Kosher Organic Sweet Treats Are Also Eco-Friendly


Sergio Bicas’ a real-life Willy Wonka, minus the oompa loompas, and it likely doesn’t take much coaxing to get his three kids to come keep Daddy company at his office in Sherman Oaks. Snacking on pomegranate pucker suckers and a freshly opened 5-pound bag of gummy bears, the co-founder of YummyEarth gladly shared his excitement and some of his company’s kosher organic candy.

Bicas’ “headquarters,” in a building near Ventura Boulevard, is stacked with boxes of lollipops, vitamin C gummies, gummy worms and bears, and fruit juice candy drops, with almost enough room for a second chair. His partner, Rob Wunder, sits in an equally tiny office in Ridgewood, N.J., where he lives with his family, though he calls Bicas four times during our hour-long interview. All of the goodies are produced in Tecate, Mexico.

YummyEarth was conceived in 2005 over rice pudding.

When Bicas offered to give Wunder’s 8-month-old son, Jonah, a bit of pudding one day, Wunder wanted to know the ingredients. Both dads were committed to feeding their children only healthy, hormone-free organic foods, and each struggled to find snacks and desserts that qualified without tasting like cardboard.

Originally from Mexico City, Bicas was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Tamar, and 6-month-old daughter, Rosie, working as a chemical engineer with a specialty food company. Wunder and his wife, Larisa, were raising Jonah in New Jersey after selling two start-up telecom companies. The wives had been roommates in college.

To get started,  Wunder and Bicas donned aprons and took to Bicas’ home kitchen, experimenting with fruit flavors and healthy sweetness to satisfy Wunder’s lollipop addiction. In 2006, they traveled to ExpoWest, a natural food products show in Anaheim, with 100 pounds of lollipops made in a borrowed industrial factory. There were five flavors: Cheeky Lemon, Googly Grape, Very Very Cherry, Strawberry Smash and Orange Squeeze,  all kosher parve, certified organic, without artificial dyes or flavors.  They are sweetened with organic cane juice and/or rice syrup rather than high-fructose corn syrup, and are peanut-, soy-, gluten- and egg-free. 

Selling the lollipops for $2.50 for 15, today the company produces more than 20 flavors of lollipops, drops, gummy bears and worms, and vitamin C chewies, all made in the Tecate candy factory.

YummyEarth remains a family thing, with Tamar Dolgen in charge of promotion and Larisa Wunder doing the graphic design. YummyEarth products are now sold across the United States as well as in parts of Europe and Asia. All of the hard candies are glatt kosher, but not yet the gummies. Bicas is still working on how to keep the soft chewiness without using gelatin, which is necessary for the product to be certified kosher.

“YummyEarth is a kid- and planet-friendly company, [and we are] just as proud of what we don’t put into our ingredients as what we do: no artifical dyes, MSG or high-fructose corn syrup,” Bicas said. “What we feed our families is a choice we make for their health and the health of our Earth.”

On the third night, the seder went green


Passover is also called the “Holiday of Spring,” a time when green symbolizes new life. The color also represents all things eco-friendly, which serves as the inspiration for this year’s Workmen’s Circle community seder.

Each year the Pico-Robertson community center, which embodies progressive Jewish values, features a “third” seder with a theme, such as immigration or labor. This year’s event, “The Sustainable Seder,” will be held on April 27 and will be catered by Meg Dickler-Taylor, owner of Large Marge Sustainables, whose motto is “Fresh. Local. Organic. Don’t Panic.”

“Passover is a celebration of a lot of things, primarily the freedom of the Jews [from] enslavement of Egypt. Every year, if we are to create a dynamic civilization, we have to reapply that concept of freedom to what we’re experiencing in our environment right now,” she said.

Dickler-Taylor said she feels enslaved to relying on sources far from home for her food.

“If we can find a way to eat locally, in the coming years, we will feel more secure,” she said.

Dickler-Taylor spoke at the Workmen’s Circle on April 3 about how to create a sustainable, organic seder.

Shop With Recyclable Bags
“Bring your own bags to the supermarket,” Dickler-Taylor said. You can purchase canvas totes from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or buy flour sacks for transporting groceries.

Use Durable Table Settings
Why not use your grandmother’s old dishes? If your seder is too big and you must use disposable settings, make sure they’re compostable and “make sure you compost them. Either start own home compost, or take them to an L.A. composting facility.”

Buy Organic and Local
“To guarantee you’re getting California produce, I think farmers markets are the best way to go,” Dickler-Taylor said.

Wine would also be better local, such as Herzog from Oxnard or Hagafen from Northern California.

