Danville Express

Living - December 14, 2007

Cooking kosher

Danville man makes finals in Manischewitz cook-off

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Evan Levy cooked his Southwestern Potato Kugel when he and his wife Stacey hosted friends at a Hanukkah celebration at their Danville home last Friday evening.

The next morning, Evan made the kugel again when they had their family over.

Everyone wanted to taste Levy's Southwestern Potato Kugel. It's made him famous. Levy is one of 10 who have been chosen to make their original dish at the Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off taking place Dec. 20 at the Hilton in San Francisco.

"I created it just for the cooking contest," said Levy, 42. "I started thinking about the Manischewitz name, a traditional company with traditional Jewish ingredients. It's primarily on the East Coast so I was thinking about how to modernize it."

The contest rules call for recipes to include a Manischewitz product. Levy's used two packages of its potato pancake mix, plus chili spice, green chilies, corn and black beans - hence the "Southwest."

"It brings a lot of California to an old country recipe," said Levy. "I like it because it's versatile. If you are not keeping kosher, you could add chicken."

Levy, who grew up in Marin, learned to cook from his grandmother.

"I love to cook ethnic food, and my grandmother was a strong influence," he said.

Neither his mother nor his two sisters shared this love of cooking with his grandmother like he did.

"My grandmother came here from Latvia when she was in her 20s," he said. "She came alone, and then met my grandfather in New York. They then moved to San Francisco, where they lived and raised their children."

When he was in middle school, his grandmother moved to Marin and lived down the street from his family. This was wonderful for him, he said, because they could spend more time together in the kitchen.

"I used to cook for my family," he said, recalling his boyhood. "I took it on because it was fun."

He said his favorite traditional recipe is stuffed matzo balls because he remembers making them with his grandmother.

"She used to have this special recipe where she would stuff it," he said. "It was fun for us to make them and sit around and talk."

Levy, who is financial services manager for the city of Livermore, said he is the primary cook in his house.

"Cooking is my creative outlet," he said.

"We are not kosher but we do follow the Jewish dietary law," he added.

He and Stacey have three children: Jordyn, 12, a student at Charlotte Wood Middle School; Samantha, 10, and Blake, 7, who attend Sycamore Valley Elementary.

They located in Danville nine years ago and lived in Danville Station. But they moved to Wood Ranch when their family began to grow - and so they could have a bigger kitchen. They now have three ovens, which Levy said he loves.

"I'm one of those who watches the Food Network and wishes that were me," he explained.

"Also I pride myself on being a nurturer and a giving person, and cooking is a good way to nurture people," he said. "I do love cooking for anybody, like entertaining."

He is on a committee at his temple, Beth Chaim, that supports members in their time of need, such as when they've just had a baby, been through surgery, or had a death in the family. Even though Levy may not know the people, he loves to bring them a home-cooked dish.

Levy read about the Manischewitz Cook-Off in the Jewish Bulletin, a weekly newspaper out of San Francisco.

"That Manischewitz name for me brought the feeling of warmth I got in my grandmother's kitchen," he recalled. "I said, 'I have to enter this.'"

"Kugel" means casserole, he explained; this is his wife's favorite food from her childhood so he knew he wanted to make a kugel.

He shared a secret to make a kugel more elegant: Pour the potato mixture in ramekins and cook them individually. He will bring a ramekin to the contest as part of his entry since the recipe is also being judged on appearance and presentation.

The colorful ingredients also add a nice touch to the dish.

"It looks beautiful," he said, "so golden brown."

The Manischewitz Cook-Off is being held for the second year, in three regions - Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. Levy made the final 10 for the West out of thousands of entries.

"I was what's called the 'People's Choice,'" he said. "They picked nine contestants and those people are automatically in the competition. Ten other recipes were online for people to vote, and I won online."

The winners of the three regional contests get a trip to New York in February to compete for the $25,000 grand prize package, which includes a kitchen by General Electric, co-sponsor of the contest, and cash.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has proclaimed Dec. 20 as "Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off Day" in San Francisco. The competition will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, 750 Kearny St., and a complimentary kosher lunch will be served for all attendees.

The other nine semi-finalists include two others from California, four from Washington, one from Arizona, one from Nevada, and one from Texas. Their recipes range from Salmon Cakes to Beef Tenderloin with Marsala Mushroom Sauce. The entries will be judged 50 percent on taste; 20 percent, ease of preparation; 15 percent, appearance; and 15 percent on originality.

"A lot of our friends and family are going to be there," Levy said. "My sisters will be there."

But first they insisted they wanted to taste his creation. So the Levy family hosted the Hanukkah celebrations - and the piece de resistance was - ta da! Evan's Southwestern Potato Kugel.

Southwestern Potato Kugel

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