In good taste

In good taste

Bergenfield woman a cooking contest finalist

Bergenfield resident Rayzel Yaish attributes her successful run in the Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off to lifelong interest in good food, trying recipes, and reading about food in books and magazines.

Yaish, the school psychologist for the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, advanced Oct. ‘6 from among 10 semi-finalists to become one of six finalists in the first annual Manischewitz competition. By preparing her own recipe for Middle Eastern Falafel Stuffed Peppers in one hour before six judges and a crowd of spectators at the Hilton Newark Airport Hotel, she won the right to compete in February in New York City for a grand prize worth $’0,000, which includes both a GE Profile kitchen and cash. "We had to have the dish cooked and plated and ready for the judges when time was called," she said in an interview last week. "I was tense beforehand and afterwards, but by nature I’m calm while I’m in the heat of the moment." (The Jewish Standard published the recipe on Oct. 6.)

Rayzel Yaish, one of the six finalists in the Manischewitz contest, shows off her Middle Eastern Falafel Stuffed Peppers.

Each dish was graded on taste (50 percent), appearance (15 percent), ease of preparation (‘0 percent), and originality (15 percent). Judge Ken Janso, a group brand manager at Manischewitz, remembers Yaish’s peppers as delicious and attractive.

"She did a beautiful job with her plate preparation," he said. "And she combined some nice flavors, lamb in this case, with some unique ingredients."

Yaish concluded that overall the competition was "a blast." "I’ve always been a big foodie, and being in this contest was like being on a cooking show." Two other regional competitions, in Florida this week and in California in December, will produce four other semi-finalists. The six will be cooking together on Feb. 1 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan.

"My mother hated cooking," Yaish said, "and allowed me to do whatever I wanted in the kitchen. As a little girl, I cooked a whole Thanksgiving dinner using recipes on the Empire chicken calendar. When I got married, I discovered my husband’s Yemenite family is very interested in food and cooking." Yaish is the mother of a 4 1/’-year-old son who loves to help her in the kitchen.

Yaish said that she learned about the Manischewitz contest this summer when she had time to devise some recipes using the sponsor’s products. She came up with a sushi salad entry using Manischewitz’ brown rice pilaf, as well as the stuffed peppers recipe, which makes use of both the company’s Falafel Mediterranean Snack Mix and its mushroom pasta sauce.

One of the most memorable aspects of competing, she feels, was the sense of camaraderie among the 10 contestants. "Everyone helped everyone else," she says. "That was one of the nicest parts of being part of a Jewish cooking contest."

Was she surprised when she was chosen one of the two finalists? "When I saw how talented all the women were and how beautiful the finished dishes were, I thought, ‘No way am I going to win!’ So yes, I was very surprised. I think what helped ultimately is that Manischewitz products are generally not associated with Middle Eastern tastes. Mine was a little different from the start."

Janso says he was pleasantly surprised at all the combinations people came up with. "We are trying to educate the public about kosher cooking and all the ways it can be universally accepted and appreciated. Cooks like Rayzel really make our job easier."

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