For the seder plate, eggs should be organic, and maror can be bought organic, too, at many farmers markets. You can also buy organic romaine lettuce or bitter root. Charoset should be made with the few apples that are still in season, or, better yet, make a Sephardic charoset with dates, figs, pistachios, prunes and cinnamon. For vegetarians, the shankbone (which is not eaten in any case) can be a roasted beet.

While Dickler-Taylor says she buys her matzah from New Jersey-based Manischewitz, Chabad often offers a Model Matzah Factory for kids to learn to make their own. For more information, visit chabad.com.

Cook Cruelty-Free
Vegetarians can still have their soup and eat it, with vegan stock “chicken soup” made from roasted vegetables, tomato paste and wine. It may not look the same, but it still has the matzah balls.

Make Smart Gefilte Choices
Between contaminants in fish and concerns over farmed fish, gefilte fish can be problematic these days. To check which fish are “kosher” visit www.oceansalive.org or www.montereybay.org.

Let Your Meat Go Free-Range
Meat and Chicken should be free-range and organic, although pastured meat might need to be braised and slow-cooked.

Don’t Forget to Buy Seasonal
Just because you can buy blueberries now doesn’t mean you should, the Silver Lake-based caterer advises. Take what is in season right now and try and work that into seder meals, she says. She recommends a strawberry and asparagus salad, artichokes, fresh cherries, fresh fava beans (for those who eat legumes) avocado, leeks, ramps and radishes.

Strawberry Asparagus Salad With Walnut on Endive
This salad takes advantage of California’s spring season. Every ingredient, except the cassis vinegar, can be purchased at a local farmers market. It can be presented as a tossed salad with no endive or lettuce, or as bite-sized assembled appetizers.

1 large or 2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup verjus
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 bunch fat asparagus
1 basket strawberries, preferably Gaviotas or other sweet, lower acidity variety, halved
1 to 2 heads endive (optional)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup walnut oil
1 or 2 teaspoons cassis vinegar (apple cider vinegar can be substituted)
goat cheese (optional)

Marinate the sliced shallots in the verjus and salt for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour. Toast walnuts on a baking sheet in a 350 F oven for seven to 10 minutes or until you smell them.

Bite into a stalk of the asparagus at the woody end. If it’s too tough to chew, hold each spear at either end and bend — the asparagus will break where the stalk turns soft. Steam the asparagus for three to four minutes until crisp-tender, then immediately plunge in bath of ice water for a few minutes. Rinse and pat dry.

Add the walnut oil, the cassis vinegar and some freshly ground black pepper to the shallot mixture and beat with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. The dressing should be fairly acidic; if not, add a little more cassis vinegar. Toss the asparagus with a healthy amount of dressing, reserving some dressing to drizzle on top of the endive bites.

Separate the individual endive leaves and arrange in a flower pattern on a serving platter. If the asparagus spears are longer than the endive leaves, cut them in half.

If you aren’t using the endives, toss all of the asparagus, all but a few slices of strawberries, all but a few of the walnuts and all but a few pinches of the goat cheese (if using) together to coat, and plate, or mound in salad bowl.

Garnish with remaining strawberry slices, walnuts and goat cheese, and serve.

Lay a spear of asparagus, a strawberry slice, a whole walnut or two, and a pinch of goat cheese (if using) inside each endive spear. Drizzle each spear with the remaining dressing and serve.

Makes 10 or more servings.

Eco-kashrut supporters turn attention to kosher meat


On Thanksgiving, New Yorker Linda Lantos didn’t have to compromise her Jewish or ecological values: She served free-range, organic, nongenetically engineered turkey that was also kosher.

“In the last few years, it’s become important to me to find meat that’s organic and kosher, and that’s hard,” said the 27-year-old chef and nutrition teacher, who has kept kosher since childhood.

The two turkeys Lantos bought last month from Kosher Conscience, a year-old kosher meat cooperative based in New York that promotes sustainable agriculture and humane slaughter methods, weren’t cheap. But that doesn’t bother her.

“I’d rather eat meat less frequently and know where it comes from,” she said. “Frankly, meat is too cheap. It’s a living thing and should be valued more highly.”

For 30 years, the eco-kashrut movement has promoted back-to-the-land values of sustainable agriculture, organics and local, seasonal farming. Now, a growing number of those Jewish foodies are trying to apply the same values to their meat, demanding that the animals be raised and slaughtered in an ethical manner.

“If I’m going to eat meat, I have to do everything possible to make sure the process is as humane as possible,” said Simon Feil, Kosher Conscience founder.

Caring for animals is deeply ingrained in Jewish law. The Torah provides for “tzar ba’alat hayim,” the need to protect animals from unnecessary pain. That’s why kosher slaughter must be done by an observant, trained shochet, or ritual slaughterer, who uses an extremely sharp knife to kill the animal as painlessly as possible with one cut across the jugular vein.

