By Anne Ruisi
Chef Maureen Holt isn’t Jewish, but when she prepares the hors d’oeuvres and three-course meal for the J’La Gala at the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham on Aug. 18, everything will be kosher.
“It’s a very healthy way of eating,” said Holt, a private chef who is owner of Southern Graze catering company. “There are lots of amazing, fresh vegetables.”
The term kosher refers to a list of dietary laws found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, said Katie Hausman Grace, the center’s community engagement director.
There are many of these laws, some of which can appear complicated, but the prohibition against pork is probably the most recognizable. Forbidden foods also include shellfish, and one combination of foods also is not allowed.
“You can’t mix meat and dairy. If you have steak for dinner, you can’t put butter on the potatoes,” Grace said, adding that non-dairy margarine, however, is allowed.
Naturally, the center’s large kitchen is kosher, with meats prepared and cooked on one side of the kitchen and dairy on the other. Depending on which side of the kitchen they’re on, pots, pans and knives are marked with red or blue dots. Kitchenware with red dots is used only for meat, and those with blue dots are only for dairy.
It’s not the chef’s first time in the center’s kosher kitchen. She prepared food for the Tu Bishvat event in 2016, Grace said. It’s a nonreligious holiday also known as the New Year for Trees and is celebrated with a big feast, Grace said.
“For J’La, we decided to ask her to come back. Her food is incredible. It’s also good to have someone who knows how to cook in a kosher kitchen, and Maureen does,” she said.
And while not everyone attending the gala will be Jewish, for an organization such as the Levite Jewish Community Center, it’s important that any Jewish person can eat meals prepared in its kitchen, Grace said.
Holt, who formerly owned Little Savannah restaurant, was working for catering companies when the pandemic hit. That was when she decided to completely focus on Southern Graze and prepare food with fresh Southern ingredients. That regional touch seasons the kosher meal that will be served at the J’La Gala.
Hors d’oeuvres at the gala will include sourdough crostini with an olive tapenade and chives, and puff pastry cups filled with Dixie caviar, a black-eyed pea salsa.
The olive tapenade is made from olives, capers, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper, all pureed and served on a toasted baguette, Holt said. Chopped chives crown the tapenade.
“It gives a nice flavor and color to it,” she said, adding that all the herbs and spices for the meal will be fresh.
For dinner, guests will be served a salad course that she called a different approach to an end of summer salad: fall mixed lettuces with red quinoa, cherry tomatoes, toasted pepitas and edamame with honey-grenache and thyme vinaigrette. There also will be a special ingredient: gin-soaked raisins, Holt said.
“It’s a very old Southern remedy for arthritis,” she said. “Old folks used to take one or two spoonfuls a day.”
She recalled former in-laws who kept gin-soaked raisins in their house for that reason, and she’s made them with bourbon and vodka. “They’re plump but still very sweet.”
The main course will feature pan-roasted chicken breast seared in olive oil with spicy-sweet tomato chutney over the meat. The chicken is kosher, and since there are no kosher butchers in the Birmingham area, it is ordered from an out-of-town Jewish kosher meat supplier through a local synagogue, Grace said.
“Most meat in the grocery store is not kosher, so kosher meat has to be ordered,” she said, adding that kosher in regard to meat means the animal must be processed in a certain way.
Creamy polenta and green beans almandine will round out this part of the meal, she said.
Dessert sounds divine – a half-peach with brown sugar caramel and blueberry and bay leaf compote. Hearing Holt describe preparing it stirs up the appetite.
“You take a ‘sink’ peach – one so juicy you can eat it over the sink,” she said. Once the pit is taken out the halves will be filled with brown sugar caramel and the plated fruit will be encircled by a drizzle of the compote, which is made by cooking crushed blueberries and bay leaf.
“It’s not a garnish but gives it a finish,” Holt said.
While Holt prepares the food, Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Chabad of Alabama will supervise and oversee the kitchen, another kosher requirement. He’ll even turn on the oven, Grace said.
While she hasn’t done a lot of kosher cooking, overall, there are no special techniques Holt will need to use to prepare the meal, she said.
“You can bake and broil kosher food. You can burn kosher food,” Grace added. “But she won’t.”
For the Community
As Holt prepares for the gala, the event is eagerly anticipated at the center.
“We’re excited to celebrate the relevance of the JCC to Birmingham,especially in light of the pandemic, said Brooke Bowles, the center’s associate executive director.
“We feel like we’re trying to dig ourselves out of the last two years and want to show the community that … this is a place where every person belongs. People need a place where everyone is welcome,” she said, noting members include people who aren’t Jewish.
Holt, for example, has been a member for years, she said.
The center’s welcoming manner also reflects Jewish values on community, Bowles and Grace said.
“We are commanded in the Torah to take care of one another,” Grace said, and that includes not only other Jews but people in the larger community.
While guests partake in the kosher meal and hors d’oeuvres at the gala fundraiser, there will be silent and live auctions, Grace said, and later a silent disco. Proceeds will be used to support the center’s Programming Department, which includes senior, adult and youth programs.