From gluten-free to ‘capsaicin-spiced,’ our intrepid reporter samples the latest in rabbinically approved fare.
It’s not enough to just be kosher anymore. Today’s consumer wants more — the kugel should be vegan, the soup low in sodium and the cookies gluten-free.
And so in my culinary wanderings around the 22nd annual Kosherfest, held Oct. 26-27 in the Meadowlands, I had my eyes peeled on the kosher world’s new buzzwords, as well as on some exotic fare that would take me outside my food comfort zone, so to speak. (Once in my childhood my mother said it would be easier to list the foods I did eat rather than the foods I didn’t.)
For more than 300 vendors at the 22nd annual Kosherfest, their products were touted as not just kosher, but good for you — in a range of definitions — as well. Claims included organic, lactose-free, reduced-sodium, low-fat, gluten-free, all-natural, vegan, nitrate-free, casein-free, vegetarian, dairy free, trans-fat-free, peanut-free and soy-free.
Even the kosher certifying agencies are jumping on the organic and gluten-free wagon. Kosher supervisors from the Star-K are cross-trained by QAI (Quality Assurance International) to certify products organic. And some supervisors from the OU also work as certifiers for the Gluten Free Certification Organization.
“There’s a direct correlation between new products and demographics,” said Menachem Lubinsky, Kosherfest’s founder and co-producer, in an interview before the show. “As the age of the kosher consumer keeps getting younger — almost 55 percent of the market is 40 or younger, there is definitely an interest in experimenting and trying new products.”
And speaking of new products, the strangest thing I ate last week wasn’t even a food, but a drink — from the Orthodox Union-certified Prometheus Springs line of “capsaicin spiced elixirs.” Capsaicin, which is extracted from chili peppers, is supposed to boost your metabolism, release endorphins and work as an anti-inflammatory. After sampling the Pomegranate Black Pepper flavor, which wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, I did feel happier. But I think it was because I was surrounded by free food.
There were plenty of foods I needed no convincing to try, like the White Chocolate and Raspberry macaroon from Lily Bloom’s Kitchen. The company was started last year, after the owner, Larry Shiller, lost his mother and started the business with her recipes. The White Chocolate and Raspberry macaroon — gluten-free and certified kosher pareve by Blue Ribbon Kosher — won the Kosherfest award for best new dessert — as well as runner-up for best in show. The tiny bite that I ate certainly proved it worthy of the honor.
Though it was tempting, I had to turn down the offers I received to try Russian vodka, tequila in skull-shaped bottles, boxed sangria and Israeli wine. It was, after all, 10:30 in the morning. The official Kosherfest prize for best new alcoholic drink went to Walders Vodka & Vanilla Liqueur — which I’ll have to look for at my next kiddush.
What I felt no need to pass up was a peanut butter and strawberry KIND bar — gluten-free, sweetened with honey and recently certified kosher by the OU. It’s tasty and sweet, with chunks of peanuts and real strawberries — but it retails for $2 a pop —significantly pricier than your standard granola bar.
International foods were everywhere at Kosherfest — with products from Russia, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Thailand and Israel — and that’s just what I ate. Lubinsky estimates that there were 19 countries exhibiting at the event.
Though I’m no great lover of cheese, I was intrigued by the Seyman Ltd. booth, which was offering up a variety of cheeses from various European countries — all certified by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Like most of the international vendors I visited, it’s “currently looking for distributors in the U.S.” — which is exactly why it’s at Kosherfest. “It’s not a kosher cheese, it’s a cheese that happens to be kosher,” said one of their representatives. I sampled the Manchego from Spain — atop a cracker of course. It was pleasantly mild and creamy.
As an avid baker, I was intrigued by the many offerings for the kosher pastry chef. After coming out with its non-dairy cream and coffee creamer, Mimiccreme (Kof-K certified) was back with “Healthy Top” — a whipping cream that won it “best new jam, preserve or spread.” The products are all made from almonds and cashews — which may be a concern for those with allergies, especially who might not expect it in whipping cream. And the taste? As expected, it tastes like fake cream — no different than the other pareve brands available.
I also stopped by Levana Kirschnenbaum’s table to sample her new, all-spelt line of desserts (certified by the OU). After asking for a recommendation on what to sample, Kirschenbaum, of the famed Levana restaurant (which closed last year), demanded I supply her with the name of something I liked. “Say lemon, or chocolate, or nuts,” she said, needing some information before she could offer me a dessert. “Raspberry,” I replied, and she handed me an Apricot Oat Square. I never knew spelt could taste that good.
I darted back and forth between tables, continuously weaving my way over to the Prigat juice stand in between samplings. I especially needed it after heading to the Holy Cow jerky booth, which produces a whole line of OU-certified jerky, including beef in several flavors and turkey. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, since I’ve never sampled jerky before, but it was chewy and dense, with a fairly sweet flavor. Its appeal is likely strong for kosher travelers who can’t get kosher meat at their destination. The company is also working on a salmon jerky and a low-sodium beef version.
One of the most consistently crowded booths was a brand-new company — Jack’s Gourmet Kosher, which produces a line of sausages and meats. I sampled the cured bratwurst, which was nicely spiced and a change from the typical kosher offerings. The whole line, which includes chorizo sausage, Italian sausage and pastrami, is certified kosher by the OU and the Va’ad of Flatbush.
Though the featured country at the event was Canada, it was Australia that stole the show by taking home the top prize with its OK-certified “Mountain Bread” line of wraps. This paper-thin bread has just three ingredients — flour, water and salt, and comes in a variety of types and flavors, like oat, rye and spinach. The wraps shared a table with the other products from Australia, which included Sippet’s croutons, and a line of organic baby food — Organic Bubs. The mango, peach and banana variety … tasted like baby food.
One of my least favorite foods of all time is the pea, but I actually ate them — disguised in a cookie of course. The Original Smart Cookie produces a line of OU-certified organic cookies that are packed with fruits and vegetables. The Chocoloco flavor I sampled was sweet and chewy, with no taste of the apricots, zucchini, spinach, green peas or broccoli that it apparently hid.
Also on the healthy side was Classic Cooking company’s Garden Lites line of Star-K certified gluten-free vegetable soufflés and dishes. Its “zucchini marinara,” where strips of zucchini stand in for pasta, won the Kosherfest award for best new pasta, rice, bean or soup. It was nicely flavored, and quite hearty for an all-vegetable dish. The single-serving meal, which is sold frozen, retails for about $4.50 a box.
And then there were the familiar products re-imagined. Like the Pop n’ Box Microwave Popcorn, whose pop-up cardboard box won best new packaging and enables convenient snacking. Or Squeeze Z Hummus, which packages the Israeli condiment into a plastic bottle — designed to eliminate the sanitation woes caused by double dipping. The Teelah company is even selling Uncle Moishy vitamins for kids, with a cartoon of the famous (in some circles) entertainer on the front. I was obviously a poor, deprived child — my vitamins were shaped like the Flintstones.