The smell of frying falafel and burning oil is filling a kitchen at Tastemakers, a food hall in Washington. Three types of Israeli salad are ready to be eaten, and cholent — that slow, simmered Shabbat stew — sits cooking in the oven.
Fourteen aspiring chefs have created these dishes with the guidance of local chef Greg Herring, in the first event from the Jewish Cooking Mastered program, sponsored by NOVA Tribe Series and EntryPointDC. Both bring together Jews in their 20s and 30s.
This group is composed of couples, while two other groups of individual participants will complete the program. Rachel Cook and David Koch are one of the couples who attended the event last Sunday.
“We both like cooking,” Cook says. “I thought it would be a great connection point.”
Cook, who isn’t Jewish, says that Jewish food could also help her connect with Koch’s family. “And I want that for her,” adds Koch.
EntryPointDC Director Stacy Miller says the goal of Jewish Cooking Mastered is to help people feel confident in hosting their own Jewish meals and to create small communities among food lovers.
“I think it’s a low-barrier entry type of thing. Everyone loves to eat,” she says. “A lot of people, even if they’re not more connected [to Judaism] in other ways, know about Jewish food.”
“We definitely want to give people some confidence in what I think is a huge cultural touchstone, a part of our Jewish identity and tradition,” says Amanda Herring, manager of Jewish life and learning at Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, which
As Greg Herring (who is Amanda’s husband) cuts a lamb shoulder into quarters to give participants a chance to dice meat, he offers tips on how to hold the knife and pick the best meat. This continues throughout the class — a demonstration and explanation, followed by hands-on attempts by the students.
McLean resident Beth Miller says the help with knife skills was useful. Her husband, Danny Miller, was excited about the varieties of Israeli salad — a classic tomato-cucumber mix, an orange-and-fennel salad, and a salad with a kohlrabi base.
The theme of this first gathering is Israeli cooking, but three more monthly classes with expert chefs will help participants explore Persian cooking, a Passover seder and Shabbat foods.
They’ll also go on outings in the area — food tours or to farmers markets — and host their fellow group members for meals.
“Part of it is building community and that’s why we also based it on locality,” says Amanda Herring. “It’s also such an important thing to host these holidays. Passover is really home based. So if you want to do something with your family or friends, it’s really about the recipes. It’s about the story too, but we tell it through the food.”
Greg Herring says the participants will have the tools to practice at home. Plus, being couples, they can help each other.
“I’m not your grandma, but I can tell you how to cook, and now you have to go home and practice it. You have to go do this 1,000 times,” he says.
Much of what Greg Herring is teaching is new to the group. Beth Miller is learning about deep frying and making falafel from scratch — a process the chef says he was shocked to learn was invented when people had to mash chick peas with a mortar and pestle. “Today we have food processors and the world’s a better place,” Greg Herring says.
“I was super surprised about the falafel and how [few] chick peas go in,” Beth Miller says. “It’s mostly herbs.”
When Michael Leibert’s girlfriend first told him of the program, he says his immediate reaction was, “We have to sign up for that.”
“We’re using a lot of ingredients that I’ve never cooked with before,” adds Leibert, mentioning the fennel and kohlrabi.
At the end of the class, the participants eat their food and pronounce it “delicious.” Some go back for seconds.
“The cholent is really good,” says Meghan Droste of Washington, an opinion everyone seems to share. “The salad with oranges and fennel is really light and refreshing.”
While the newfound friends munch on their meals, Amanda Herring teaches them about the month of Shevat, which began Sunday night. The festival of Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, falls on the 15th of the month.
“Celebrate trees, get outside,” she says, “remember that even though it’s cold outside, nature’s beautiful and gives you life.”