By David Karp
February 16, 2013
The prepared food vendors at local farmers markets cater to a world of tastes and ethnicities, from Filipino balut to halal shawarma, but until recently none served observant Jews who follow kosher dietary laws. It fell to a secular Jew, Michele Grant, fresh off the success of her Grilled Cheese Truck, to fill that niche, offering a flavorful, healthy twist on traditional kosher cooking, strictly supervised by the Rabbinical Council of California.
"The idea is to encourage the Orthodox community to come to farmers markets," says Grant, 46. "When they buy produce, they can have a little nosh at the same time."
Grant, born in Westchester County, New York, took a winding path to her current gig. She majored in anthropology at Boston University, worked in public relations for a health insurance company and then served as an assistant director on film and television productions. From there she segued into catering and working as a private chef, before co-founding the Grilled Cheese Truck in 2009. It proved a smash, but by last fall Grant felt that she had taken it as far as she could, so she sold her share and started the Kosher Palate, which now operates at the Mar Vista and La Cienega farmers markets.
Grant came up with the idea six years ago when she was invited to a dinner at a kosher home; she wanted to contribute to the meal, so she brought farmers market produce and made a salad. Since then she collected recipes from around the world, and tweaked them to use less salt, sugar and fat, but plenty of produce from market farmers (Jimenez's squash, Weiser's potatoes, Cuyama's apples, all deftly spiced.
"I aim for hearty, not heavy," she says.
All her dishes are pareve, prepared without meat or milk, including matzo brei bread pudding with sweet eggplant sauce; butternut squash latkes; "Mex-ish" knishes with soyrizo (meatless chorizo), hominy and jalapenos; and shakshuka, a Tunisian stew of tomatoes, red peppers and onions. For Purim next weekend (Feb. 23-24), she'll offer hamantashen cookies, serenaded by a klezmer band.
Grant estimates that about one-third of her customers are observant Jews, a third are secular Jews and a third are non-Jews. All cooking is overseen by an on-site mashgiach, an accredited supervisor of kosher laws; the booth can't even be located next to other stalls cooking foods, lest treif (nonkosher) vapors contaminate the Kosher Palate's fare.
Next Grant plans to start a Kosher Palate food truck offering meat dishes and open a kosher gourmet store with a cafe. Her ideals are as far-reaching as her ambitions.
"Knowing who's growing your ingredients goes directly to the heart of what makes something kosher," she says.
Fennel, like parsnip and parsley, is a member of the carrot family, the Apiaceae, and has an edible root with the sweetness of a carrot and a touch of the anise flavor of fennel. This part of the plant has long been regarded as a delicacy but just appeared last Wednesday for the first time at the Santa Monica farmers market, by serendipity.
Two days previously Monica Ford, a ballet dancer and vendor for Fairview Gardens, was walking the farm's fields in Goleta when one of the workers pulled up a young fennel plant from a row that was ready to be transplanted. She noted a long, skinny white root, similar to a parsnip's, broke off a piece, tasted it, and said, "This is delicious — we should sell these!" So she brought two boxes of the roots, still attached to their bulbs (the most commonly eaten part of the plant) and greens, to the market on Wednesday, where they generated considerable buzz from chefs, purveyors and shoppers.
The roots can be eaten raw in a salad but are at their best coated with olive oil and grilled, or roasted for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees, until caramelized.
Fairview, which currently grows four long rows of fennel, will just sell the roots from this planting for the next week or two but plans to put in more so as to offer them throughout the year, says Julie Beaumont, director of farming operations. The roots will be at Fairview's stand at the Santa Monica Wednesday, Santa Barbara Saturday, and Goleta Sunday markets.
After many years of discussion and planning, a new, potentially interesting farmers market is scheduled to open in Inglewood in May, sponsored by the Social Justice Learning Institute, a nonprofit organization based in the city. The market will be held the second Thursday of each month, from noon to 4 p.m., on the south lawn of the Civic Center, said D'Artagnan Scorza, the group's executive director.
Over time the market will offer produce from the group's community garden at Queen Park, from home and school gardens and from urban farms, said Myca Tran, the market's site manager.