herbs inspired by Indian and Tex-Mex ingredients. Every region of the world has its own version of chicken soup, said judge Helen Nash, an author of kosher cookbooks. But “chicken soup started with the Chinese, not the Jews, I’m afraid,” she said quietly. Though advised to sample only two tablespoons of each soup, many judges cleaned their bowls, including Markowitz, who also snacked on the restaurant’s hors d’oeuvres in between soups. By the end of the afternoon, Himmelstein’s recipe of onion, parsnip, sweet potato and cilantro was the unparalleled winner. “I’m not going to Disney World. I’m going to Israel!” she exclaimed as she accepted a trophy and chef’s hat. Earlier, Himmelstein called cooking a way of life. “I didn’t reinvent chicken soup,” she insisted as she stirred her concoction. “Its what my grandmother did.” Himmelstein said she had forgotten she entered the contest when the Jewish outreach group called to tell her she was a finalist. “I thought it was a telemarketer. I was almost rude,” she said, laughing. Even after losing the ultimate soup prize, Greenberg, the only male finalist, said he was happy to have come all the way from California to lock spoons with his fellow contestants. Joking that he was intimidated by the four women, he said, “the important part of the contest is reviving Jewish identity.” During the contest, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program said, “We hope to not only pick the best soup in America, but to give a taste of Shabbos.” Steinhardt seemed glad for a break from the usual angst-ridden Jewish community events. “I am happy to participate in something where the fate of the Jewish people is not at stake,” Steinhardt said.

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