Many Jews believe that because of this extra religious concern, the kosher meat industry is exempt from the more egregious practices of nonkosher slaughterhouses. But controversies last year at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, buried that myth amid media stories alleging sloppy, cruel killing methods and underpaid, badly trained workers.

The Agriprocessors case was a Jewish wake-up call. It spurred the Conservative movement to start developing a hekhsher tzedek, a certificate given to food produced according to certain standards of workers’ rights and environmental concerns. The certificate was announced at the Conservative movement’s recent biennial in Orlando, Fla.

It inspired Feil, a Brooklyn-based actor, to procure, slaughter and process 24 turkeys using humane practices last month. He found buyers among young New York Jews and dropped off the turkeys two days before Thanksgiving at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It put meat on the agenda of last year’s food conference sponsored by Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to Jewish environmentalism and food sustainability.

Much of the impetus for the socially just kashrut movement comes from Conservative circles, but there’s interest within Reform Judaism, as well. A committee of Reform rabbis is working on standards for socially just food production along the same lines as the Conservative hekhsher tzedek initiative.

Gersh Lazerow, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, hopes to become a shochet to combine his liberal values with Jewish tradition.

“I think kashrut has value to modern progressive Jewish practice,” he said.

“A lot of people are faced with the decision, ethics or kashrut,” said Devora Kimelman-Block of Washington, a Hazon activist and longtime supporter of sustainable agriculture. “Or they just decide to be vegetarian.”

Kimelman-Block eats meat, but had cut down in recent years.

“I don’t feel it’s ethically a problem to eat meat,” she said, “but I have a problem with the unethical raising and processing of meat.”

Last year, she decided to enter the business herself. Kimelman-Block said she “knew nothing” about the kosher meat industry when she started.

Doing it all herself, from finding a local farmer with pasture-raised cows, to negotiating with a shochet, to lining up buyers from 14 area synagogues, was a daunting task. But she wanted to teach her daughters to respect the food they ate and understand the Jewish values underlying its production.

“The closer you are to your food, the more holy it is,” Kimelman-Block said.

It’s easy to be pious when you’re talking about fruit, but most people would rather not think about where their steak comes from. That’s true, particularly, in eco-kashrut circles, which are dominated by vegetarians.

In one session at last year’s Hazon conference, the group’s executive director, Nigel Savage, asked audience members to raise their hands if they ate meat but would not do so if they had to kill it themselves. A “good number” raised their hands, he recalled. Then he asked those who were vegetarian to raise their hands if they would eat meat they killed themselves — and a different set of hands went up.

Savage found the second response more telling. He said those people were indicating that taking responsibility for killing the animal one eats, making sure it is done humanely and with respect, is the only way to eat meat with integrity.

That’s why Hazon performed a ritual slaughter of three goats at this year’s conference, held Dec. 5-8 at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

“For three years, Hazon has enabled Jewish people to learn where their vegetables come from, to develop a relationship with the farmer,” Savage said. “Now we’re taking it a step further.”

Not everyone in the eco-kashrut movement favors the plan, as evidenced by the heated discussion on www.Jcarrot.org, Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot blog. Among the 60 responses to Savage’s announcement of the plan were those who applauded it, those who were appalled by Hazon sponsoring a slaughter at all and one Hazon board member who said he would not attend if the shechitah, ritual slaughter, went forward.

“People should understand what it means when you eat meat,” said Feil, who organized the event. “Seeing an animal killed and then eating it yourself is a very important educational experience.”

So far, the eco-kashrut meat activists are a fairly rarefied bunch: It’s pretty much just Feil and Kimelman-Block. But they say the market is growing for what they offer.

The Ultimate Taste Test


Inside Kosher World, the recent “for-the-trade” food show, you had to remind yourself you were in Anaheim. To my left, two gentlemen negotiated a deal in animated Hebrew. To my right, wine connoisseurs swirled, sniffed and sipped kosher-for-Passover premium varietals from Israel and 11 other countries. Behind me, hungry visitors, beckoned by the intoxicating aromas of smoked meat grilling, speared six varieties of kosher sausage. And at what other trade show would you find a curtained section designated “Davening Area”?

While this was the third year for Kosher World, it was the first time the show joined with the ethnic and halal markets, under the umbrella of the World Ethnic Market.

“These foods are no longer limited today to specialty suppliers or people of a particular religion or ethnicity,” said show director Phyllis Koegel. “They’re now routinely available at major food retailers, restaurants, hotels and food service operations.”

About 40 companies exhibited kosher products, ranging from wines to cheese to meat and halvah, but there also were cashews from Dan-D-Pack, a product of Vietnam; halal beef franks from Midamar, and salted lassi from Gulf & Safa Dairies of Dubai.

As usual at such shows, I sampled far too much, but what don’t you do in the name of research? My first stop was Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, for the best sausage I’ve ever tasted. My personal favorite is the exotic Merguez line, made from beef and lamb.

“For the first time our smoked andouille and country apple will be available kosher for Passover,” announced vice president Evelyn Baran.

I sampled salad dressing from Mistral — loved the soy ginger — and the yummiest individually wrapped Kugelettes — sure, there were Traditional Golden Raisin, but could grandma dream up Green Chile and Cheese with Salsa?

Next I visited Raphy’s booth, where samples of baba ghanoush, stuffed eggplant and a host of other delicacies, all produced in Turkey — the watermelon peel preserves are to die for — were dished up with flair.

Only fine wine could top off this “balanced meal,” so I headed for Royal Wine Corp., the world’s largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines. “When people hear ‘kosher’ and ‘wine’ in the same breath, they think sweet,” said Dennis Bookbinder, the company’s director of sales. “Our slogan is: ‘We produce and import premium varietal wines that happen to be kosher.’ Today you’ll find world-class kosher wines from $200 a bottle on down.”

Many of the company’s 300 wines from 12 countries regularly garner awards and top ratings from the world’s foremost wine critics and publications. And with Passover around the corner, expect a flood of new kosher wines. Petit Castel from the Judean Hills is considered the finest wine from Israel, Bookbinder said. Baron Herzog Jeunesse, as well as premium wines from Segal’s, Barkan and Carmel, are just a few he recommended to grace the seder table.

This year’s show also included the Natural Products Expo in the same building, “because people tend to associate kosher food with natural and organic,” said show director Koegel.

According to analysts, only 20 percent to 33 percent of kosher foods produced worldwide is consumed by Jews, and this is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. So just who is buying the rest? Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and others who follow similar dietary restrictions, for starters. With 20 percent of the population lactose intolerant and millions calling themselves vegetarians of one sort or another, plus countless others who are health conscious, it is easy to see why kosher products have wide appeal. The mad cow disease scare hasn’t hurt either; because of strict cleanliness requirements and butchering procedures, there has never been a case of the disease found in kosher beef.

So, as the motto on a banner said at the first Kosher World: “Bringing kosher to mainstream and mainstream to kosher.” Truer today than ever, I’d say.

Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 652 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman, September 2006) and can be found on the Web at

There’s the Rub — in Tel Aviv


Tierra couldn’t be more Los Angeles. But for this nouveau combination of mostly organic restaurant, massage parlor and oxygen bar, you’ll have to go to Tel Aviv, where this combo venue clearly out-Hollywoods Hollywood.

The only thing missing — so far — is a Hollywood-style patron, such as Madonna or Oprah. In the meantime, you can settle happily for Yaniv Ben Rachamin, the handsome young waiter. On a recent visit, he needed some crib notes to describe the eclectic menu offerings, but he’s surefooted and helpfully well muscled for any visitors who order the seven-minute, 22-sheckel (about $4) massage with their entree.

Like the others of the wait staff, Ben Rachamin is a certified masseuse. His specialty happens to be a Chinese-style regimen whose name he had trouble translating into English. But as he willingly demonstrated, the good fight against carpal tunnel syndrome knows no language barriers. You just remain at your table in your chair and let him go to work.

Tierra’s setting in its bustling, mostly residential neighborhood is stylish coffeehouse; the food is inventive. One typical appetizer consisted of figs stuffed with mushrooms, macadamia nuts and chicken — flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and a Hindu date dressing (34 sheckels). Not all the entrees strain to be eccentric; there’s “grilled pullet and polenta” for 58 sheckels and “calamari paperdello” for 54 sheckels. Some menu offerings are mouth watering; others more creative than tasty. But there’s a full bar to wash everything down.

Co-owner Yonatan Galili says he keeps the menu as organic as possible — except when going exclusively organic would raise prices. He’s gone through several career iterations, including successful industrial engineer, to reach this entrepreneurial exploration of the mind/body/stomach connection.

He sees the massages as a way for a person/diner to “be with himself for seven minutes.” He adds: “We are very aware of the Western way of life. We serve food that is friendly to the stomach so you can eat here and then later keep on working.”

Of course, another option is to get high at the oxygen bar and forget all about working. Galili has two flavors of oxygen — “secret” concoctions created specially by an expert in designing flavors for oxygen bars. One is to relax you; the other to energize you.

The giddy feeling that ensues doesn’t seem quite legal, but apparently, it’s OK to inhale. Just be glad that you’re not the one flying the airplane home.

Tierra is located at Yirmiyahu 54, Tel Aviv, 03-604-7222. Hours: 9 a.m. to last customer.

 

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